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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Universal International's THE KILLERS (1946) is arguably the finest
Noir ever to come out of Hollywood. It certainly has the most effective
opening scene of anything that was ever seen in a film of this type
before or after. Bright street lighting throws long dark shadows on the
street that emanate from the two wanton and pernicious hit men of the
title as they stealthily walk to a diner in the small town of Brentwood
seeking their prey. With stunning monochrome cinematography by Elwood
Bredell and underscored by the ominous pulsating music of Miklos Rozsa
it is one of the most perfectly conceived sequences ever seen on the
screen. From a short story by Ernest Hemingway THE KILLERS was
beautifully adapted and written for the screen by Anthony Vieller and
bracingly directed by master craftsman Robert Siodmak. This was the
second of three high tension crime thrillers produced for the studio by
Mark Hellinger - the other two being "Brute Force" (1947) and "Naked
A brooding Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays ex prizefighter Ole Anderson known as the "Swede" who has buried himself in the unknown town of Brentwood where he works at a filling station. But the "Swede" is a man with a past! Years before he was involved in a robbery and after double crossing the gang he absconded with the loot. Now it's payback time and two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) have been sent to Brentwood to "take him out".("Why do you want to kill the "Swede" asks the barman in the diner "We're killing him for a friend" replies Conrad coldly). But the "Swede" doesn't run and is strangely reticent about his impending fate. Even his friend Nick Adams (Phil Brown) warns him about the two strangers in the diner intending to kill him. "Why do they want to kill you" Nick asks........."I did something wrong ......once" responds a resigned "Swede". Later after the killers fulfil their grisly contract (a brilliantly intense heart stopping scene) an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned to find out the whole story about the Swede. And in flashback we see how he fell in love with the beautiful Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) wife of gang boss (Albert Dekker) and the series of events and double crosses that occurred before and after the heist that ultimately led to his killing.
Performances are excellent from all concerned. Lancaster is terrific as the ill-fated "Swede" and Ava Gardner never looked more ravishing than she does here. But superb are those in smaller parts such as gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert, Jeff Corey, Sam Lavene as a cop and not forgetting the perfect casting of William Conrad and the chilling Charles McGraw as the title characters. Carrying the whole thing along is the extraordinary nominated atmospheric score by the great Miklos Rozsa. His raw biting music with terse rhythms and musical hammer blows adds immeasurably to the picture. ( Curiously his motif for the two killers was "stolen" and used without permission as the theme for the long running TV series "Dragnet" in the early fifties.) Rozsa'a music for films came in three distinct phases. The first phase was his writing for fantasy films which included "Thief Of Bagdad" (1940) and "Jungle Book" (1942). THE KILLERS came from the second phase which covered his output for psychological and crime thrillers like "Spellbound" (1946), "Lost Weekend" (1945) and "Brute Force" (1947). Then finally his third phase - for which he is best known - covered his work on historical and epic subjects like "Quo Vadis" (1951), "Ivanhoe" (1952),"Ben Hur" (1959) and "El Cid" (1962).These films all had unequalled rich highly textured vibrant scores.
Rozsa's powerful music is but one aspect alongside editing, cinematography, directing, writing and great performances that makes THE KILLERS an exceptional work of cinematic art. Here is a movie that maintains a palpable dramatic thrust throughout its running time. Few films achieve this. THE KILLERS does ....in spades!
Along with Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," this is the one that
established what film noir was all about.
Robert Siodmak's classic thriller, along with "Criss Cross" are two of his best pieces of work, proof positive that crime dramas could rise above the mundane and the clichéd.
Based on one of Hemingway's Nick Adams short stories, it tells the intriguing tale of two hit men who show up in a small town (the film moves it from the Midwest to New Jersey), where they take over a diner and tell its terrified occupants they intend to murder a nobody of a gas station attendant when he comes in for dinner. When he doesn't show, they hunt him down at the rooming house where he lives and do the job there. That's where the short story ends, but the script by Anthony Veiller picks it up from there, pursuing the fascinating story of what makes a man give up on life to the point where he passively waits for a pair of gunmen to show up and blow him to smithereens.
The protagonist,called the Swede, is a guy who isn't a criminal by nature, just a guy who fell upon hard times, but sees a way out by committing one more crime. And of course, as in any good film noir, his greed is fueled more by lust than anything else. There's a girl involved and in order to get her, he has to get the loot.
Burt Lancaster, in his first staring role, comes off very well here, as does Ava Gardner, also top billed for the first time. Strong supporting performances by the great Albert Dekker as the top hood and Sam Levine as a cop with a heart of gold. And we cannot forget Charles McGraw and William Conrad as two of the most frightening cold blooded killers in film history.
Siodmak does a great job in the director's chair in this Mark Hellinger (The Roaring Twenties) produced drama, but it is cinematographer Woody Bredell who steals the show. His use of lighting goes beyond spectacular. All of the clichés we think of in film noir lighting spring from this one film, where they were done right. And watch for one of the longest tracking shots in film history, as Nick Adams flees the diner and races to the Swede's rooming house to warn him. It's an amazing, unbroken shot that runs more than a minute.
Watch, too, for the brilliant shoot 'em up scene in a restaurant at the end of the movie when the two gunmen reappear. It is just a textbook blend of all the movies are supposed to be about, great acting, camera movement that means something, and brilliantly layered music by Miklos Rozsa. Film-making doesn't get any better than this.
A four star film and one of the godfathers of the genre. Don't miss this one.
Maybe I've just seen too many old movies, but for me, other than the
period fedoras and suits, nothing about this movie would really give
away that it's almost 60 years old.
The plot is solid and keeps you guessing until the end, with many twists and turns along the way, and is told asynchronously (perhaps necessary for today's audiences, which may be why it holds up so well). The acting is great, quite realistic, and for the most part avoids the maudlin sentiment and overacting that characterizes some older films.
The Killers is an incredibly enjoyable crime film, perhaps the perfect crime film. I haven't seen the remake, so I can't comment on that, but I hold this film in high regard.
This is a beautifully made improvisation on a Hemingway story that
screenwriters Tony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks, along with
director Robert Siodmak, have somehow turned into baroque film noir. The
movie starts out with a couple of hired gunmen looking for a character named
Swede in a small New Jersey town. They tie up some people they encounter in
a diner where they expect the Swede to be, then go and look for him, as he
has not turned up at his usual time. A young man they tied up breaks loose
and goes and warns the Swede, who thanks him but does nothing, remaining in
bed, smoking a cigarette, waiting for the killers to show, which in time
they do. The rest of the movie is an exploration, conducted by an insurance
investigator, into the murky issue of why the Swede allowed himself to be
murdered, and who ordered the killing in the first place.
I can't say the movie's exploration of the Swede's character runs deep, or even that it's satisfactory in its psychology. It works so well because it's excellently written, photographed (by Woody Bredell), and acted (by Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien and Albert Dekker, among many others), and consists of flashbacks, and in some cases flashbacks within flashbacks, as its labyrinthine plot, full of double crosses and unexpected turns, drives the film with a relentless urgency that in the end has less to do with psychology than the workings of fate. There is an overwhelming feeling in this film that people behave the way they do because they are driven by forces they cannot understand. In this sense the story in itself is, as presented, shallow and depressing, and yet the movie is so well-crafted, with the action at times seeming to be choreographed, that the end result is akin to an existential roller-coaster ride, if not much to think about.
I absolutely love this film! It's in my favorite genre, film noir, and it ranks among my favorites in that genre along with Out of the Past and Double Indemnity to name a few. Although there are a series of coincidences in the plot that stretch credibility, I believe they were necessary to maintain the pathos. In his first star turn, Burt Lancaster was excellent as the naive hood and Edmond O'Brien is likewise in his portrayal of the insurance investigator. He is almost always in a supporting role but that in no way diminishes his talent. But this movie is really Ava Gardner's. She never again had a role that fully realized her talents as much as Kitty Collins. Her portrayal of the manipulative and seductive but not altogether unsympathetic mistress is one the greatest of its kind. The last scene with her and Colfax shows this type of character in its most ignominous glory. Highest recommendation, 9/10.
The Killers marked Burt Lancaster's screen debut, establishing the stoic
persona that would sustain his long and luminous career. Along with Criss
Cross (also starring Lancaster), The Killers also records the high-water
mark of Robert Siodmak's work in film noir.
Starting with a Hemingway short story (the retelling of which constitutes only the prologue to the film), The Killers endeavors to fill in the "back story" which Hemingway left to his readers' imaginations. That back story explains why the "Swede" (Lancaster) passively, almost eagerly, awaits the nasty pair of torpedoes (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) who have come to hunt him down. The germ of this recreation is Lancaster's small, solitary bequest -- to a chambermaid in an Atlantic City hotel where he had once stayed. Insurance investigator Edmond O'Brien catches the scent of something unusual and can't let it go. His investigations, helped by an old buddy of Lancaster's who is now a police lieutenant (Sam Levene), uncover a botched stint as a prizefighter; a smouldering yet duplicitous temptress (Ava Gardner), and a payroll heist that ended in an elaborate double cross.
Siodmak, having disposed of the end right at the outset, takes a circuitous route through his telling by using a fragmented series of flashbacks. Paradoxically -- much as the false starts and averted climaxes in a Bruckner symphony pay off handsomely in the end -- the story thus gains depth and momentum. Woody Bredell's dark and meticulous cinematography fulfills Siodmak's vision, resulting in one of the central masterpieces of the noir cycle.
Using Ernest Hemingway's short story as the foundation for the film, Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell create a dark, brooding and brilliant looking character study of Ole "The Swede" Andersen (Burt Lancaster), a quiet unassuming man who is hunted and shot by two killers who enter the small town he inhabits. Indeed, the opening shots are textbook examples of how to use shadows and light effectively in film. The central idea behind the short story and Siodmak's film, is the very masculine concept of dignity in the face of death. The fact that "the Swede" apparently knew of his fate but did not try to flee puzzles the insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) assigned to the case. He becomes obsessed with resolving this mystery, and through the testimony of people that had various associations with the dead man, facts start illuminating the gray areas but ultimately end up darkening the reality. Lancaster plays the proud, tough, handsome but intellectually limited Olle "the Swede" Anderson convincingly, and Ava Gardner as the sultry femme fatal never looked better.
The Killers is an expansion of a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The
first ten minutes of this film is pure Hemingway with two contract
gunman occupying and terrorizing a greasy spoon diner. Two of the most
malevolent character actors around, Charles McGraw and William Conrad
are the hit men.
They're there to kill Burt Lancaster, known to the town as just a simple garage mechanic. Because he left a small insurance policy, his death was investigated by insurance cop Edmond O'Brien. Naturally Lancaster was no simple garage mechanic by any means. O'Brien comes up with Burt's real identity and the reason why a few people wanted him dead.
The Killers was a big break film for Burt Lancaster. He had only done one previous film and that was Desert Fury for Paramount studios which had signed him. Because Universal was looking for an unknown to play the victim, Lancaster's agent was able to land him the part. And because Desert Fury was held up, The Killers became his debut film and he was a star from his first film.
This was also a milestone film for Ava Gardner as well. After The Killers, Louis B. Mayer was most reluctant to lend her out any longer due to the notice that she got.
The plot of The Killers is very similar to that of Out of the Past with Lancaster in the luckless Robert Mitchum role. As for Ava Gardner in her portrayal, she's taking a couple of pages from the Mary Astor school of double crossing, two timing dames. At least Mary had Sam Spade's promise he'd wait for her.
The Killers is a must for Burt Lancaster fans who want to see the film that launched his career.
"It's a really a good yarn." That's what President Ronald Regan said
about Tom Clancy's book "The Hunt for Red October". The same thing can
be said about this movie. It's like a big yarn. And in the end you're
still not quite sure who screwed who. Two men walks in to a diner. It
becomes clear that what they're after isn't eggs and bacon but a man. A
man named Swede. Swede has done something. A long time ago and now it's
catching up to him.
Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" is a good film noir. It's based on a short story and the only connection between it and this movie is the opening scene. The rest is written by various other writers. The film was entertaining. Drawn out at times but entertaining none the same. Humor combined with drama like the dialogue in the opening scene makes you think about it later on and it doesn't just leave your mind three minutes later.
The gritty film noir style and filming is quite clear in this movie. Especially in the opening scene which remains as my favorite part in the film. The use of shadow and light is wonderful. As for the rest of the movie, it was good and even a bit thrilling at times. This is definitely recommended to people who like good film noir.
I was surprised when I looked at IMDb's list of highest rated film noir
pictures, since this movie was well down the list. This review and my
subsequent review for DOA are being made to try to correct this
oversight. Also note that there was a re-make of this film in 1964
starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan. This review is for the original
This is one of the most stylistic noir pictures made. Like the FANTASTIC opening of Sunset Boulevard, this movie STARTS with the murder of a poor sap and then backtracks to let the viewer slowly understand why this occurred. Surprisingly, the part given to the murder victim in this movie is played by Burt Lancaster in his first picture--what a great first film! Other reasons I liked the film were the cast (I like ugly old Edmund O'Brien--a stand-out noir actor because he is unattractive, beefy and delivers lines like it was from an episode of Dragnet), writing (it keeps you guessing), direction and impressive cinematography.
Do yourself a favor and see it soon.
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