Saturday, August 1, 2009


“Son of Dracula” director Robert Siodmak, who emigrated from Germany after Joseph Goebbels drove him out of the Fatherland, made a specialty of what French film theorist Nino Frank called ‘film noir.’ These gritty, black & white melodramas usually occurred in an urban setting and involved unsavory criminal types as well as cops. Women—designated as femme fatales--often lured gullible men to their doom like the sirens did to sailors in ancient Greek myths. Although some scenes take place during daylight hours, most film noir thrillers unfold after dark. Metaphorically, film noir involve flawed protagonists suffering from some psychological neuroses. Siodmak’s “The Killers” (**** out of ****)epitomizes vintage film noir. “Black Friday” lenser Woody Bredell captures the fatalistic look of film noir, and Siodmark incorporates several mirror image scenes as they depict the solution to a mysterious robbery and the demise of all the conspirators. Basically, nobody winds up with what they set out to get in "The Killers" starting with the eponymous villains when they order supper at a lunch wagon.

“The Stranger” scenarist Anthony Veiller, along with John Huston and Richard Brooks (neither received credit for their contributions), adapted Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story that Scribner’s Magazine had published in its March 1927 issue. Siodmak and his scribes kept most of the short story intact. The short story dealt with two tough-guy gunmen who occupied a Midwestern dinner in a small town and waited to kill a prizefighter named ‘Swede’ Anderson. Undoubtedly influenced by the narrative flashbacks in “Citizen Kane,” the filmmakers forge the remainder of this concise 103 minute film with flashbacks galore as various individuals discuss their relationship with a curious lone wolf insurance investigator who cannot get over the fact that the Swede accepted his inevitable death at the hands of the gunmen without trying to defend himself. The puzzled investigator exhausts every single clue in the case and winds up solving a 6 year old hat factory robbery and recovers a portion of the loot.

“The Killers” opens after dark as two gunsels in fedoras and trench coats, Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw of "The Narrow Margin"), cruise into the cozy hamlet of Brentwood, New Jersey, check out the Tri-States Gas Station and then step over to Henry’s lunch counter a little before 6 PM when supper is served and set up an ambush to kill ‘Swede’ Anderson. The diner owner warns them that if the ‘Swede’ doesn’t show at 6 PM then he isn’t going to show. The gunmen leave Henry’s dinner and he unties his black cook and a customer, Nick Adams. Adams (Phil Brown) works with the Swede at the gas station. Henry sends Nick off to warn the Swede (Burt Lancaster in his film debut) before the gunmen can find him. Nick warns the Swede, but the Swede refuses to flee. “I once did something bad,” he explains to Nick. Later, Max and Al barge into his room and shoot the Swede eight times. All we see is the flash of their firearms barking off-camera as they perforate the Swede.

Riordan (Edmond O’Brien of “DOA”) investigates claims for an insurance company. He learns that the Swede left $2,500 to a beneficiary. Riordan questions Nick about the Swede. The flashbacks begin with Nick’s story about the Swede meeting an out-of-town motorist who makes him so queasy that he takes a day off of work and lies in the darkness of his boarding house. Initially, Riordan’s boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride of “Room Service”), considers it a nickel and dime case and wants Riordan on another case. Riordan convinces Kenyon to give him more time. Riordan calls on Philadelphia Police Detective Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene of “Golden Boy”) who not only grew up with the Swede but later arrested him for theft and sent him to prison for three years. Lubinsky tells Riordan about the Swede's ill-fated boxing days and later how he fell into bad company. Lubinsky arrested his own childhood friend on a theft charge because the Swede refused to let him arrest his flame Kitty on a shoplifting charge. Riordan attends the Swede’s funeral that Lubinsky and his wife, Lilly Harmon Lubinsky (Virginia Christine of the Folgers Coffee commercials), have arranged and asks about another funeral guest.

Charleston (Vince Barrett of “Scarface”) shared a prison cell with the Swede for two years. He tells Riordan his side of the story. In the flashback, Charleston contacts the Swede as soon as he got out of prison about a job. The Swede joins the ring of criminals led by ‘Big’ Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker of “The Wild Bunch”), a trigger-happy goon, Dum Dum Clarke (Jack Lambert of “Vera Cruz”), and Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey of “True Grit”). Charleston refuses to participate in the robbery caper because he thinks that it is too big and will end in failure. He explains that he will never go back to prison and lives only for 'easy pickings.'
Riordan learns that Colfax, Clarke, Franklin and the Swede robbed the Prentiss Hat factory from a single lead, a green silk bandana with an Irish harp on it. An incredulous Kenyon reads about the robbery.

While Kenyon reads about the robbery on the soundtrack, Siodmak presents the robbery in a single take with a crane shot. Clearly, Siodmak knew his craft to pull off this complicated camera movement. This scene exemplifies Siodmak’s finesse with the mise-en-scene. Touches like this one elevate “The Killers” and make it look better than it convoluted story. Indeed, Veiller, Huston, and Brooks expand the scope of the action, going back seven years to depict the Swede’s victories and successes. Usually, the Swede lost. He goes soft on a dame, Kitty (Ava Gardner of “Whistle Stop”) and takes a fall for her so that she won’t land in prison. The remainder of “The Killers” deals with caper that Big Jim cooks up. When the Swede joins them, he is surprised to see Kitty as Big Jim’s squeeze. Later, Big Jim and the Swede fight over a card game. Big Jim hates the Swede and tries to cut him out of the robbery. The Swede trumps him because Kitty tells him about the new rendezvous and he swipes the $250-thousand from Colfax, Clarke, and Blinky.

“The Killers” qualifies as a top-notch film noir caper. Burt Lancaster became a star as did his co-star Ava Gardner. The irony is the Swede never had a chance with Kitty. He took a dive for her and she still tricked him. The theme of fate pervades “The Killers.” The Swede knows he’ll never escape either fate or the gunsels. Siodmak coaxes solid performances from a talented cast. Lancaster is simply dazzling as the thick headed Swede who goes dizzy over Kitty and is destroyed by her treachery. Ava Gardner looks spectacular as the cunning Kitty, while Albert Dekker is appropriately perfidious as Colfax. He uses Kitty to trick not only the Swede into thinking that he has robbed Colfax and his pals, but also he eliminates his conspirators—Dum Dum and Blinky—by letting the Swede take the loot. The plot twists and the ending when Kitty finds her neck finally caught in the noose of fate is outstanding. Film noir not only cheats the villains but it also cheats Riordan. Initially, Riordan is elated because he solved the six-year old robbery, but Kenyon points out:"Owing to your splendid efforts, the basic rate of the Atlantic Casualty Company as of 1947 will probably drop one-tenth of a cent." “The Killers” is powerful stuff.