In both form and content, “The Killers” recalls a film that is widely considered to be the finest ever made; a film that had a direct influence on the noir style in general. That film is “Citizen Kane” (1941). Like Welles’ masterpiece, “The Killers” is concerned with a search for an identity. It’s concerned with piecing together the meaning of an existence through the opinions and recollections of others. It’s about an objective truth gathered through subjective means. What that truth is, however, and its meaning, is up for grabs. Like the investigative reporter in “Citizen Kane” said, “I don’t think any [one] word can explain a man’s life.” Nor can one notion, one event, or one viewpoint.
“The Killers” was directed by Robert Siodmak, among the greatest of noir craftsmen. He also made “Phantom Lady” (1944), “Cry of the City” (1948), and “Criss Cross” (1949); all exemplary noirs. There’s a beautiful score in the film written by Miklos Rozsa, again, one of the greatest of noir composers (whose work can also be found to great effect in “Double Indemnity” and “The Asphalt Jungle”). In fact, this score came to be famous for prefiguring the theme song to the popular television series “Dragnet” (which was itself influenced by the semi-documentary noir “He Walked by Night” 1949). Its four-note refrain is instantly recognizable, and appears every moment we see the killers for whom this film is named. Mark Hellinger produced “The Killers.” An ex-newspaper man, Hellinger was also the producer of the seminal semi-documentary noir “The Naked City” (after the premiere of which, Hellinger died). There is a virtual cavalcade of iconic noir character actors in the film. In addition to Burt Lancaster, for whom this film served as a debut, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Charles McGraw, William Conrad, and Jack Lambert also lent their talents to the work. The result is a film that stands tall among the finest examples of classic film noir.
“The Killers” is noted for the stark expressionism it employs in every frame. The film is a textbook example of the Germanic visual sensibility that scores of émigré directors imported into Hollywood when they fled their native land. “The Killers” was adapted from a short story of the same name by Ernest Hemingway, the father of the hard-boiled school of American letters. The first sequence of the film in which two killers enter a small town in search of a man, terrorizing the residents in the process, until they locate and indifferently murder the man, is the exact and complete story form of Hemingway’s work. But the film version of “The Killers” then expands into a modernist narrative that utilizes multiple flashbacks in a non-chronological order to forward its story. Although the flashbacks are common terrain for the film noir, a tortured voice-over narrative track is noticeably absent. But this is because “The Killers” is not a first-person subjective film experience. It’s more like objective, detached reporting from a neutral source, represented by the insurance claims investigator portrayed by O’Brien. This character functions as a quasi-hard-boiled detective.
The pair of hitmen that this film is named for are a staple of the noir universe. Hired guns usually run in pairs in film noir, and “The Killers” is no exception. The main character in the film, portrayed by Lancaster, suffers from a common identity crisis in noir, which becomes a crisis of masculinity (a threatened masculinity). He’s known as Ole Anderson, nicknamed The Swede, and also, when he’s hiding out in the sleepy town of Brentwood, as Pete Lunn (an assumed pseudonym). Who is he? Note that fate puts the finger on The Swede, as it does for all noir protagonists. Working at an out-of-the-way gas station, he is identified in a chance encounter by Big Jim Colfax, played by Dekker. This encounter seals his fate as Big Jim, his old partner in a robbery plot, subsequently contracts his killers to off him. The Swede can’t escape his past, no matter where he runs or hides, and he knows it. Neither can any noir anti-hero (and most of them revel masochistically in this self-awareness). Later in the film, after losing the final fight of his less-than-successful boxing career, The Swede walks off into a dense fog after wondering what he’ll do with his life. A character walking into a distant fog is an oft-used cinematic symbol that expresses destiny; usually a cloudy one, as here.
“The Killers” is full of poetic moments. Note the precisely constructed four-shot that appears when The Swede brings his girl to a party at Jake the Rake’s pad. Blinky Franklin brings Swede’s girl a drink, but she’s too busy staring sadly at the absent-minded Swede to notice, who in turn is busy staring lustfully at Kitty Collins, a femme fatale, who is busy singing a torch song and looking carelessly off screen. Rarely has a director pulled off a single shot that was so loaded with emotional complexity on multiple levels in such a balanced, and outwardly simple manner. That’s one of the many marks of the genius hand in control here. Note the caper that occurs in the middle of the film, captured in an elaborate single take full of sweeping, unbroken camera movements. This one-take robbery sequence mirrors the robbery itself, as the heisters have one chance, and one chance alone, to get it right. In other words, form expresses content, as it always should. Note also the expository documentary-styled narration that accompanies this one-take caper sequence. Hellinger’s roots in traditional journalism are on vivid display here.
Kitty herself (played by Ava Gardner), as an elusive femme fatale, is one of noir’s best. As she says to The Swede, “I’m poison. To myself and everyone around me.” Moments of self-recognition like this are often afforded to the femme fatale before she meets her own dim fate. Throughout the film Kitty is not only associated with the symbolic noir curtain, but is also associated with the iconography and conventions of a feline. Her name is “Kitty”. She asks O’Brien to meet her at a restaurant called The Green Cat. While there, before she has him set up for an execution from the same killers who offed The Swede, she orders a glass of milk, and nothing else. Her evasive and predatory nature also suggests the wiliness of a cat.
John Huston did writing work on “The Killers” that went uncredited. The hard-boiled dialogue that he made famous in “The Maltese Falcon” is strewn throughout this film as well. “The Killers” stands as a prime example of classic film noir; it’s easily one of the most important films of the cycle. Although it was re-made with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan some two decades later, the original stands the test of time. This is a rare quality of any work of art in any form, and helps to define the very term “classic”.