The Killers March 23, 2018
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
onsider Burt Lancaster in 1946. He was 33. Recently divorced. Had never much thought about a long-lasting, professional acting career. (He’d only pursued a short-lived acrobatic circus act with buddy Nick Cravat.) He’d just returned from fighting in the war.
Sometimes, though, serendipity can throw one’s life off course. I think of Joni Mitchell’s claims that she always thought of herself a painter first and a singer-songwriter by circumstance. For Lancaster, a case of good luck changing one’s life unexpectedly rang especially true. Shortly after finishing up Army time in 1945, he, essentially for fun, auditioned for a
Broadway play in New York, thinking nothing would come of it.
But something did. The charismatic athlete won over producers, landed a major part in a showcase that lasted about three weeks, and then somehow captured the attention of studio folk sitting in the audience. Before Lancaster knew it, he was filming the Technicolor crime flick Desert Fury (1947) and then Robert Siodmak’s seminal film noir The Killers (1946) after that.
By chance, The Killers, in which he served as the leading man, was the movie that came out first. And it turned him into a star, establishing him as a Hollywood go-to for formidably muscular, tough-but-not-too-tough heroes best used in noirs, war pictures, Westerns. He was perhaps the definition of an overnight success; he never had to struggle to become a movie star because becoming a movie star wasn’t necessarily something that was ever on his mind.
In The Killers, you can see why this 30-something was catapulted to marquee-headlining so quickly. Handsome, hyper-masculine, but just soft enough to make it easy to root for him, he capitalized on what had made John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart so popular.
He, along with 24-year-old co-star Ava Gardner (who also found the feature to be responsible for her breakthrough), is the best thing about the movie, which is an impressively labyrinthine but rather standard film noir. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway, it is a deliciously sinful but oddly remote tale of a murder investigation, largely more stylish and thrilling than emotionally engaging.
Much of it takes place in flashback. It opens with the murder of ex-boxer Ole “Swede” Andreson (Lancaster), and the rest of the film details why the crime occured. It follows the life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he interviews suspects and looks into leads, which entails that psychological whirlpools abound and we be given glimpses into a past during which Andreson was very much alive.
In store is a crime movie mostly comprised of double-crosses, raw deals, gun battles, and sketchy dames – all the quintessential noir elements. But different about The Killers versus other genre classics like, say, Murder, My Sweet (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946) (which were both coincidentally originally penned by Raymond Chandler), is its choosing cerebral heft over actual investment. Murder and Sleep were so good because they developed atmospheres of ultra-stylized semi-pulp that got us enraptured simply as a result of their being so great to look at. They also produced fascinating stories that managed to become more riveting the more convoluted they became.
The Killers is visually ravishing and smartly plotted, in no doubt, but missing is the way those films so vigorously transported us into their otherworlds. (I think this was also helped by the characters being so interesting and complex that we couldn’t help but sit there and analyze them as they gabbed away.) The individuals who populate The Killers are just great ideas. Andreson is the good guy who manages to be corrupted by greed and by a woman who doesn’t actually love him. Gardner’s bad girl Kitty Collins is the manipulative she-devil who makes sinning look cool and sexy. Reardon is the outsider who gets wrapped up in the bedlam in spite of his better judgments. But they never quite come alive.
The movie’s a technical marvel, and Siodmak’s direction is fittingly cold. Yet I felt strangely indifferent to all the action happening in front of me, and such is because the emphasis on structuring shoos away any sort of naturalism that could enforce engrossment. But because watching movie stars be born in any decade is a thrill in itself, whatever shortcomings just aren’t severe enough to impact that sense of excitement.
Like a lot of pictures featuring iconic stars making their theatrical debuts, its reputation has become so informed by the legacies of its leading actors that there’s an unspoken understanding that the film in question is just as great as they are. Not quite. But The Killers is still largely a hermetic noir. B