1946 / Best Director

Film #627: The Killers (1946)

It appears that during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the academy became very fond of the Film Noir, nominating many examples of this genre in the main categories. I’ve recently watched several for this blog, including The Asphalt Jungle and The Third Man, and the next movie on the list is possibly the most stereotypical film noir thus far. Directed by Robert Siodmark, who was known for being behind several tense thrillers of the 1940s, The Killers is initially based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway but embellishes his initial premise into a fully-formed ninety-minute story.

In fact, Hemingway’s story only inhabits the first twenty-or-so tense minutes of Siodmark’s film as we meet hitmen Max and Al who arrive in a small town with one mission; to kill a gas station attendant known as The Swede. The brilliant tone of the movie is perfectly summarised in these opening moments as the duo exchange forced pleasantries with the owner of the diner that The Swede frequently attends. Realising he’s not coming, the hitmen leave the establishment whilst one of the condemned man’s colleagues rushes to his home to inform him of the bounty on his head. Shockingly, The Swede is willing to accept his fate and his soon murdered, however his death is only the start of the movie’s main story. Siodmark and the film’s writers introduce the character of insurance investigator Jim Reardon; who is trying to discover why The Swede’had insured his life for a high value and why the recipient of this money is a hotel employee who only met once. So begins a story told in flashbacks where Reardon learns about the life of a man known to some as Pete Lund and others as Ole Andreson. Although initially the story focuses on the events directly leading up to Andreson’s death, Reardon is soon able to add some context to the murder thanks to several meetings with The Swede’s old friend Police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky. Through his interactions with Lubinsky, Reardon learns of Andreson’s part in a criminal gang led by ‘Big Jim’ Colfax primarily due to his desire to be with the movie’s femme fatale Kitty Collins. Andreson takes a prison sentence for Kitty and when he’s released, his girl has now hooked up with Colfax and convinces him to take part in a payroll robbery. During the robbery, members of Colfax’s gang discover they’ve been double-crossed and Reardon gradually puts the pieces together, finally discovering why Andreson was murdered and who the main villain of the piece really is.

The fact I knew very little about The Killers before watching aided my enjoyment in Sidomark’s film and I feel it’s one of the better noirs that I’ve watched from this period. Like the similarly excellent The Asphalt Jungle, The Killers builds its tension beautifully and makes us curious about Andreson’s backstory before Reardon begins his investigation. The use of non-linear flashbacks feels like a modern concept by the standards of the time and is an interesting narrative device that never feels forced and instead proves that The Killers influenced generations of film-makers who employed similar devices in their screenplay. Although Anthony Veiller is credited with writing the screenplay, he was aided by former subjects of this blog John Huston and Richard Brooks, although neither man was recognised by the academy when The Killers was nominated for its story at that year’s Oscars. Arthur Hilton’s seamless editing between the present day and flashback scenes earned The Killers another nomination as did the suitably dramatic score by Miklós Rózsa. One element of The Killers that I thought deserved an Oscar nod was Woody Bredell’s superb black and white cinematography which adds a brooding air to the already tense story. Meanwhile Sidomark’s nomination was more than deserved for crafting a film that still feels relevant and one that numerous directors have drawn influence from over the years.

In his feature film debut, Burt Lancaster delivers an uncharacteristically strong and silent performance as the Swedish immigrant who is motivated by love rather than money. Having watched Lancaster’s career during the course of this blog it’s interesting to see where he began and how much of a screen presence he already possessed during this film. Although I do feel that Lancaster deserved some sort of acknowledgement for his role here, he wasn’t on screen enough to be considered in a leading role but I don’t think his turn would’ve been apt for the supporting category either. In his second consecutive appearance on the blog, Edmond O’Brien is excellent in the role of the audience’s proxy as we follow his journey for the truth and react to various plot developments at the same time as his character does. However, it’s Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins who steals the show here and it’s easy to understand how The Killers was the breakout performance from an actress who had only been a bit-part player up to this point. Gardner oozes glamour as Kitty and she portrays her character’s manipulative side with ease combining sexuality with a vulnerability that she utilises to trick poor Ole into doing whatever she asks of him. It’s clear that both The Killers and Brief Encounter deserved to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars and having them replace The Razor’s Edge and The Yearling would certainly strengthen 1946’s top category. Unfortunately, it appears that I’ll be leaving Film Noir behind for now which is a shame as movies like The Killers have demonstrated what a great genre it is and why movies like Siodmark’s are as relevant today as they were over seventy years’ ago.

Next time we concentrate on a critically-lauded French director who was nominated for his work on an American movie released in 1945.

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