Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Killers, The (1946)

Director: Robert Siodmak


Marked as Burt Lancaster’s Hollywood debt, 1946’s The Killers gives audiences a unique drama where much of the story takes place in Citizen Kane-style flashbacks of a recently deceased man and his mysterious background. Inspired by an Ernest Hemingway short story, a very hot source of movie material at that time, producer Mark Hellinger and director Robert Siodmak expand the source material to share a much broader tale of the victim. The film’s significance to its stars’ careers and beautiful cinematic execution with time became a regarded film noir.

The Killers is a film noir drama about an investigation of victim at the hands of two hitmen, unraveling the story of target’s criminal past. After two mysterious hitmen arrive to a small town, claiming the life of a generally liked, but little known gas attendant Pete Lund, simply known as “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster), a life insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien), falls down a rabbit hole of unraveling his patchy background. Through a series of interviews Reardon pieces together the tale of “The Swede” from his injury shortened boxing career, to becoming involved with criminal activity. After pulling off a $250,000 heist  with a with three fellow gang members Lund is informed by his sultry girlfriend, Kitty (Eva Gardner), that he is being doubled crossed by his fellow criminals. Vengefully Lund makes off with the loot, thus the reason for the hit we witness at the beginning. Reardon pieces together information through manipulation of Kitty, finding his way into the middle of the deadly altercation among the remaining heist members, learning Kitty and one of the gangsters, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), planned to take the money only for themselves before Lund ran off with the spoils. With all the gangsters and shot and killed, Kitty is left as the lone living member to pay for the crimes.

The film is a well-constructed drama where the audience absorbs information along with the character of Jim Reardon, constructing the tale of a simple man that found his way to the wrong side of a gangster hit. With an opening that is compelling you are introduced to the mystery of a man with a shadowed past who is sadly taken down a dark path. For Burt Lancaster’s debt Hollywood role, his performance is small and contained for a leading man, serves as the object of interest in the film’s investigative storytelling.

The picture plays off as nearly as two separate stories lines that are directly connected, but can play independent from each other with high effectiveness. The first would be the opening where the “Killers” take out there victim, followed by the second tale where we investigate the victim’s past. After researching the background of the production, it became apparent why it appeared to feel this way, as the source material would only fulfill a fraction of what the movie would ultimately end up being.

Ernst Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” which the picture is based off of only serves enough plot to fulfill the opening twenty minutes of the picture. This consisted of the two hitmen, played by William Conrad and Charles McGraw, as they stroll into town and strong arm a diner proprietor and a patron for the location of “The Swede,” leading to Lund’s location and his acceptance of imminent death. At this time in Hollywood Hemingway’s works were hot commodities for adaptation. Former Warner Brothers producer Mark Hellinger, felt the short story had great promise, but it needed some added story to pad itself into a full feature film, ultimately fleshing out the story with an investigation that told how the victim got to where he was.

Having recently departed from Warner Bros., Hellinger would make The Killers his own independent project, distributing it through Universal. German born Universal director Robert Siomak would bring to the film noir the moody style and grittiness common with noir while still being full of suspense. Siodmak, in my opinion on the strength of the first act alone, earned himself his first Academy Award nomination. It would be his most successful American produced film, as it jump started two acting careers along with being one of the more successful pictures of the year. Siodmak would be one of very few expatriate directors to return to his home land after the war, returning to Europe in just six year’s time in 1952.

Despite the film primarily following the adventures of Jim Reardon and his investigation, played by Edmond O’Brien is a role that was a similar to a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart, the headlining name on the marquee went to newcomer Burt Lancaster. The 32-year-old former circus acrobat amd singing waiter was discovered attempting to find work acting in New York following his return from World War II. The Killers was his second picture he was cast in, but with the picture being fast tracked by Hellinger it would be his first to release and immediately made him a star. His strong yet meek performance along with his natural looks made him a fresh presence for movie audiences, beginning Burt Lancaster on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s long loved leading men for decades to come.

A young Ava Gardner for years had been servicing in bit roles for MGM, playing uncredited roles as various beauties as a studio contract player with hope of one day possibly being able to actually turn her into an actress. Here given her first chance at a serious dramatic role Gardner delivers what was breakout performance for the 23-year-old. With much coaching Gardner was able to drop her thick matural Southern drawl that usually kept casting agents from giving her roles to deliver a femme fatale just at a time when such a character was becoming hot in post WWII Hollywood movies. With the new-found attention, she would soon be one of the great beauties of the silver screen. Gardner was able to turn her sex appeal into an acting career that lasted into the earlier 1980’s.

The Killers did well with audiences and critics alike. Critics praised the picture for its acting and story. Even Hemingway also had kind words to say about the picture. He stated The Killers to be one of very few pictures that did justice to his own works, remaining faithful to his original work while also expanding on it. The picture allowed the author as a viewer to sit back and enjoy the picture for what it was instead of him critiquing it for adapting his work. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Editing, Music, and Adapted Screenplay, cementing it as a great success for producer Mark Hellinger in his first independent endeavor.

In 1964 a remake would surface in Hollywood staring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, and since there have been noted attempts to remake the picture again in the earlier 21st century proving fruitless. The National Film Registry would honor the picture with election to preservation in 2008 for being culturally significant. The picture will be best remembered as the debt of Burt Lancaster, as well as the stardom of Ava Gardner foremost, but the first 20 minutes scenes where the stars are primarily absent, the picture provides some of the most intriguing scenes in Hollywood for the year 1946.

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