Monday, 6 July 2015

THE KILLERS (1946) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Siodmak. Hellinger. Hemingway. Huston. Lancaster. Gardner. Noir. Criterion. Blu-Ray. 'Nuff Said.

The Killers (1946)
Dir. Robert Siodmak
Prd. Mark Hellinger
Scr. Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited),
Richard Brooks (uncredited), Ernest Hemingway (Short Story)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker,
Jack Lambert, Jeff Corey, Sam Levene, William Conrad, Charles McGraw

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The angst, existential and otherwise, is so thick in Robert Siodmak's classic film noir adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story The Killers, you'd need more than the de rigueur knife to slice through it - a chainsaw, however, would do quite nicely. Hell, even a simple hacksaw might do if the blade is sharp, taut and you have a solid grip. Either way, you're going to hit some raw nerve endings buried in that dense atmosphere.

The first order of business here is to extol the virtues of Mark Hellinger, the film's visionary producer (an advertising man, a newspaper man to the bone, maven of all things Broadway and producer of Brute Force, The Naked City, High Sierra, They Drive By Night, etc.) who revolutionized American cinema with his hardboiled tastes and his savvy for packaging. It's no surprise, then, that the writing here takes as big a centre stage as Siodmak's expressionistically-tinged direction and to-die-for cast. Hellinger not only valued scribes, he was one of the best himself.

Most importantly was how Hellinger took a cue from his Italian Neorealist colleagues across the pond and used real locations whenever possible (and when not, insisting upon studio/backlot art direction and locations which came as close as possible to the real thing).

As for the picture itself, it's cleverly housed via Edmond O'Brien's Jim Reardon, an insurance investigator assisted by cop Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) in piecing the events of a killing together. This approach allows for a variety of perspectives upon the tale of a heist weighted down by plenty of betrayal, ennui and focusing in particular upon the doomed gang member The Swede (Burt Lancaster), a washed-up boxer who turns down a shot at being a cop to enter a life of crime.

The fractured, but easily-followed storytelling structure, has always had scribes comparing it favourably to Citizen Kane, but this is, I think, a bit of a backhanded compliment (and a typically unimaginatively egg-headed response) since Siodmak's overall approach to the material feels wholly original and his writers have brilliantly addressed how to remain true to Hemingway's original whilst also addressing the fact that they're fleshing-out a feature film.

And what fleshing-out! Adhering closely to Hemingway's short story, the movie opens with two especially scuzzy hit men (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) waiting to whack their quarry at the appropriate time. Their target, the aforementioned "Swede", knows they're coming for him, but is resigned to his fate and waits for their arrival. They eventually show up and blow him away.

Well, if this was a simple adaptation of Hemingway's original, the movie would now be over. It's not. True to the spirit of Hemingway's story, the film fills in all the details leading up to and following the events of the picture's opening minutes with terse, matter-of-fact brutality and provides added post-war ennui to a story originally written during the gangster overload of the Prohibition Era. No flappers here, just the promise of a better life in the 40s which in turn, offers bupkis, bad judgement and shattered dreams.

The biggest shattered dream of the equation is femme fatale Kitty Malone (Ava Gardner in her most delectable Sinatra-baiting prime) who not only lands The Swede 3 years in the hoosegow for stealing a whack of jewels for her, but then takes up as the main squeeze of the mean-spirited criminal mastermind (and eventual construction contractor, 'natch), Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) who eventually hires Swede and two other thugs, Dum Dum (Jack Lambert) and Binky (Jeff Corey) to assist him in a risky, dangerous, but lucrative heist. Not only is Kitty receiving the root from Big Jim, but she's not above some mega-betrayal to scam a big score for herself.

However, this femme fatale can't be all bad. She seems rather genuine when she explains why she's with an animal like Big Jim. "I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I'd be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them!" She's happy to harm, Big Jim. It gives her strength. Alas, she also, for good measure, no doubt, manages to harm those she loves.

Dames. Can't live with 'em. Can't live without 'em. But it's a mug's game that can land any schlub a prime piece of six-feet-under real estate.

The Killers is guaranteed to knock you on your ass. Tense, tragic, often claustrophobic and featuring one of the best heist scenes in movie history. Siodmak's expert coverage and pacing here comes close to holding its own against Jules Dassin's Rififi heist (kind of interesting since two of Dassin's best pictures, Brute Force and Naked City, were also produced by Hellinger). Bolstered by the starkly contrasted black and white cinematography by the great Woody Bredell and an evocative Miklós Rózsa score (and yes, the main theme's opening few notes were eventually ripped-off for the theme of Jack Webb's long-running TV series Dragnet), the picture delivers all the noir goods any serious aficionado of the form would want.

It's a heart-breaker and then some. When insurance investigator Reardon ties up all the loose ends, he's commended by his boss. In true post-war fashion, a prescient reality in the film which has only increased exponentially to this day in the world in which we live in, the boss claps Reardon on the back and offers the following accolade: "Owing to your splendid efforts, the basic rate of The Atlantic Casualty Company - as of 1947 - will probably drop one-tenth of a cent."

Hitler was dead. No matter. "The Man" took his place.

The Film Corner Rating: *****

The Killers is available on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. In addition to including Don Siegel's blistering 1964 adaptation with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell and Rompin' Ronnie Reagan as the scumbag villain, Blu-Ray is loaded with great stuff including a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, Tarkovsky’s short 1956 student-film adaptation of Hemingway’s story, a terrific 2002 interview with Stuart Kaminsky, the Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio adaptation from 1949, starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters plus, ever-so delectably, a 2002 audio recording of actor Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s "The Killers".

Order directly from the links below and contribute to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.

In Canada, order HERE

In USA, order HERE

In UK, order HERE