The Killers (1946): (A Movie Review)
Let me start by saying that I realize that this review is a few years late. But after all, I wasn't even born when The Killers with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner was released just after World War Two! Nevertheless allow me to recommend it wholeheartedly, without reservation.
Because this movie could be shown today in theaters and audiences would find it compelling, in my view. What I'm saying, then, is that the movie is not 'dated.' In fact, I would really love to see Quentin Tarantino do a remake of it, and if I had my druthers I would cast Jason Stratham ('The Transporter' series, Crank, Safe, etc) and Kate Beckingsale (The Underworld movie series) in the two lead roles. I wonder if you'll agree with me by the time this review is finished. I think it would be interesting to see if Stratham could take a break from being a whirling dervish of punishment and give us some real dramatic acting that the role would require. Call me an optimist but I think he can do it!
The first thing to say about this movie, The Killers, is that it is an exemplar of a style of film known as film noir.
Film noir are crime dramas, in black-and-white, from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (and perhaps at a stretch, from the early 1960s as well). Crime dramas are not 'mystery' stories. Crime dramas are 'suspense' stories. Film noirs are not, by and large, concerned with getting the viewer wrapped up in a riddle to solve; they are not 'whodunnits.'
In crime dramas the issue is not whodunnit. You are given that information very clearly and directly from the outset. The question in crime dramas is: Will he get away with it? How will he get away with it? How does he deal with the emotional and psychological tension of the act and trying to get away with it.
That is the ride that the viewer is taken on in the crime drama, in film noir. That is the source of the suspense!
The other key thing to understand about film noir is that the main character is of a type known in literature as the anti-hero.
What is an anti-hero?
An anti-hero is the main character(s) of a fictional work, who is, at the same time, compelling and sympathetic but critically flawed.
Now then, we need to be very clear by what is meant by 'flawed' in the context of an anti-hero! This is not the standard ('Nobody's perfect.') line. Surely, nobody is perfect. Even standard heros are 'flawed.'
But when a hero is 'flawed' in a work of fiction, he or she is usually flawed in a noble way, so that even his or her 'flaws,' so-called, are not really flaws per se. For example, I have not seen the recent movie Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America is, of course, a hero and I'm sure his 'flaws' manifest themselves in a way that shows he is, somehow, toooo passionate about justice, I mean JUSTICE!!! And so 'Cap' drives himself, and his team 'too hard' in trying to bring down the Red Skull, and so forth.
Or maybe the DA on the drama series, Law and Order, is tooo passionate about justice -- so much so that he puts in waaaay toooo many hours preparing the case against the drug dealer-kingpin; maybe he becomes too 'passionate' in court or something like that because he cares sooo darn much about the future of America's children, I mean AMERICA'S CHILDREN!!!!
That is NOT the kind of flaws we're talking about when we talk about anti-heros! We are talking about real flaws of self-destruction, or flaws of a fundamental, core nature that threatens their very integrity as human beings. We're talking about fairly 'dark' people -- not straight up 'villains' but not your 'average Joe' either. We are talking about people under an unusual amount of stress, suffering with a tremendous amount of, shall we say, angst. But let's get on with the so-called review.
The story is actually based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway. Now, Hemmingway was not a crime fiction writer, and the arc of his short story does not cover the entire story arc of the movie. Hemmingway's short story, The Killers, only covers the opening scene of the movie version. What I'm saying is that someone took Hemmingway's short story and 'ran' with it, exploring its implications and all that.
Hemmingway seems to have had another purpose in writing The Killers. This tale was one of a series of stories about one of Hemmingway's characters called Nick Adams. And on and on and on....... I digress, let's get back to the movie.
The film, The Killers, is about how Burt Lancaster's character Ollie Anderson (nicknamed 'The Swede') came to give up on life, so that when two gunmen came looking for him, he lay there in his room meekly consenting to be shot to death. He had been warned that they were coming for him by -- wait for it -- Nick Adams, a fellow he worked with at a gas station. When young Adams, curious, asked Anderson why anyone would want him dead, the Swede said, mysteriously, "Once, I did something wrong."
After the Swede was killed a life insurance pay out was delivered to a cleaning woman at the boarding house where Mr. Anderson had been staying. The cleaning woman could not imagine why Anderson (Lancaster), who had been using another name, would have left her any money at all .... well, it turns out that she had attempted the Swede's rather half-hearted suicide attempt (aka 'cry for help) one time....
Now, the professional curiosity of an enterprising insurance investigator (played by Edmund O'Brien) comes into play.
Note: I mentioned that crime dramas are different from mysteries, in that there is no question of 'whodunnit?' It is a question of will he or she, the protagonist anti-hero get away with it, if he or she is going to get away with it.
From the outset, The Swede, has already, openly admitted to doing "something wrong," which he apparently cannot forgive himself for. He obviously decided to atone for it, if you will, with his life. That would appear to be why he didn't try to save himself when he was told killers were looking for him.
In a way, then, we already know how the story 'ends.' The Swede's death is the major ending. There is of course something I call the administrative ending. This is something of a criminal investigation procedural... sort of. We learn the details of who sent The Killers and why, and of course, 'justice is served,' one way or another for all of the responsible parties.
The interesting part is what happens between Swede's euthanasia and the administrative ending of his story and the film.
There is so much to say about this film that I have to restrain myself from giving too much of it away.
All that glitters is not gold
I think I've figured out the linchpin of this movie, that makes it so compelling! Remember, I told you his co-star was the breathtaking Ava Gardner. Stay with me, now.
Ollie Anderson (The Swede) had been a professional prizefighter, a pretty good one. He might have been a contender, as they say. During one fight Swede ruined his hands, damaged them so badly that the doctor advised him to retire from the ring, which Anderson did, reluctantly. The Swede had a girlfriend.
Some time went by, and it came to pass that the Swede went into 'business' with a guy, criminal business as it turned out. The Swede turned to a life of crime and was sitting pretty for a while.
But let's back up a bit. The Swede and his then girlfriend went to a party, hosted in an elegant New York penthouse by the guy Anderson was set to go into 'business' with. This was a real classy affair... on the surface anyway. There he became moonstruck at his first sight of Ava Gardner's character, singing at the piano.
Very soon after that the Swede broke off his relationship with his former girlfriend and gets involved with Ava.
It seems fairly clear that Swede has intertwined fantasies about Ava and the new life of crime he's going to enter -- I mean 'business' he's going to enter. Everyone at that party is a hoodlum, including Ava but that's not what Swede sees. For a night its fantasy time. Everyone is all dressed up, playing the urban sophisticates, socialites, the upper crust snob set and all that.
Swede seems to believe that Ava will be his portal into a life that will be sparkling and carefree from now on, filled with easy money (lots of it, thank you very much), high culture and good times. The two (Ava and the sparkling new lifestyle) are synonymous in Swede's eyes. For this reason Ava is closer to a goddess than a woman.
Swede put her on a pedestal and it took a ton of bricks to fall on him before he removed her from it. But when that moment did happen she had shattered his heart (as well as absconded with the money -- yes there was money involved, stolen money, of course; this is a crime drama, remember?). And that brings us to Swede's rather feeble suicide attempt that I mentioned before, and this is my only extremely minor quibble with the film. The suicide attempt could have been more forceful and dramatic, but I got past that.
Anyway, that's why he lost the will to live and allowed the two gunmen to kill him without a struggle. Incidentally, when you do find out who sent the two killers after the Swede and why, you will truly understand the meaning of the word 'triple-cross' -- not double cross, triple cross!
Let me mention one last thing
Did you ever see the Quentin Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction? Remember the easy rapport that Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta had as partners, a pair of enforcer-hitmen? Remember how much fun they were to watch together?
Well, we get a little bit of that in the opening scene of The Killers. The two gunmen, just about as darkly charismatic as the Travolta-Jackson pair, have a rather darkly funny scene in the all night diner. It's very early in the morning, still dark outside. The two killers have a hard time, initially, ordering food to eat because everything they choose isn't ready yet ('That's on the dinner' the man behind the counter keeps saying, and so forth).
Do yourself a favor and see this film as soon as you can. Go to your local public library and rent, order it on Netflix (whatever you do); or, if you prefer, watch it right now on your computer. Someone was kind enough to upload it on YouTube. And Mr. Quentin Tarantino, if you're reading this, please do a remake of this movie!
Thank you for reading.