Movie: “The Killers” — film noir from the 1940s

9 06 2010

Robert Siodmak directed the movie “The Killers” just after World War II. It is about people getting into hard times and making some wrong decisions, and how that pushes them into dead ends in life. People fail, people die, and neither good or bad persons succeed unconditionally. It is rightfully regarded as a classic in the film noir genre.

"The Killers" -- poster

Short resumé

Two hired killers arrive in a small town, and kills a seemingly unimportant gas station attendant — Ole Andersen, “the Swede”. An insurance investigator looks into the case, as there is a life insurance to be payed. He successively uncovers pieces of the earlier life of Andersen, and finds a possible cause of the murder, a heist several years earlier which Andersen participated in. The one who hired the killers is believed to be one of the co-criminals in the heist; but who? And what was the specific reason for the killing? And what happened to the money stolen? The investigator digs deeper, and ultimately finds the answers to the questions, with surprising twists at the end.

Background

The script was written by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston, based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway (“The Killers“, 1927). The movie script radically extends Hemingway’s original story. The story told by Hemingway is mainly the prologue of the movie, covering the night of the murder of Andersen, ending before any murder was committed.  Hemingway only focussed on the way the two killers interacted with the three person staff of a small lunch restaurant, what they were talking about, and how they understood what was happening. That short story has only material for a short film, and there have been some such films made, including an early work by Andrei Tarkovsky (1956).

As the movie was produced to be a Hollywood movie with wide appeal (it was distributed by Universal), its script had to have more action built in, so the writers (which included the legendary John Huston) created a full story based on what Hemingway indicated in his story. This changes radically the character of the story  as told in Hemingway’s creation. This has happened many times before — a paradigmatic example is “To Have and Have Not” from 1944, famous for the Bogart-Bacall connection.

"The Killers" - the killers before the murder

"The Killers" - the killers before the murder

The script as filmed does cause some problems with the movie. A main thread is in the present time, covering the approach to and effectuation of the murder of Andersen; and then the insurance investigator’s conversations with people from Andersen’s past. But that thread is just the glue, as details of Andersen’s life  is uncovered by his old friends and acquaintances, and visualised as flashbacks spliced into the movie. The problem is that there is no real continuous thread of suspense. The story in the present time detracts from the ambience created by the sometimes quite long flashbacks. Some have argued that this way of presenting the story is to the movie’s advantage, but I argue the opposite. A single-threaded story would have made the movie much tighter.

The movie was cast with two more or less unknown characters in leading roles. This is Burt Lancaster‘s first appearance on screen, in the role of Ole “The Swede” Andersen. He does a decent job, but in a couple of scenes there is a fair amount of over-acting. Part of the reason for that is his previous career as a circus artist, where some exaggeration of bodily movements is needed to reach an audience across the distance of a three-ring circus tent.  His acting becomes progressively better in the following few years, as an effect of more on-the-job training, and being exposed to different directors ideas about acting. But, as said, he does a decent job here, and the movie does not suffer very much, as there are some other characters in the movie that contribute to the solid performances.

"The Killers" - Ava G and the guys

"The Killers" - Ava G and the guys

Another newcomer was Ava Gardner, who, after appearing as a bit-player in some dozen movies, got her box office break-through in this movie. And yes, her performance is here more consistent and controlled compared to Lancaster’s. Of course, her good looks contributed to public attention, and making her a commercially valuable poster name.

The real center of the movie is Edmund O’Brien, playing the insurance investigator.  He had a long career in Hollywood, and despite never getting to the top, he was reliable as an actor, both in leading and in supporting roles. His performance in “The Killers” is good, even if it never gets excellent.

The director Robert Siodmak is one of the hard-working Hollywood directors. He made some memorable movies in the late forties and early fifties — e.g. “The Spiral Staircase” (1946). So “The Killers” belong to his best period, and is one of the best of that best period.

We should not forget the producer — Mark Hellinger. Maybe he is the most interesting of the persons associated to this movie. Hellinger, who died in 1947, was a producer of a lot of excellent movies in the 1940s. Examples are “They Drive by Night” (1940), “High Sierra” (1941) “Brute Force” (1947), and “The Naked City” (1948). “The Killers” is one of those movies that withstand the wear of time.

Why did film noir appear in such strong form in the 1940s? This has to do with two poles of forces. On the one hand, how the audiences appreciated such movies, and made some of them commercially very successful,. On the other hand, how there was a style emerging that certain directors (and producers) felt they mastered and that presented interesting challenges for movie creation. Film noir as an expression of a cynical attitude can be an effect of World War II, which was a traumatic experience for most citizens of the US, the main Hollywood market. After the end of WWII, other geographical markets opened up, and with the horrors of WWII fresh in mind, it was not so difficult find a resonance with the audience of a movie about hopelessness.

Even though film noir is not intrinsically intertwined with black-and-white movie technology, in many noir films the special character of the B/W film was used to its full potential. Not only for dramatic visualisations, but also for establishing the emotional stance of the movie itself.

Conclusion

A good American film noir. The structure of the script causes some disruptions to the suspense, but it can nevertheless be held up as a good example of what Hollywood could do in the 1940s. Go see it!

Data

The Killers” (1946). Directed by Robert Siodmak; written by Veiler, Brooks, and Huston; starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmund O’Brien. (Movie at imdb)

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