The Killers

****1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

The Killers is classic film noir. A gripping thriller from start to finish. The elements are so clearly defined it also makes an ideal example for study.

Burt Lancaster has his debut role but fails to survive his first scene. Unfortunate, apparently, as he spent months before shooting training with a champion boxer. But happily he is reprised in (11) flashbacks. So we can work out why he ends up at the wrong end of ten bullets.

But the story isn’t about that. True to noir, it turns with seductive femme fatale Ava Gardner as its axis. This torrid temptress is pianist Kitty Collins. And for added value, Ava sings the song herself. (A beautiful number called, The More I Know Of Love.) Kitty knows more about that and everything else. A sad reflection on the male punch bags involved. We too know she’s bad news. But hell. Her charisma fills the screen like cigarette smoke.

Lancaster is a garage attendant. Ex garage attendant. Called Olé. Or the ‘Swede’. Or Pete Lunn. He used to be a boxer. Olé/Swede/Pete leaves life insurance money to an Irish chambermaid who barely remembers him. Private Dick work is legged by Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien), an overly-motivated insurance investigator. And if Reardon had met Kitty earlier in the movie he might even have fallen for her himself. The policeman’s a nice guy married to Olé/Swede/Pete’s ex-girlfriend. But that isn’t why Swede gets suicidal. And somewhere there’s a heist...

Our eponymous killers are classic Ugly Mugs. They set the tone of the film early on and re-enter near the end. Tension is knife-edge and non-stop. The ‘clue’ is a green handkerchief with gold harps, wafted temptingly to the audience long before we have a chance of making sense of it.

It has been very fashionable to describe femme fatales as ‘liberating’ or ‘empowering’ to women. Indeed, they empowered a number of good actresses in need of roles. And The Killers is set in the late Forties - the heyday of womens’ lib and film noir. But the ‘liberated’ femme fatale could also be seen as a sad reflection on mens’ inability to face facts (including their own constitution). Kitty, like most trapped pussy-cats, pretends to be agreeable before her malicious pounce. She is neither genuinely romantic nor truly sexual, but sordid and bestial, a cardboard pretender. Her ‘weapon’ is the eroticised fantasy of the sexually frustrated male. She looks the part of a liberated woman but it is only an act.

Swede’s girlfriend is pleasant and puritanical. Her ‘chaste woman’ persona, ill-judged. It increases the frustration of the men - who are then more vulnerable to attack. When Kitty ‘pounces’ she has the trappings of what a self-made woman might want – looks, career, good taste, social skills, a mind of her own. But they are trappings (except for the looks) and illusory.

Kitty’s self-estimation is summed-up in a junkie-like admission. “I'm poison... to myself and everybody around me! I'd be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them! I don't care harming him!” But there is no strong Bogarde to save her from herself. She goes the way of most of her kind, restoring male hegemony as retribution nears.

The Killers was a B-movie given prestige treatment by Universal. This at a time when the studio was roughing it financially. Somehow it hits on redeeming qualities in abundance. The script isn’t that memorable, and precise mise-en-scene leaves little room for actors to make mistakes or shine. But the paraphernalia boast the hallmarks of a classic. High contrast, low-key lighting, genre-perfect characters and plot, a claustrophobic sense of gloom from which we want to break out. (Ironically, one of the most uplifting scenes - and the most unrealistic - is set in a prison.)

As with any good thriller, sexual shenanigans in The Killers are not shoved down our throat. They are used like red wine in a rich meat sauce. The tight editing is impressive. He would miss the Oscar, but Editor Arthur Hilton still gets an extra credit towards the end of the film - on a poster near a nightclub. It modestly proclaims, “Sir Arthur Hilton presents...”

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2008
Share this with others on...
The Killers packshot
A private detective investigates a boxer's death in this stylish film noir.
Amazon link

Director: Robert Siodmak

Writer: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks and John Huston, based on the book by Ernest Hemingway.

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Virginia Christine, Charles D. Brown, Jack Lambert

Year: 1946

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

Festivals:


Search database: