The Killers (1946)
Robert Siodmak’s noir classic rightly deserves its place as one of the centrepieces of the genre’s heyday.
The opening segment – where our title characters approach a small-town diner to murder Burt Lancaster’s clapped-out fighter – is close to cinematic perfection: the shadows of the killers falling on the outside of the diner and the threat established by the wincing dialogue would be sufficient. However, what really hits the mark, is the culmination of the first act in a shot comprised of a stylish thunderstorm of lights and bullets hailing down on Lancaster as his hands slip down the bed post in pitiful resignation.
The history of Lancaster’s character – in true ‘smouldering’ mode and the reason for his murder is then told via a series of extended flashbacks from different characters. These help assemble the layers behind the thinking of the life insurance investigator, superbly played by a young(ish) Edmond O’Brien, who represents the perspective of the audience.
Bluntly depressing and morally arresting, the nihilism of Siodmak’s film is deafening. Ava Gardner’s femme-fatale entraps all around her – always the subject of Lancaster’s gaze and the cause of his misjudgement. From the moment Lancaster sets his eyes on Gardner, we know there is no hope for him. In a similar vein, we know the other members of the heist gang are equally doomed – the deaths of Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and co are never in doubt, the only consideration is how much of the double-cross they’ll uncover before their demise.
The sadness of the situation is made harrowingly worse when the screenplay bears all about Gardner’s scheming diva in a final death scene, where instead of comforting her expiring husband, she begs him to lie to save herself from the law’s clutches. This prompts my favourite line from the timeless script: an unsympathetic detective spits “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell…”
Aside from the aforementioned welcome to the film, there’s a marvellous tracking shot along a bar towards the end of the movie, as the camera pans across the faces of the barflies to reveal our title characters once again, who this time are after insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) as he nears the labyrinthed truth.
It’s tough to think of where this movie makes a wrong-turn, and that’s because it’s a genuine rarity – stylishly shot with a defining cast and – most importantly – an utterly engaging screenplay. This is why ‘old’ movies should never be forgotten.
Hotdog rating: 9/10