Killers, The (1946): Siodmak’s Oscar-Nominated Film Noir, Featuring Burt Lancaster’s Stunning Debut and Ava Gardner at her Most Alluring

Featuring Burt Lancaster in his very screen acting debut, The Killers is a moodily fatalistic, highly compelling noir-crime drama about an ex-fighter, loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of 1927.

For his first independent production, Mark Hellinger paid $36,750 for the screen rights to Hemingway’s story. The scrip was mostly written by John Huston (uncredited because of his contract with Warner) and Richard Brooks (who later became a director himself).

Lancaster was not his first choice to play “the Swede,” but Warner refused to lend vet star Wayne Morris for the film.  Other actors considered for the part include Van Heflin, Jon Hall, and Edmond O’Brien, who was later cast in the lead role of the cool insurance investigator.

The plot follows the prevailing American film noir structure of the 1940s, exploring such themes as the treachery of love, murderous impulse, and double crossing.

The unlikely death of a filling station attendant (Lancaster in a flashback) prompts an insurance investigator to solve a puzzle of events that end with the murderer’s death.

The film’s opening sequence is staged just like the one in Hemingway’s story: a man utters his last words, telling the story of how a seductively sultry woman, a quintessetial femme fatale, double-crossed him and ran away with the money.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad, two killers with a murder contract to execute, enter a diner in search of Swede, who is about to arrive.

Nick Adams overhears the killers’ plan and goes to the boarding house to warn Swede, who listens to the plot but strangely remains indifferent. Lying on his bed passively, he confesses: “I did something wrong…once).

Cut to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), whose company has to pay off on the death of Swede.  In a manner like Citizen Kane, Jim interviews Swede’s friends and associates in an effort to reconstruct his troubled wife.

the_Killers_lancaster_4The Killers presents a narrative that includes multiple flashbacks, all of which must be comprehended to understand the opening scene. The use of flashbacks is a dominant device in the vocabulary of film noir.

We first see Swede as a young boxer, pulled into the corrupt world of organized crime, headed by Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). Soon, Swede becomes infatuated and obsessed with the sexy Kitty (Ava Gardner, at her most alluring), one of noir’s most seductive femme fatales.

Kitty promises to leave Colfax, the boss, for Swede, if he helps the gang to execute an armored car robbery, after which they would take the loot and elope together.

Burt Lancaster, who was 32 at the time, but looked much younger, became an instant movie star after generating great reviews for his portrayal of Swede, the ex-boxer turned grand larcenist.  Bosley Crowther, the influential film critic for the New York Times wrote: “Lancaster gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy wooed to his ruin.”

the_Killers_lancaster_3German-based director Robert Siodmak exerted a major influence on the evolution of American film noir. Born in 1900 in Memphis, Tennessee, Siodmak spent his childhood in Liepzig and Berlin. After a short career in banking and in magazines, he began working as an assistant director for a German company. In 1936, he managed to escape Nazi Germany for Paris and five years later arrived in Hollywood.

In many of his films, through taut, hard-edged and moody direction, Siodmak explored the criminal or psychotic impulses of his characters. His most typical narratives portray a gloomy and cynical world, defined by fatalism, passion, obsession, and compulsion.

Siodmak’s direction in The Killers is meticulous in attention to detail, and restrained, opting for slowly sustained tension rather than rapid and tricky suspense.

Some of the other noir films Siodmak is known for include: Phantom Lady (1944) The Suspect (1945), Uncle Harry (1945), Criss Cross (1949), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1949), starring Barbara Stanwyck.

the_Killers_lancaster_2This was the first Universal film produced by Mark Hellinger, a former reporter.

Author Hemingway admired Gardner’s portrayal and later became a huge supporter of her appearances in other screen adaptations of his books, such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises.

The Killers still is one of the few film noirs to earn so many Oscar nominations.  It’s a genre, which is admired by critics and loved by viewers, but is vastly underappreciated by Academy voters, perhaps due to it dark visuals and downbeat, pessimistic tone.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller
Scoring of Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: Arthur Hilton

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1946, William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” swept most of the Oscars, including Picture, Director, Robert E. Sherwood’s screenplay, Hugh Friedlander’s score, and Daniel Mandell’s editing.

Running Time: 102 minutes

Cast

Swede (Burt Lancaster)
Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner)
Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien)
Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker)
Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene)
Lilly Lubinsky (Virgina Christine)
Jake (John Miljan)
Charleston (Vince Barnett)
Packy Robinson (Charles D. Brown)
Kenyon (Donald MacBride)

Impact

In 1956, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, then a film student, made a short based on the story.

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