The Killers review by Tom Blain
I was all set to write up a review of Robert Siodmak's 1946 noir classic The Killers when Robert Osbourne stole my thunder. It had been my 2nd time watching the film in less than two weeks, third screening lifetime. A few weeks ago I dusted off an old scratchy VHS (taped on the EP setting so that I could squeeze it between The Third Man and Laura). After that less than stellar quality viewing, I had a new found respect for the movie as it drew some comparisons to Citizen Kane in style (although to a lesser degree) and in story. Then a week later I see it on TCM and Robert Osbourne comes up for his grand movie intro and says "in a way, its like the Citizen Kane of film noir because of ...." . That old nut is in my brain.
Well its worth expanding on at least.
Like Kane, The Killers opens with the death of its main character. In this case Olie "Swede" Andersen (Burt Lancaster in his first film role) was murdered by a pair of mobsters in the quiet town of Brentwood. For the remainder of the film an insurance investigator named Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) questions person after person to find any information that would save the insurance company from paying out. Its a unique mode of story telling; the characters are building up and creating Swede Anderson for the audience. Like Kane, the questions of reliability and missing information comes into play turning the film into a guessing game. The story is driven by witness accounts told through interviews of associates of Anderson. The film goes into a flashback told from the perspective of the witness. It is careful (in most cases) to not divulge too much in each scene; keeping in mind that the life of one man is difficult to piece together.
But unlike Kane the investigator is seen and becomes a major character in the film; almost as big as Anderson himself. The investigation itself works just like a detective investigation and OBrien plays the part like any good hard boiled cop.
In place of old Kane's "rosebud," is the "one mistake" that Swede mentions right before he dies and there was no escaping his fate. Each story that is told about Swede gets the audience closer and closer to that mistake. The more the investigator digs the darker the stories get and the darker the shadows become. Stories begin to pop up that he was involved but not friendly with a gangster named Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and even worse could have been canoodling around with Big Jim's little sexpot Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).
The Killers blends the two types of noir styles into one film. Swede plays the good guy who begins playing on the wrong side of the law and gets swift punishment for doing so (like in Scarlet Street). Detective Reardon is the investigator/protagonist who propels himself into the world of killing as a mere viewer (like in Murder My Sweet). He is attracted to a femme fatale a.k.a Kitty Collins, but is immune to her charm.
Director Robert Siodmak uses his shadows wisely. The opening credit scene shows two unnamed, faceless killers driving down the highway, backs silhouetted by the headlights of the car they are driving. In long shadows they walk up to the the late night diner. Swede himself sits on what will be his death bed with his face covered in a shadow, a metaphor for the sins he carries on is shoulders. Siodmak doesnt try to pull off any fancy perspective/mulitple plane trick shots like in Third Man or Kane. Its pretty straight forward but at the same time gets the job done, without losing the dark twisted feel. The Killers is a simple but solid example of good film noir.
I was also attracted to this film early on because of its connection with one of my favorite comedies, Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid. This is probably the most sampled film used in Dead Men as there are shots and mentions of Kitty Collins and Swede Anderson. Steve Martins Marlowe like detective even has the last name Reardon. Its difficult to watch this movie the same way after seeing Martin and Reiners hilarious noir mock up.
Lately I've been reviewing a bunch of great old films. I swear thats not all I watch, but it seems to be the case lately. At some point Im hoping to find some bad noir so I can balance this latest batch but today wasnt the day. This is probably one of the best Ive seen in awhile, along with Murder My Sweet and The Setup.
8 out of 10 Jackasses