Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Killers (1946)


Let me put this film in context – it was released on 30th August 1946.

The film noir movement was really taking off at this point in time. It had begun with Stranger On The Third Floor (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) - then World War Two got in the way. 

In 1944 it emerged fully formed – between 6/9/1944 and 18/12/1944 we got four classics that set the blueprint for the film noir movement: Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman In The Window and Murder, My Sweet. During October 1944 – January 1945 most of The Big Sleep was shot. 

In these films we find the building blocks of classic film noir – a deadly femme fatale, émigré directors (Wilder, Preminger, Lang), pulp dialogue (Chandler, Hammett and James M.Cain), voice over narration, flashback storytelling, artistic black and white cinematography and complex plot twists (particularly Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep – both Chandler).

There can be no doubt that the 1944 films noirs had an enormous influence on things to come. Hollywood observed a major critical and financial success in Double Indemnity - a book that had been deemed unfilmable for many years due to its content. This was an A-Picture film where major stars (Barbara Stanwyk, Fred MacMurray) accepted roles that were deemed to be risky for their image. The film was nominated for seven Academy awards (but did not win any).

Hollywood took note. Although there is a lull in 1945 (things pick up the pace again with Detour and Scarlett Street late in the year) the studios were planning to make this new kind of film and on 14/2/1946 Columbia released Gilda (an A-Picture with the biggest female star of the day, Rita Hayworth) and even MGM (The Dream Factory) released The Postman Always Rings Twice (a James M.Cain story with strong echoes of Double Indemnity) with two of their biggest stars, John Garfield and Lana Turner.

Mark Hellinger married together his two main interests (theatre and writing) when he became a newspaper columnist – he also managed to write plays and short stories. Jack Warner hired him as a writer/producer in 1937 and he was involved in several notable films during his tenure at Warner Bros.

When he moved to Universal studios as an independent producer he wanted to make a film adaptation of The Killers. He had already bought the rights from Ernest Hemingway.

I read the original Ernest Hemingway short story. The opening section of the film is a very faithful adaption of the short story. It seems clear that when Hemingway wrote the story he did not create any back story explaining why these assassins have been hired to kill The Swede. From Hemingway all we have to go on is that The Swede is a tall, ex-heavyweight prize fighter who bears facial scars from his boxing days. He is either from or connected with Chicago.

Hellinger then engaged Richard Brooks to create a story which would describe the events that led to the Swede’s death. It seems that Brooks produced the first draft which gave the basic framework of an insurance investigator unearthing the mystery behind the Swede’s assassination and the heist that is so central to the thrust of the narrative.

Many then claim that John Huston (uncredited as he was under contract to Warner Bros) was responsible for most of the rest and Anthony Veiller was the name used to credit the screenwriting. Once Robert Siodmak was brought on board as director it is almost certain that he played an important role in creating the final screenplay.

Hellinger had been impressed by Siodmak’s 1944 film The Phantom Lady (also photographed by Woody Bredell). Then The Spiral Staircase was released on 7/2/1946. This film is an extraordinary blend of storytelling and imagery – photographed by the great film noir cinematographer Nicholas Musurica (Stranger On The Third Floor, Out Of The Past).

When we look at German Cinema in the 1920s it is without doubt the most innovative cinema of the time. Murnau, Lang, Wiene and Pabst were pushing the very boundaries of cinema both in terms of storytelling, themes and technical innovation. The European sensibility was much darker than Hollywood. Films such as Pandora’s Box, Diary Of A Lost Girl and Asphalt would have been deemed too sordid and adult for Hollywood tastes.

Robert Siodmak was born in Dresden in 1900. He is known to Criterion fans for his first feature, the 1929 classic People On Sunday. Siodmak then made several films at UFA between 1930 and 1933. Siodmak became a man on the run – he fled the Nazis to Paris and was forced again to flee (to Hollywood) in 1939 with the Nazi Occupation of France. In 1940s Hollywood the Hays Code had a stranglehold on the themes explored in American cinema. The émigré directors (Lang, Wilder, Siodmak, Ulmer, Preminger) would have been eager to delve into material that challenged this Code. 

Like so many émigrés in Hollywood Siodmak was first employed making B Pictures. Here he drew on his UFA experiences and his European sensibilities to produce dark dramas – The Phantom Lady , The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry Of The City, Criss Cross, The File on Thelma Jordan. He is considered the premiere film noir director by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Certainly he would seem to have made more film noirs than any other director.

The Killers was an 8-week shoot that started in late April 1946. By the time that Hellinger and Siodmak began shooting the film, the noir style was becoming a feature of mainstream cinema.

The story of The Killers is extremely complex – I only fully understood all the details in the story after several viewings. As I got a greater understanding of the plot details, rewatching became a much more exciting and rewarding experience.

This film is packed with brilliance – there are too many brilliant scenes to list them all. The story of The Swede and his downfall at the hands of Kitty Collins is cinema of the highest level and such an enjoyable ride!

The opening section (approx 12 minutes) up to the assassination of The Swede is a masterpiece of film-making. The tension that Siodmak creates is perfect and maintained at a fever-pitch: the ominous shadowy figures that role into this small town, the chiaroscuro photography, the hard punches of Miklos Rozsa’s music, the figures who emerge from the shadows into the light – Charles McGraw pauses in front of the streetlight, illuminating his chiselled steely face, while he puts his hand in his overcoat to let us know that he is packing a gun. These hitmen (with their swagger, wise talk and ruthlessness) are alien to the small town of Brentwood.

The death of The Swede is particularly effective– he is resigned to his fate. This is a new kind of leading man – look at the anxiety on his face as he awaits his fate. We get the superb image of his arm losing its grip as the life force leaves his body.

The opening section is so taut. Obviously the assassination of The Swede provides a natural climax. Then we shift into the non-Hemingway story:

The tone then changes as we are then given the main instrument for the unfolding of the story - an insurance investigator, Jim Reardon, deals with the life insurance policy that The Swede had taken out. Reardon is going to unearth the story for us through his various encounters with people once associated with The Swede - 11 flashbacks narrated by 8 different characters. This flashback technique is why the film is sometimes referred to as the Citizen Kane of film noir.

This use of a guide who takes us through the story is one of the characteristics of the classic period of film noir (approx 1944 – 1948). Let us look at some of the different types of guides that were used in this era:

One of the classic guides is the private detective – this is the world of Chandler (Philip Marlowe) and Hammett (Sam Spade). This private detective is a knight in dirty armour – they are flawed men who navigate the law in their own way in order to serve their own sense of justice which is strongly tinged with a sense of self-interest. 

Then we have Jeff Markham in Out of the Past – he is both our private detective and our fall guy. His narration over the flashback sections gives us the details of the story and also provides an intimate confession. 

In Double Indemnity we have the potent confession of the protagonist. A man who has crossed the moral threshold for a woman and for money – this self-narration adds so much weight to the story. 

In Laura we get a police detective who becomes emotionally obsessed by the missing woman. We also get flashbacks narrated by the mercurial Waldo Lydecker.

Raw Deal gives us the viewpoint of a woman who is in love with the fall-guy protagonist – this is a particularly unique and very effective example.

At the other end of the spectrum we get the Dragnet-style narration from the point of view of the law enforcement agencies – for example T-Men. 

This is much less engaging than the personal narration of the protagonists where we intimately accompany them along their doomed fate. We listen knowing that we each have a seed of the desires that they have given in to – deep down we are fascinated!

When Nino Frank wrote his famous article in August 1946 for L’Ecran Francais he praised the recently exhibited films as having a sense of emotional reality and complexity. He distinguished these new films from previous detective stories where the investigator was simply a bland character unearthing what really happened (“une machine a penser”). In these new films (Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet and The Maltese Falcon) there was a psychological and emotional involvement that really appealed to Frank. 

I feel that this important element is somewhat missing in The Killers. In The Killers our guide is Jim Reardon, an insurance investigator. What motive does he have? – he is just doing his job and he shows himself to be very smart, diligent and committed. Although I like Edmond O’Brien I think the character is flawed. He does not undergo an emotional journey. At the end of the film he seems to have hardly been influenced by the story that he has unearthed – he seems unaffected. 

Reardon has a companion guide in the latter half of the film – Lieutenant Sam Labinsky. Labinsky grew up with The Swede and was his closest friend. Then as The Swede became involved in crime and Labinsky became a police officer their lives went in different directions. Labinsky ends up putting The Swede behind bars for a few years.

Labinsky undergoes no emotional journey in this film despite the fact that he is uncovering the tragic story of his closest childhood friend. He is detached and unemotional at the funeral ceremony of The Swede. The Swede’s story is a tragedy – a boxing career cut short and the ultimate betrayal by the woman he loves that results in his murder. Look at Kitty - did he ever stand a chance?

This is my problem – Reardon, and especially Labinsky, are simply thinking machines (as Nino Frank put it). They do not undergo any emotional journey. 

Compare this to the great film noirs – Sam Spade wrestles with his conscience at the end of The Maltese Falcon but suppresses his feelings and acts with his head; Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity has his view of the world turned upside-down by the conclusion of the film; John Garfield in Body and Soul and Force of  Evil has been changed forever by the end of those stories; Jeff Markham has paid the ultimate price in order to settle his karmic account! 

Instead in The Killers we get Reardon and his boss light heartedly joking that he saved the average policy holder a few cent for the coming year – it is totally inappropriate following the gravitas of the scene that we have just witnessed – Kitty Collins desperately pleading with her dying husband to lie in order to save her!

Despite my reservations about Reardon and Labinsky this is essential film noir and that means amongst the greatest films ever made!   



  1. Nice post on an essential and stylish noir, I really enjoyed all the background, analysis and opinions you included, it adds a lot to understanding the film's influences and themes. Thanks so much for taking part in this event!

    1. Thanks Kristina! Wonderful initiative - looking foward foward to reading all the other posts!

  2. You know, I never really gave much thought to Reardon's character, but I think I will next time I see this film. You're right – he doesn't seem to have much emotional or character development as the plot progresses.

    Thanks for including all this great background info, e.g. film noir, Siodmak's career, etc. Great post, and a great contribution to the blogathon!

    1. Thanks Ruth! I really feel that Reardon's (and Labinsky's) detached manner (from an emotional standpoint) dilutes the powerful story of The Swede and his downfall. Still it is a movie packed with greatness!

  3. Ooh, I really need to see this one. Sounds right up my alley.

    1. The issue I have with the insurance investigator is made up for by the brilliance of the rest of the story - Lancaster is great - and I really mean great! This performance must have a major influence (together with John Garfield) on the Brando/Clift/Dean generation that were soon to follow! Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) is one of the great femme fatales! Interestingly my first viewings were somewhat lukewarm but it has gotten better every time I see it!