Monday 15 October 2007

The Killers (1946) Robert Siodmak

I haven't yet found a Top 100 for films noir but I must have worked through most of whatever that list would be once someone gets round to compiling it. Certainly there aren't many at the top that I'm still missing but The Killers is one. The credentials are good: it's from 1946, the same year as things like The Stranger, Undercurrent and The Big Sleep, which really ought to be number one on that hypothetical list. It's based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, who also wrote To Have and Have Not, and it's directed by Robert Siodmak, who also made Criss Cross. It also features Edmond O'Brien from White Heat, DOA and The Hitch-Hiker.

It seems pretty definitive from the get go. We're in vividly defined light and shadow and people with very 1940s faces move effortlessly in and out of it with superb choreography on their way into a diner. Inside they wait for the Swede with loaded guns, but the Swede doesn't show. They find him soon enough though and shoot him dead, but what seems most surprising is that he seems to be a completely willing participant in the show. He did something wrong once, he tells the good guys who come to warn him, and refuses to leave. He just waits for the guns and dies when they arrive.

It's a very film noir gimmick to kill off the lead in the first ten minutes and then tell his story in retrospect through investigation, and it sounds like a really dumb one. It's like telling the punchline first and then filling in the joke, right? Well, when done right it works very well indeed. This punchline is a mystery, the inevitable end to a long string of events, and we get to peel the onion to find out what was at the other end of the string. Each layer gives us another character and another story, all of which build up to our big picture.

The dead man is Burt Lancaster, in an awesome pick for a debut film. Talk about starting out the right way. He became a big star right from the beginning of his career, though co-star Ava Gardner had taken a long while to make it. I've seen her in a few early films now, including Ghosts on the Loose with the East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi. This was her launch to stardom and it's amazing that it took her this long to be cast high up in a film noir. Edmond O'Brien was always a great supporting actor and he doesn't disappoint here in a role that probably has more screen time than either of the leads. Backing them up are old reliables like Albert Dekker, William Conrad and Jeff Corey.

It's the story that shines brightest though and I'm sure it'll get better with each repeat viewing. Hemingway himself thought it the best of all the adaptations of his work and that's the sort of recommendation you want. It's another film noir classic off my checklist and there aren't too many left to find. Then it'll be unknown territory: the hidden noirs that are starting to creep out onto DVD and the silver screen courtesy of TCM. It's going to be fun exploring all those films that I haven't heard of once I've finally worked through all the ones I have.

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