Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Ava Gardner Blogathon on December 23 and 24, 2018. Here's my entry.
"If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's a double-crossing dame.” Big Jim Colfax
Produced by Mark Hellinger’s production company and directed by one of Noir’s greatest directors Robert Siodmak, The Killers was a huge success upon release. Siodmak was one of Hollywood’s many European émigré directors. When he came to Hollywood he was absorbed by the studio system which was fine with him. He wanted to belong. His contemporaries often dismissed Siodmak as just another B director capable of nothing more than churning out solid studio assignments. For every Noir aficionado though he is one of the primary architects of the genre and his output in it is unparalleled. The man had a distinctly Noir vision.
Producer Hellinger was a former Broadway columnist/news reporter turned independent film producer. He was the embodiment of the hard-living, hard-drinking journalist so often seen in classic movies. Unfortunately his lifestyle caught up with him pretty quickly and he died at the young age of 44 after the release of Brute Force.
In every way The Killers is textbook Noir. It’s genre perfect. We can draw up a checklist and tick off every point. Themes of obsession, betrayal, disillusionment, greed, death and futility, all wrapped up neatly with a “double cross to end all double crosses”. Check.
Flashback structure, check. Expressionist cinematography, check. Sucker who goes off the straight and narrow for a rotten dame. A heist gone wrong. A past that doesn’t let go. Inescapable fate that leads to death. Check, check, check.
From a contemporary point of view the movie may tread overly familiar ground. So many Noir tropes have now become part of the everyday cinematic lexicon. The Killers has a setup straight out of "Let's make a Film Noir”. But the ingredients are still fresh because they’re served straight up, the right way. With no ice.
The opening of the movie sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Two hitmen - Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) - walk into a diner. There the joke ends. They haven’t come for ham and eggs. They’ve come to fulfill a contract on a gas station attendant, the strangely unresisting victim Ole “The Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster). Ole’s insurance beneficiary for $2500 is an old chambermaid, Queenie, who saved him from suicide years ago, and insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) gets curious.
“This isn’t a two-for-a-nickel shooting. Two professional killers show up in a small town and put the blast on a filling station attendant. A nobody…Why?”
And why did the aforementioned nobody not try to run but passively accept his death? These questions haunt Reardon. He wants to know what happened to this man who had “8 slugs in him, nearly tore him in half.” He goes to work with the help of Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), Ole’s old boyhood pal.
Turns out the Swede was involved in a factory payroll holdup where the money was never recovered. After his career as a prizefighter was cut short due to a hand injury Ole got in with the wrong crowd, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and his gang consisting of thugs Dum Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey). Ole works the numbers racket for Colfax. And he falls for Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), the boss’s girl, hard. Kitty convinces Swede to double cross Colfax, take the money and run so they can be together. The stakes are high in this game but of course the dame is low. Kitty pulls a fast one and clears out…with the money. Now Ole is in hiding but Colfax has a long memory. He never closes a book. He wants Ole dead and he has friends in low places who can make that happen.
The Killers is based on Hemingway’s 1927 minimalist short story of the same name. It’s barebones, without much plot, stripped of any unnecessary embellishment and only about ten pages long. Two gunmen are looking for a man named Ole Anderson. It is never explained who wants him killed, what he did or why he waits fatalistically for his death. Nothing is spelled out, nothing is resolved. Short stories never tell a journey, they only capture a brief moment in time. They’re a slice of life, or in this case a slice of death. Hemingway’s short story is a to-the-point redux of his bleak vision of life, delivering the perfect blueprint for Noir.
Though the film is billed on the poster as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, the story it tells is not his. His story accounts only for the first 10 plus minutes of the picture which is faithful to Papa as far as dialogue and setup go. Hemingway’s story ends with the murder of the Swede and left it at that. The script takes it from there and delivers. It gives us the backstory Hemingway refused to supply.
Siodmak’s opening shot is an homage to Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. Siodmak literally translated in onto film but it’s interesting to note that Hopper himself had been inspired by Hemingway’s original short story he had read in Scribner’s Magazine. A nice piece of cross-pollination.
The Killers has a splintered narrative structure with eleven flashbacks. Some viewers found the storyline convoluted but it’s anything but. The flashbacks are told with precision and logic and never loose focus. It must be said though that this is not a movie for 21st century attention deficit crowd. Put that phone down and stay with it, or you’ll miss a lot.
A flashback structure locks in a picture’s downbeat ending and the audience is cognizant of impending doom from the start. This is part and parcel of Noir’s fatalistic spirit. Usually the flashback is told by the ill-fated protagonist himself before he dies. Here the Swede is killed right in the beginning of the movie so others must tell his story. The mystery unfolds through the testimony of several witnesses who all contribute a part of the puzzle until Reardon has a whole. He fights for the guy who can't fight for himself anymore.
The Killers is a psychological exploration into the mind and motivation of a man who simply gave up on life. It was Burt Lancaster's screen debut, and he gives a strong performance playing a weak character. Lancaster’s screen image hadn’t solidified yet and his usual swagger and bravado are noticeably absent. This is Burt Lancaster before he became Burt Lancaster.
Ole’s introduction is interesting. Lying apathetically in bed in the dark, waiting for death to knock on the door, he barely moves or raises his voice when his friend Nick comes to warn him about the hitmen. He makes no move to save himself. The dialogue of that scene is worth quoting in its entirety.
Swede: There’s nothing I can do.
Nick: I could tell you what they look like.
Swede: I don't want to know what they're like. Thanks for coming.
Nick: Don't you want me to go and see the police?
Swede: No. That wouldn't do any good.
Nick: Isn't there something I could do?
Swede: There ain't anything to do.
Nick: Couldn't you get out of town?
Swede: No. I'm through with all that running around.
Nick: Why do they wanna kill you?
Swede: I did something wrong - once.
When we see Ole’s face it is expressionless, he’s detached to the point of numbness. Completely unresisting, he faces his killers stoically and without panic. He doesn’t fight or beg or run. He has no fight left in him.
When Reardon and Lubinsky visit dying gang member Blinky in the hospital, the doctor assesses his situation dryly: “He's dead now, except he's breathing.” So is the Swede but that’s about to be fixed.
When Al and Max enter his room Ole is not only willing but absolutely eager to die. To Hemingway scholars this attitude is known as heroic fatalism. It is the dignified acceptance of one's circumstances in the face of impending disaster including death. A Hemingway man must be able to look his own mortality straight in the eye with honor and dignity. He realizes that life is essentially meaningless and that trying to outrun death is in essence futile. Ole Anderson embodies this attitude in its purest distillation. Hemingway did not consider this attitude a defeat. On the contrary, he saw it as an act of courage. And not only courage but as the last conscious decision a man has left whose life has lost its purpose and direction. Death as catharsis. For everybody who doesn't subscribe to this Nihilist philosophy it’s simply valuing your life at zero by committing suicide.
The Noir (anti)hero never travels light, he always has a heavy burden to carry. In Ole’s case his burden is his past and Fate demands that this debt be paid. Ole gives only a cryptic explanation of his predicament - “I did something wrong, once” - but in Noir one mistake is all it takes. There are no second chances. The Swede double-crossed his cronies and absconded with the loot. In the Noir universe nobody gets away with that. That appointment with death must be kept.
Sucker, patsy, dupe, perfect victim. Choose one, or all for Ole. Not a bright boy, not a bright boy at all. On the contrary, Ole is frankly dumb as a box of rocks. For Kitty he goes down Loser’s Lane and never looks back.
It is a strange role for Lancaster to play. There is something disturbingly masochistic about his character. It’s a striking contrast to his impressive physicality. Ole looks like a tough but he’s a poky little puppy, not hardboiled but over-easy. A step away from Lennie Small. Frankly it's a sorry sight.
Of course there’s a dame to blame. Her name is Kitty Collins. She makes Ole lose his moral compass. So besotted is Ole with Kitty that he - out of misplaced chivalry - doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for her when she’s caught holding stolen jewelry. It earns him a three year stretch. She doesn’t even visit him in prison.
Once Kitty gave him a green scarf with golden harps on it and he holds onto it for dear life. It functions as a substitute for her. If he can’t have Kitty at least he can have her scarf.
Ole’s former cell mate Charleston - who has spent half of his life in the clink and doesn’t want to go back - tries to make him think straight: “Want a word of advice? Stop listening to those golden harps, they’ll land you in a lot of trouble.” Ole doesn’t listen. When trouble comes knocking on the door the Noir protagonist embraces it whole-heartedly, running into disaster with arms and eyes wide open.
When Ole’s illusions are finally stripped away, he has nothing left to live for. Lee Marvin remarks in the 1964 remake: “The only man who's not afraid to die is the one who's dead already”. Ole projected all his dreams and ideals of romance on the wrong dame. He died on the day she walked out on him. Dixon Steele’s quote from In a Lonely Place could be Ole’s epitaph: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” But Kitty’s was just the last in a long line of betrayals. Ole’s fate is foreshadowed in the scene where he takes a relentless beating in the ring in his last fight. He’s unable to fight back. He’s down and out, way down. And he’ll never get back up again because he doesn't have the brains to see he's being taken for a ride by everybody.
In the end the audience understands what Swede meant by his cryptic words to Queenie: “Charleston was right.” He shouldn’t have listened to those golden harps and trusted a rotten dame. The mistake Ole made once was not only absconding with the loot of a robbery - he doesn’t regret that at all - it was being a sentimental fool.
There’s nothing in this world we love more than a double-crossing dame and Ava is one of the best. She is at the height of her beauty in this movie, a liquid-eyed, pure as the driven vixen who’s devious, manipulative and up there with the most evil two or three-timing dames.
She’s introduced posing artfully at a piano, in that black dress, conscious of her power. Her enigmatic smile is as obvious as Phyllis Dietrichson’s ankle bracelet and just as hard to ignore. It hits Ole like a mule. She sings her lovely siren song The More I Know Of Love. She knows a lot about that - or what counts for it in Noir - to the detriment of every man in sight.
Her name is very appropriate. She is like a slinky cat, graceful, playful and coquettish. In one scene she's literally lolling around like a kitten on the bed and Ole’s eyes almost pop out of his head. She also goes to the Green Cat Bar and has a glass of milk. Meow. But this is one black kitten that is bad luck for everybody who crosses her path.
Kitty is one of Noir’s most masked femme fatales. Nobody sees how evil she is until it is too late. She hides her rottenness better than any other deadly dame I’ve seen. On the surface she has a certain helpless appeal, “enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty” (Imogen Sara Smith, Criterion Collection article Fatal Women and the Fate of Women). All smoke and mirrors but prize sucker that Ole is he falls right for it. She hates brutality, she purrs. “I couldn’t bare to see the man I really care about hurt”. Too cute for words. She then proceeds to do exactly that. Her soft demeanor hides an interior of steel. She’s intoxicating. Unfortunately she’s also just plain toxic. “Such women play the damsel in distress to appeal to men’s chivalry—as Kitty turns on the tears, getting Swede to take the rap for her when she’s caught with stolen jewelry.” (Smith, ibid.) A man taking the fall for her is incidentally something that Kitty takes as her rightful due. She looks out for No.1.
|A slinky little kitten
She even gives Ole the obligatory I’m-no-good-speech full well knowing the guy doesn’t care. ”I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me”. Her utter selfishness is fully revealed in the last scene when she crouches over her dying husband - Big Jim who she's been working with all along - demanding that he falsely exonerate her with his last breath.
“Jim! Jim! Tell them I didn't know anything…Say, 'Kitty is innocent. I swear, Kitty is innocent.' Say it, Jim, say it! It'll save me if you do.”
It earns her one of the best rebukes I’ve ever heard: “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell.” Kitty always got away by letting others take the blame for her. Finally the last of her nine lives has expired.
The Killers is a movie that is rich with fascinating characterizations and protagonist. The characters are not only plot devices to move the story along, they have a life of their own.
There’s Lilly (Virginia Christine), Ole’s former sort-of girlfriend, who knows the ship has sailed the second Ole lays eyes on Kitty. She takes it like a real trouper. Her bone-dry reaction is to switch her order from ginger ale to hard liquor: “I’ve changed my mind. You can sweeten it now”.
There’s Jack Lambert who - together with Jack Elam, Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook or William Tellman - invariably got called up for duty when Hollywood needed a tough hood. Whatever Lambert played he always looked as if he’d do odd jobs for the mob.
Reardon needs to understand why a man would simply submit to his own murder. Reardon’s boss Kenyon isn’t interested in solving a puzzle or recovering the money from the payroll robbery. After Reardon has solved the case his boss comments sarcastically:
“Owing to your splendid efforts the basic rate of The Atlantic Casualty Company – as of 1947 – will probably drop one-tenth of a cent.”
Thanks, Boss. The $250,000 of the bank roll heist were simply peanuts for Kenyon. A nice little offhand commentary on the insurance business.
Kudos have to go to McGraw and Conrad as the hitmen. Two wise-cracking but lethal jokers with a decidedly off-beat and clammy charm, they’re bickering over pork, apple sauce and mashed potatoes in the diner while viciously taunting and terrorizing the occupants and shattering any sense of security this little backwater ever had. It’s a Vaudeville routine gone sour, their wit hovers somewhere between perverse sadism and Absurd Theater. They have nothing but contempt for their fellow men. They don’t even try to be inconspicuous and keep a low profile when they come to town to kill the Swede, they literally take over the greasy spoon and state with complete impunity that they intend to murder him when he comes in for dinner. Like emissaries from another world, they’ve come to collect a debt.
As always in the best Noirs in the end it was all for nothing. What’s the moral of Noir? Suckers don't stand a chance. Life is an exercise in futility. Ole didn’t get the money and he didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?