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The Killers (1946) is exemplary film noir from Robert Siodmak, who, on the strength of three films—this, Phantom Lady (1944), and Criss Cross (1949)—stands beside his fellow German exiles Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger as one of noir’s crucial directors. The film is as nested with weird resonances as it is glamorous with obvious pleasures: Ava Gardner as lush and irresistible as a femme fatale could ever be; Burt Lancaster, in his debut performance, before all the heroics and jaw-thrusting bravado, already seeming to have a hedge on the doomed passivity of his roles in The Swimmer and Atlantic City; the immaculate, shadowy mise-en-scène of Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell. Directorial sensibility aside, the production was lousy with writerly talent, from newspaperman-producer Mark Hellinger to original story source Ernest Hemingway and screenplay collaborator John Huston, who went uncredited due to his Warners contract.
The opening sequence defiantly preserves the integrity of Hemingway’s tale of hired killers invading a small-town sandwich counter in order to execute the on-the-lam ex-boxer Ole “Swede” Anderson—up to and including the witnessing presence of Hemingway’s continuing character Nick Adams, who’ll shortly afterward be lopped out, a kind of red-herring protagonist. William Conrad and Charles McGraw play the killers as indolent and irritable in turn, as if conscious of their role as incarnated fate. The metronomic repetitions of the dialogue, imported wholesale (apart from the story’s incantatory word nigger), form an object lesson in how Hemingway (and Gertrude Stein) helped invent the “Black Mask” fiction style, making noir possible in the first place. It was, of course, Huston who had famously gotten The Maltese Falcon right by shooting dialogue straight from Dashiell Hammett’s book. The result, in this case, was the only adaptation of his work that the filmophobic Hemingway ever spoke of approvingly. (Huston: “I didn’t tell him that I’d written it. He found out later and called me a dirty word.”)
The film’s structure, a fractured puzzle of multiple narrations cued by insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien, has given the film a reputation as the Citizen Kane of noir. O’Brien’s unruffled demeanor offers a layer of insulation from the swirling despair that encloses not only the duped lover Lancaster but all the participants in the jinxed hat factory heist—itself photographed in a single, outstandingly choreographed crane shot. No Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, O’Brien survives, neither tainted nor tempted (though he does stand rather abruptly to attention when Gardner says, “Take me back to your hotel with you”). He’s more an angel of inquiring rationality, one deeply affronted by the Swede’s choice to embrace the killers’ hail of bullets.
The Swede, as written, is truly a big dumb animal, deep enough to feel pain, no deeper. “She’s beautiful,” he states in open stupefaction at his first glimpse of Kitty. As she sings “The More I Know of Love” (a song Siodmak would use again in two subsequent films), he stands so close she likely feels his nostril steam on her neck. Later, he emerges from a bedroom and remarks with what seems goofy pride at basic bodily functions, “I fell asleep!” But Lancaster, built to defeat a white T-shirt as well as any man, imbues the animal with existential dimensions by the thwarted intelligence lighting his eyes.
Lancaster gets an assist from three fine character bits: Albert Dekker as gang leader Big Jim Colfax, Jack Lambert as the volatile Dum-Dum Clarke, and an uncredited turn by Jeff Corey, the John Turturro of his day, as hophead Blinky Franklin. In the back room where this assortment of mugs gathers to plan the heist, the taut script gives Hemingway a run for his money:
“Want to play some blackjack?”
“Not with you, I don’t. I know your reputation.”
“What about my reputation?”
“Nothin’ about it. I just don’t want to play blackjack with you. That’s all.”
Touches both elegant and bizarre pile up in the movies-within-a-movie formed by the testimony of the witnesses called on by O’Brien: the age-indeterminate Vince Barnett, as the Swede’s cellmate Charleston, appears to be wearing King Lear stage makeup in the pensive and poetic jailhouse stargazing scene, in which he explains that “Mars ain’t no bigger than a bean.” Blinky is allowed a florid deathbed monologue, likely inspired by the true story of the last words of logorrheic gangster Dutch Schultz, which took police stenographers hours to transcribe. Dum-Dum’s long-legged sprawl on the floor, as he seizes the gun he’s kicked from O’Brien’s hand, is unexpectedly sexy. And it’s no knock on O’Brien’s performance to savor his meticulous aping of Humphrey Bogart, particularly in his rendezvous with Gardner en route to the showdown at the Green Cat Lounge. It’s in the Green Cat sequence (note the shots of the gimpy bad guy in the mirrors behind both O’Brien and Gardner) that The Killers recalls not Kane so much as another Welles film: imagine a Lady from Shanghai that makes sense. But Siodmak’s style is only baroque, not self-referential. Like the other German expats, he worked within the system and left auteurist critics to discern his art.
In the end, the peppy amorality of O’Brien’s investigation is mocked when his superior points out that all he’s accomplished is to prevent premiums from going up “one-tenth of a cent.” A moment before, on a grand staircase littered with the femme fatale’s final victims, Sam Levene, as Lieutenant Lubinsky, has barked at Gardner, asserting noir’s true stakes: “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell!” Siodmak and Lancaster weren’t headed there, of course, but to a fine extended collaboration in Criss Cross and The Crimson Pirate (1952). As for the iconographic killers themselves, they were destined to stroll not only into the 1964 remake (directed by Don Siegel, Hellinger’s first choice to helm the original) but also into Steve Martin and Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, into the fever dreams of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and, of course, into the thrilled hearts of noir lovers everywhere.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of Gun, with Occasional Music and eight other novels. He lives in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 DVD edition of The Killers.