The Killers (1946)

tn_thekillers46To tell you the truth it was the Lee Marvin/Don Siegel version of this Ernest Hemingway story that I was interested in, but Criterion released the two versions together, so I watched this Robert Siodmak/Burt Lancaster one first. Way to go, Criterion – expanding my ignorant horizons.

This is one of those movies I wasn’t sure about watching but then the opening was so great it could’ve turned into a round table discussion of agriculture subsidies and I probly would’ve kept with it. It starts with two out of town assholes walking into a diner and giving the proprietor a bunch of shit. They sit there in their coats and fedoras, ridiculing the menu, the policies, the customers, keep calling everybody “bright boy” and ask them condescending questions. It soon comes out that they’re not there for the steak sandwiches, they’re hired killers waiting for “the Swede” (Lancaster) who works at the gas station across the street to come in for lunch so they can ply their trade on him. (That means kill him. They are killers.)

He doesn’t show up, though, so the killers leave, and the “bright boy” customer who happens to work with Swede races to his house to warn him. But the Swede already knows, and he just lays in bed, resigned to his fate. So they show up and kill him.

mp_thekillers46So there’s your hook, there’s your mystery. Who had him killed, and why? We would ask the Swede, he obviously knew the answer, but the whole thing is he’s dead, so that doesn’t work. The movie follows a smart insurance investigator named Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) who figures out there’s some unrecovered job money involved in this and won’t let go of the case. He talks to the Swede’s co-workers, the old woman he left his insurance money to (a chambermaid he barely knew), the officer who arrested him once (also a childhood friend), one of his old girlfriends (the officer’s wife), his cellmate. They all tell stories about Swede and a picture starts to come together of a boxer who couldn’t fight anymore and fell into crime. Then Reardon starts to find clues about the Swede’s last heist, who was involved and what might’ve gone wrong. And he goes after the money.

Ava Gardner plays the girl whose charms Swede can’t resist, makes him put his brain on standby and switch over to “dick” mode. She doesn’t seem like a terrible person, but I guess technically she’s still a femme fatale, because she’s laying on a bed as bait while the men convince Swede to come in on a payroll robbery. She’s kicking her pantyhosed feet around like a kitten pawing at a ball of yarn. She knows what she’s doing.

She’s actually pretty smart about finding excuses to just be laying around all the time, so men don’t have to imagine what she looks like horizontally. It’s pretty over the top but at least she’s not bending over to pick things up or doing the Sharon Stone leg-spread or anything like that. I wonder if she had to do any furniture re-arranging though?

“Well, see you later Kitty, we have that hat factory payroll robbery to plan.”

killersava“No, stay here, you guys can meet in my bedroom.”

“Well, that would be weird. Not enough room in there. Besides, we were gonna go play cards at Colfax’s, that’s a good place.”

“Well, is there a bed I can move into the living room?”

“Uh, I guess.”

Come to think of it, the Swede chooses to face his maker laying in bed, it might be an homage to Kitty. Or this might just be a movie about beautiful lazy people.

The cinematography is real good, very film noir. One of the extras on the DVD says it just looks like TV, but man I didn’t think so. Subtle things like when they’re at the coroner’s office and the room is bright so there’s a light background, but the light’s not on the people so they’re a dark grey. It looks good and very moody, not your usual shine-a-light-on-the-actors-and-shoot-them approach.

Apparently Richard Brooks and John Huston worked on the script, but it’s credited to this guy Anthony Veiller. I guess the opening 20 minutes comes straight from Hemingway’s story and the rest is made up. It’s a good mystery, even if it never matches the strong mood of that opening scene, with those guys talking down to everyone because they know nobody’s gonna mess with The Killers.

But it ends on a fun note. I like how it’s not a cop or private eye on the case, or even a guy who needs to solve the mystery. In fact, Reardon’s boss doesn’t care what happened and tries to move him on to something else. He just becomes obsessed, it’s like a puzzle to him and he doesn’t want to give up on solving it. When he finally has it all figured out, having gone far beyond the call of duty, he goes home for the weekend. Then he’ll be back Monday for some other case.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 23rd, 2009 at 12:59 pm and is filed under Crime, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

41 Responses to “The Killers (1946)”

  1. Good stuff. You should check out KISS ME DEADLY, which is also pretty damn good.

  2. I’ve had this (and the Marvin version) on my Netflix queue forever. Maybe your recommendation is finally the push I need to pull the trigger and move it up to the top.

    Siodmak made a really cool horror/thriller movie called THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, which is stylisitcally reminiscent of Argento’s giallos in many ways, only he did it in the 40’s. It’s a interesting oddity.

  3. caruso_stalker217

    November 23rd, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Swede’s death was turned into probably the funniest scene in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID:


  4. This movie’s great. The Don Siegel version isn’t as good, but it does feature a scene where John Cassavetes punches out Ronald Reagan, which is goddamn awesome. That’s an image I’d really like to get printed on a T-shirt. Just thinking about it makes me feel proud to be an American.

  5. The scene you described with the killers in the diner reminds me of the sequence in History of Violence where those two crooks sort of brag about how hardcore they are right before Viggo rips their faces off.

  6. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see a whole line of T-shirts along that theme of art-house directors beating the shit out of asshole politicians. There could be one with Jean-Luc Godard drop-kicking Nixon, Jim Jarmusch beating Bush (either) with a baseball bat, and I’d really like to see Hitchcock in a sumo match with Cheney (advantage: Hitch).

    Get to work people who do these things.

  7. Ooooh… you don’t know how happy I would be if you ever did something like a Vern Noir Winter. Think of it as a sort of proto-Badass Studies!

  8. Just out of curiosity, is this the earliest movie you’ve reviewed? I took a cursory glance at the index and racked my brain, but all I could think of for pre-rock & roll films was that blurb you did on ROPE (1948) and that hilarious bit on ALL ABOUT EVE (1950). Some other Hitchcock film, maybe? No other “classic” noirs that I can recall.

    Not that I’m pounding down your door for you to review BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN or anything (“these pricks make those sailors eat rotten meat, in my opinion”), but looks like there’s still an untapped vein of Cinema lookin’ for that special Vern needle. Or pickaxe, if you want a different metaphor.

  9. Yeah, I don’t do many pre 1970 even, but here’s a 1932:


  10. Battleship Potemkin is not a bad idea, considering its influence on action editing, and Vern’s opinions on action editing…

  11. White Heat is the most badass film noir ever, in my opinion.

  12. Strangely, although classic crime novels (particularly hardboiled detective fiction) are my bread and butter, I never really got into the film noir genre that was inspired by them. I think so much of what I love about the novels is the lean, mean, ostensibly unsentimental (but really just heartbroken and hoping nobody notices) language of the writing. I like walking around inside the characters’ heads, seeing the world through their eyes, and responding to it as unflappably as they do. Due to the necessarily voyeuristic nature of the medium, I don’t really get that from the movies, although I still give them a chance every now and then, and clearly I recognize the effect they had on so many of the later movies I love. I’ll put this one on the list for further study. Other recommendations?

    By the way, if there are any other detective fans out there, do you feel as betrayed as me that DiCaprio might play Travis McGee? The role should be played by 1981 Nick Nolte and no one else. A case for motion capture?

  13. **As a matter of fact, I’d like to see a whole line of T-shirts along that theme of art-house directors beating the shit out of asshole politicians. **
    I’d love to see Katherine Bigelow take a crack at Sarah Palin. Though I think I’d give the nod to Palin. Maybe Chris Nolan could win that one – he handled Bale already….

  14. Maybe we’d better let that kickboxing chick who directed Punisher War Zone take a crack at Palin instead.

  15. Mr. Majestyk: If you haven’t seen them already, Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY and SUNSET BLVD (the one with Gloria Swanson and William Holden, not the Glenn Close musical), Fritz Lang’s M, and Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN are, in my opinion, outright classics. I don’t know if they typify “noir” as well as KISS ME DEADLY, but part of the fun of film noir is that it is a really flexible concept. And I find that even the weaker noir films are almost compulsively watchable.

    Also, THE BIG COMBO (not to be confused with a promotion at your local Burger King) has some great moody climax and good dialogue:

    “Joe, tell the man I’m gonna break him so fast, he won’t have time to change his
    pants. Tell him the next time I see him, he’ll be in the lobby of the hotel,
    crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that.
    And tell him I don’t break my word.”

    There’s also some fairly frank sexuality and a torture scene with a hearing aid that calls RESERVOIR DOGS to mind.

  16. Jareth, I have seen M and The Third Man and I love them both. I never really thought of them as noir, due to their European-ness, but I suppose they have lots of similarities. Double Indemnity is a movie I’ll have to see eventually. It’s like eating your vegetables. I actually have Sunset Boulevard on DVD, but the girl who gave it to me broke up with me rather suddenly afterward and I’ve had a grudge against it ever since. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. I will definitely check out The Big Combo, though. That’s some nice tough guy patter.

  17. Mr. M: The opening sequence of SUNSET BLVD has to be one of the most compelling introductions to any film I’ve ever seen. Just masterful film-making. You’ll have forgotten your ex three sentences into Joe Gillis’ monologue.

    I consider any film of the 1930s, 40s or 50s with obvious roots in German Expressionism to be noir, or to at least have strong noir leanings. I don’t think noir would have existed without Fritz Lang. But I’m pretty loose with the terminology here. Some scholars call Lang’s stuff “proto-noir,” but I think FURY and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE don’t require such qualifications. I think it’s Lang’s
    occasional lapse into melodrama that puts him at a distance to the bulk of the genre for some critics.

    Likewise, I have no reservations about including LES DIABOLIQUES and DRUNKEN ANGEL on a noir list. It’s obvious that the French and the Japanese were influenced by the Americans with these films.

    I like DOUBLE INDEMNITY a lot, especially the performances, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece like SUNSET BLVD.

    THE BIG COMBO has some great lines:

    “You must have done something pretty fine to get as high as you are, Mr. Brown. I’m looking into that. I’m gonna open you up, and I’m gonna operate. I hate to think of what I’ll find.”

    “You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”

    Rita: “When will I see you again?”
    Leonard Diamond: “Well, if I’m not dead, you’ll find me where I always am. In jail.”

  18. Jareth, have you seen Manhunt? It was one of the first films Lang made after he came to Hollywood. It’s interesting because it was made in the period after World War II had started but before America joined in. There were actually some fairly strict anti-propaganda laws at the time that prevented artists from making pro-war statements (strange to think of how America has changed since then) so Lang had to tapdance a lot to make a film that was basically urging Americans to get involved and stop the Nazis. It’s a cool film with a great ending that sort of reminded me of Inglourious Basterds in reimagining the end of the war, only from before the fact.

  19. Vern, have you seen another good “Hitmen drinking stuff” movie, IN BRUGES? Not a mystery, but a very black comedy with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Feinnes?

  20. My memory of MAN HUNT is a bit foggy because I saw it years ago, but I’ll watch anything with Lang’s name on it. If he made a bad film, I haven’t seen it yet.

    If I remember correctly, Lang put the main character through one hell of a wild ride, sort of like TEMPLE OF DOOM. Didn’t he fall off a cliff at one point? I wonder if those action/chase scenes hold up.

    I also remember he has a MCGYVER moment near the end, where he fashions a crossbow out of a hair clip. And there was some crazy-ass propagandistic narration at the end, wasn’t there?

    If I remember correctly, the studio thought that Lang had crossed a line into “hate speech” with this film and locked him out of the editing room.

    Shameful admission: I haven’t seen INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I don’t mind Tarantino, but I don’t rush out to see his stuff. I usually wait for video.

    I don’t know if it was you who recommended Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF in another thread. Man, that was a good one.

  21. That’s funny, the same girl who ruined Sunset Boulevard for me was the one who showed me In Bruges. The association didn’t hurt that film, which I like a lot more than I thought it would. Fookin’ Bruges.

    She also showed me Boondock Saints. Let us never speak of it again.

  22. I don’t know where I was, but this whole BOONDOCK SAINTS thing completely passed me by. I only learned about the first one when they started advertising the second one. I’m not going to let it distract from my mission of seeing BALLISTIC:

    Mr. Majestyk, Roger Ebert always said that the most important quality you can find in a partner is compatibility in movie tastes. So if I ever meet a girl who’s into TETSUO THE IRON MAN I’ll have to think twice about letting her slip away.

  23. I’ve come close so many times. I’ve known girls who like kung fu, girls who like classic American action, girls who like horror movies, girls who like weird artsy shit, and girls who like bad B-movies, but I’ve never met the girl who likes all of them. When I do, I’m impregnating her immediately. Our DNA must be combined for the greater good.

  24. Majestyk,

    You’re going to have a tough time finding a girl who likes all those things. My advice: find a girl who likes some of those catagories and then TOLERATES all of the others.

    It’s been a workable dynamic with my girlfriend so far.

  25. One Guy From Andromeda

    November 24th, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Interesting, i knew the short story, but didn’t know they made a movie out of it.

  26. I’m asking for more than toleration. I’ll go out of my way to meet her halfway on her shit (For a different girl, I saw Legally Blonde in the theater. If that’s not love…) so she’s got to do likewise. She doesn’t necessarily have to like what I like, but she has to understand why I like it, and furthermore, she’s got to like that I like it. My love of stupid action movies is in my blood like sickle cells. If she doesn’t think that’s cute, there’s some basic values that are out of whack.

  27. Years after I dragged a girlfriend to a midnight screening of PULSE (KAIRO) she repaid the favor by insisting I sit through one whole season of SEX & THE CITY. After that, I re-evaluated the importance of seeing a film with other people.

    Keep striving for excellence, Mr. M. A female friend who saw LIMITS OF CONTROL with me is a bigger fan of Lee Marvin than any guy I know. She also liked BLACK DYNAMITE but complained that it didn’t quite kick her ass hard enough. So there are some good ones out there.

  28. One Guy From Andromeda: The film version of THE KILLERS suffers a drop in quality at the exact moment where the short story ends (the Swede resigned to his death). That’s the down side of lifting Hemmingway’s dialogue verbatim. All of the “bright boy”
    stuff is right out of Hemmingway.

  29. Man, I did have a girl that liked all the movies I liked. Just not in the same quantities. Now she’s gone and I’ve had little luck finding another one with such exceptional taste. :(

  30. Gwai Lo, man, that is the saddest story I ever heard. I always had it halfway. One liked Friday the 13th but called me a sicko for taking her to see House of 1000 Corpses. Another liked Return of the Living Dead but made fun of me for liking Italian movies. Another loves Tony Jaa but won’t watch anything with stabbing. Then I had two in a row who flat out refused to give Die Hard a chance. But to have it all and then lose it? My heart goes out to you, amigo.

  31. One of my favorite times with The Girl I’m not with anymore was a quite evening we spent watching Army of Darkness. She was sort of laughing at it for the first chunk, but by the time Bruce growled “Hail to the King, Baby” she was cheering right along side me. Goddammit.

  32. *quiet. I hate myself sometimes.

  33. Lee Marvin Girl just sent me an email. She accused me of ruining a perfectly good badass web site with “all this weepy relationship bullshit.” She also said that she’s going to publically kick my ass if I ever mention LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD again.

    Gotta love a girl like that.

  34. I first flirted with my Girl I’m Not With Anymore over a raucous discussion of zombie lore. She got married last year. I spent the whole reception making out with her maid of honor, who ended up being the Sunset Boulevard girl.

    Girls + movies = life

  35. And Jareth, tell Lee Marvin Girl that we’re engaging in a little thing called “badass juxtaposition.” She may have heard of it.

  36. Dames = Badass Kryptonite.

    This is why people like Humphrey Bogart so much.

  37. Majestyk – this girl apparently called me her soulmate after seeing my DVD collection for the first time. After 3 years (two of them lazy university years that involved a lot of shared film classes) we basically had identical taste in film. Anything from The Hills Have Eyes to Jules and Jim was fair game. She turned me on to Freaks, The Battle of Algiers, Stalker. We shared a fanatical appreciation for Werner Herzog. She sent me dirty pictures with Betty Page style poses in front of A Clockwork Orange poster. Our song was “I Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop, after watching The Devil’s Rejects. One time after seeing Days of Heaven on the big screen she candidly explained the religious allegory to me with the detail and authority of a Criterion Collection commentary. Of course like any movie watcher she’d occasionally put her foot down against something with no rational reason: United 93, anything with Bruce Willis (sorry Vern, I tried). I hate Abel Ferrara. Nobody’s perfect. But I still only personally know maybe five people total that can keep up with her on a film buff level.

    By the end she complained that I watch too many movies, many of them bad. And perhaps she was right about at least one of those things. But the only time I really skeezed her right the fuck out was with Cannibal Holocaust. Bad judgment call altogether, on that day, in that moment. Relationship! Failing! Must! Play! Cannibal! Holocaust!

    Anyway suffice to say fuck the dumb broad at this point, neither of us are exactly standing outside the other’s house with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”. But in two years I haven’t had sex with someone with real taste and interest in film. Some young padawans maybe, but just as many with taste that was just shockingly bad. I had three years with nary a romcom in sight, and I took how rare that is for granted. Ebert is fucking right. I know what it’s like on the other side man. I can’t go back man! It’s kind of bizarre when you get right down to it, but when I meet a beautiful woman, and discover that her taste in film sucks, I generally decide it’s not meant to be unless it’s meant to be in a way that involves sex without guilt. Whatever that means. Yes indeed girls and film, that’s what life’s about, here’s to doing it as a career and getting the two into the same room more often.

    I hope nobody I know is reading this.


  38. Gwai Lo – That’s got to be something special if you can proudly show all your DVDs to a girlfriend. I don’t even own that many, yet I still end up hiding one or two, depending on who is visiting. I’m sure we’ve all got a title or two that we don’t like to advertise. For me, ATTACK GIRLS SWIM TEAM VS THE UNDEAD is the most obvious candidate. Vagina lasers just aren’t something my mom needs to know about.

    Of course, when Lee Marvin Girl visits, I have to hide AMELIE.

    Speaking of whom: Mr. Majestyk, Lee Marvin Girl reads this site compulsively. I think she’s got a little crush on Vern. Anyway, Lee Marvin Girl tells me: “just because Oprah is quitting that doesn’t mean we should let Vern’s comments section fill the void.” Then she took my cigarettes and punched my cat.

  39. Personally, I prefer women who have somewhat different tastes than I do, provided they have an active enough mind to discuss a range of things which they may not necessarily love. I briefly dated a girl who had very similar taste and range as me, and it was fun watching movies with her, but meh. I don’t need to hang around another me. I want someone who has some interests and abilities which I lack or don’t understand. My wife and I overlap on some things but we also vary enough that we can expand each other’s horizons rather than just agreeing on stuff all the time. I think the key is that we both love movies, not necessarily that we love the SAME movies.

  40. Mr. S, I think you’re right. Whenever I get involved with someone, I always love finding out the shit they’re into. I take it as an opportunity to learn about new things that I probably wouldn’t care about otherwise. You get this weird mosaic of things that for the rest of your life will remind you of this one girl. I just want the same interest in return. There’s clearly a reason I am attracted to old school hip hop and 70s car crash movies and Ross Macdonald novels. Someone who’s interested in me should be interested in finding out what makes my brain buzz. My tastes shouldn’t just be tolerated. Tolerating is something you do to that guy at work, not someone you see naked.

  41. “I don’t know if it was you who recommended Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF in another thread. Man, that was a good one.”

    It might have been me. Don’t thank me for it being good, though. I promised Ingmar I’d let him take all the credit for that part. In return, he helped me clean my garage. Now I have a clean garage, and he’s dead. You tell me who came out ahead.

    Yes, compatibility is crucial. Do you really want to have to “trade” points and waste half of your moviegoing time on garbage? Or to watch stuff alone? What kind of life is that? Moviegoing may be the single most important thing in a relationship, after the first month is over and you quit having sex.

    If she likes Hate Hudson movies, dump her. Unless she’s rich. Then you marry her and leave roller skates on the stairs.

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