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The Killers

Directed by Robert Siodmak with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, William Conrad, Sam Levene, 103 minutes, 1946

Poster
Poster

By Carter B. Horsley

Burt Lancaster is a dumb boxer who falls for a brunette bombshell and decides not to run away from two killers, played with no-nonsense malice by Charles McGraw and William Conrad, in Brentwood, a small New Jersey town. They go to a diner and ask about him.  When they leave, a customer, Nick Adams, ran out to the hotel where Lancaster is staying to warn him.  Lancaster, however, a gas station attendant, declines to run and thanks Adams and awaits the killers, muttering that he can no longer keep running.

Lancaster, whose  character is called Ole "Swede" Anderson, is killed very early in the film, which is based in a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway that appeared in Scribner's Magazine.  That story ends quickly with his death, but the movie's screenplay by Robert Veiller with an assist from John Huston, invents its pre-history in elaborate, non-consecutive detail.

Lancaster had taken out a life insurance policy payable to an old woman and Edmond O'Brien is an insurance agent, Jim Reardon, who is curious about the Swede and why he didn't run.  He meets with a police lieutenant, played by Sam Levene, who was an old friend of the Swede and learns that a member of Colfax's gang was in the hospital.  They visit him and learn only that there had been a robbery at a factory.

The Swede had been a boxer and after he had thrown a boxing match joined a gang headed by Big Jim Colfax, played by Albert Dekker who is planning to heist a factory payroll.  At a meeting at Colfax's, Lancaster is mesmerized by Colfax's moll, Kitty Collins, played by the very sultry and very beautiful Ava Gardner in one of her early and very memorable roles.  She's enough to mess any man up.

The theft is successful and the robbers plan to rendezvous at a farm to split the take.

The Swede, however, decides to take all the money and run away with Kitty, who turns out to be a double-crosser.

When Colfax is shot in this mansion and Kitty begs him as he is dying to declare her innocence, he doesn't and dies in front of the lieutenant.

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster

In a July 30, 2015 article in The New York Times, J. Hoberman observed that the movie was influenced by "Citizen Kane" - "not just in its Expressionistic lighting, showy camera angles, carefully contrived mirror shots and percussive montage but also in its flashback structure."

"Less a narrative than a Hollywood neighborhood," the article continued, "'The Killers' is populated by slang-slinging tough guys with tilted fedoras and dangled cigarettes and gorgeous dames who are not to be trusted.  O'Brien is a low-rent Humphrey Bogart.  Lancaster is dreamy, dense and doomed.  Ava Gardner, in her first major movie, doesn't go much more than exist. She barely needs to.  Materializing some 40 minutes into the movie in a backless black satin number, she turns from the hubbub of some dubious soirée to face the camera head-on; it's clear from Lancaster's dumbstruck gaze that he has met his Circe."

Lancaster's formidable physicality and Gardner's undeniable and magnetic beauty empower and elevate the film way beyond its otherwise rather modest collection of bad guys, but its cinematography and flashbacks and Lancaster's desperate, forlorn lust catapult it to film noir heaven.


Edmond O'Brien

Edmond O'Brien

The movie has a good score by Miklos Rozsa and it and the film's director were nominated for Academy awards.

The film was remade in 1964 with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickenson in a TV movies directed by Don Siegel with the criminal mastermind played by Ronald Reagan.


This film ranks 199th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.



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