Director: Robert Siodmak
The Killers is one of those film noirs that always tends to find itself lumped in the ‘near-miss’ or ‘honourable mention’ category when people assemble a list of their favourite films. It’s a shame because, in my humble opinion, The Killers has to rank up there as one of the pinnacles of the era, and while it may not have some of the smart, snappy dialogue of other films of the era, the story itself is dark and involving (based on an earlier Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name), the performances are solid throughout and it has many of the classic hallmarks of the genre.
Story-wise, the film follows the work of an insurance investigator named Jim Reardon, played with routine efficiency by Edmond O Brien (who later played the role of undercover cop Hank Fallon in Raoul Walsh’s superb White Heat) as he investigates the death surrounding a former boxer named Pete Lund but better known simply as ‘Swede’ to his friends, played by Burt Lancaster in his debut screen role. At the outset of the film, Swede is the subject of an assassination by two mysterious gangsters who show up to the quiet and sleepy town Swede has been hiding away from the world in, passing off as a gas station clerk before the characters from his former life show up (certain comparisons with the following year’s Out of the Past are quite justified). After encountering a number of characters involved with Swede, including the detective who was once arrested him for a jewellery theft, as well as a former cell-mate, Reardon pieces together the story surrounding Swede’s demise. After meeting a dark temptress named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), he found himself involved in a small-time outfit planning a big-time robbery (of a hat factory payroll, no less…). But before discovering he was due to be set up, Swede made away with the stolen goods, along with Collins, who was herself involved with the outfit’s chief, ‘Big Jim’ Colfax. Swede found himself double crossed by Collins, and was forced into hiding, until one day he was found and, knowing his luck was out, allowed himself to be gunned down.
The tale is told through a number of flashbacks, coming from a number of different characters throughout the film. The backstory unfolds along with the contemporary developments made in Reardon’s investigation as he uncovers the layers of double cross behind the set-up. The gradual unfolding of the story, as opposed to giving the backstory all in one go, means that the audience is always left guessing and never knows the full story until it is finally revealed in the final few climactic scenes between Reardon, Colfax and Collins. The plot twist is satisfying and the layers of cross and double-cross which rest behind it are fun to see play out through the use of flashback scenes.
The entire cast delivers a strong performance. O’Brien and Lancaster lead the film in equal measure, despite never being on screen together. Lancaster is memorable as the young kid infatuated with Gardner, desperate to prove himself and make it big. Gardner herself is a perfect femme fatale – she’s attractive, sweet and manipulative all in one stroke. The secondary characters also stand up well – Jack Lambert is convincing as the hoodlum ‘Dum-Dum’, and has a particularly memorable scene involving an interrogation scene with O’Brien. Donald MacBride plays Reardon’s boss – a fast talking insurance claims handler with some snappy lines and some lively exchanges with O’Brien (think Fred MacMurray and Edward G Robinson in Double Indemnity). These light exchanges aside, the film is a pretty serious and sombre affair, full of questionable characters and an unshakable sense that there is much more to the story than is ever being let on. The underlying story is the film’s strongest point, and one can’t help but feel for Swede as the truth behind his deception is gradually revealed.
Looking at the film more widely, it can be seen as almost a textbook example of noir and the themes that it’s known for. A story told through flashbacks? Check. A cynical detective? Check (okay, insurance investigator rather than private detective, but close enough). Delicious but deceptive femme fatale? Check. A crime story involving betrayals and double crossing? Check. Downbeat ending? Check (even if the insurance company does go away moderately happy). And so on.
Quite why The Killers doesn’t get more recognition I’ve never quite been sure. It doesn’t have a massive star selling it – as famous as Lancaster became, this was his first feature and so his name had no real selling power at the time. I’ll also grant that some of the dark humour and memorable dialogue from other films of the time aren’t quite as prevalent here, but at its heart, The Killers is a bleak, dark film based around an engaging story that keeps the audience guessing and delivers a satisfying conclusion. It’s a solid film and a fine example of film noir at its best.