The Killers (1946)


Two hit men arrive in a sleepy small town with the intention of killing a gas station employee nicknamed “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity). After “Swede” is brutally murdered, a life insurance agent (Edmond O’Brien, The Wild Bunch) takes it upon himself to investigate the murder.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“He’s dead now – except he’s breathing!”

Legendary thriller that richly deserves its reputation as one of the best film noirs of all time. Bleak, cynical and twisty, The Killers perfectly balances style and content. It’s a visually striking movie with an assortment of compelling characters, while encapsulating post-war blues like no other film from the era.

German émigré Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase and The Crimson Pirate) masterfully directs a splendid script credited to Anthony Veiller (Stage Door and State of the Union) (with uncredited work by filmmakers John Huston, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).

It should be noted that the fine screenplay is based on American author Ernest Hemingway’s short story. Hemingway’s story is simple enough: Two paid assassins arrive in a small town to kill an ex-pugilist. The writers had the arduous task of imagining all the events that led to the killing of the man. Using a collection of snazzy flashbacks, The Killers connocts a memorable tale of greed, betrayal, and murder.

Like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), The Killers is told in a non-linear fashion. Granted, the fragmented narrative style wasn’t an original idea (in all fairness, Welles “stole” the idea from the 1933 movie The Power and the Glory, written by none other than Preston Sturges), but who cares? The Killers is an extremely suspenseful “whydunit” — the story is told in pieces, one stylish flashback at a time.

The atmospheric, semi-expressionist cinematography by Elwood Bredell (Phantom Lady) is sensational. The over-reliance on dark shadows makes you feel anxious, which is exactly the kind of emotion the film is trying to elicit from the audience. I particularly liked the use of an uninterrupted crane shot during the heist sequence — this is a truly exhilarating moment that has been imitated to death.

The Killers marked the Hollywood debut of Burt Lancaster. An ex-acrobat who never took acting lessons, Lancaster’s luminous screen presence dominates the movie. Because he always oozes intelligence, it takes a bit of an effort to accept Lancaster as a dimwitted ex-boxer. But the camera is clearly in love with him, so all is well in Denmark.

Ava Gardner (Mogambo) is pretty extraordinary, too. Gardner’s “femme fatale” is hard to digest precisely because she is so beautiful — we foolishly believe that people’s insides should match their outsides. Edmond O’Brien is excellent as the insurance investigator. Character actors Charles McGraw (T-Men) and William Conrad (TV’s Cannon) play “the killers.” Sam Levene (Sweet Smell of Success) plays Lt. Sam Lubinsky.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

If World War III erupts, this is one of the movies I’m taking into my bunker. Super-entertaining, raw and dazzling, I can’t recommend The Killers highly enough. Burt Lancaster is dynamite and Ava Gardner is so beautiful that it hurts the eyes. The supporting cast is fantastic too. If you’ve never seen it, you are missing out on an extraordinary film. Remade in 1964. B&W, 103 minutes, Not Rated.

21 responses to “The Killers (1946)

  1. Absolutely. Agreed. Great review of one of the best noir’s of all time. It’s one of the best movies of all time, period. “If World War III erupts, this is one of the movies I’m taking into my bunker.” That says it all.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That last paragraph of yours says it all, and I agree 100%…a simply outstanding noir. Even though there’s a lot going on beyond that opening scene, I think my favorite characters are the two killers, Conrad and McGraw. The epitome of noir thugs!

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  3. I’d seen the Ronnie Reagan one in the first month of my blog. I liked it but gave it 6.5 knowing full well that I needed to see the original as soon as!! Esp with Lancaster and drop to my knees and beg please please please to Ava Gardner. Oh my she so gawn darn beautiful.
    Thought I’d leave it a few months so I forget the story and go in reasonable fresh. Dabnabit! I totally forgot all about it.. DOH! So thanks for the nudge.
    Good thing is I have it to watch soon. And I can’t wait. Bumping up the “to watch list”” right now.

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  4. Just watched it. My gosh William Conrad and Charles McGraw in that beginning scene in the cafe was incredible. How menacing those two were! I can’t believe that was Lancaster’s debut film. He was superb and we’ve already mentioned Ava, good gosh man she’s bonkers beautiful. I have to say I liked Siodmak film much more than Siegel’s but what confused me was the new film is completely different. I wasn’t expecting that. Then I read Hemingway’s story was a short story and both films add their own stuff. Was good to see Edmond O’Brien look cool. Most times I see him he’s sweating and doing something a little dodgy LOL. Top film. Really enjoyed it and thanks for your review kicking me the jacksy to get it watched.
    Wasn’t expecting that beginning Swede bit. Took me by surprise. Glad I saved your review to read after lol..
    Plus ““He’s dead now – except he’s breathing!”” I wrote that line down on my note pad. What a line..
    There’s something about Burt’s voice that soothes me, it comes over me with a wave of nostalgia. He is certainly one of my favorite actors and it was so good to see were he first started.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: What’s Been Watched This Month – September 2020 – Wolfmans Cult Film·

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