Note: This post represents counterprogramming to MovieZeal's entry for Noir Month. Head on over to MovieZeal for another review of the same movie - odds are good it's by a better writer.
Film: The Killers (1946)
Rating: A Good Movie.
Director: Robert Siodmark
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it
Ignorance Rating*: 33 (3 Votes)
"Don't ask a dying man to swear his soul into hell."
The Killers has a premise so strange and, frankly, so unwise that it's remarkable that a good movie emerged from it. Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers" covers only a couple hours and barely makes it to double digits in page count. It's a taut story of a pair of hitmen who invade a small town diner looking for an ex-boxer, a big Swede, before eventually leaving the diner to kill him in his apartment. One of the diner customers reaches him first, but the Swede is unwilling to run, electing to remain in the room and accept his punishment for past misdeeds.
I can only imagine the session that led to the creation of this movie:
Hack 1: You know that Hemingway short story, The Killers? I think it would make a good, whatchamacallit, noir movie.
The Voice of Reason (probably the uncredited John Huston): It's only 10 pages long. It couldn't be a movie.
Hack 2: Yeah, but we could, ya know, just fill in some stuff. Like adapt the story for the first 15 minutes, and the next 90 minutes could be a detective finding out why they wanted him dead in the first place, like in one a them Bogart pictures.
Reason: But the original story succeeds in large part because it leaves those events vague. It's a masterpiece of economical storytelling, of tension building, of the evoking of a moment. It's possibly the purest artistic expression of the finest living American author - possibly the finest American author who ever lived. How could we ever make a film that didn't obviously and disastrously fail to live up to the original story, while simultaneously demonstrating how far we fall from Hemingway's genius?
Hacks [in unison]: Nah, we'll figure something out.
Strangely enough, the hacks are actually right on this one. I didn't find The Killers to be a great film, and its best sequence is the opening fifteen minutes or so. That sequence depicts the events exactly as Hemingway described them, with almost every word of the original dialogue retained. But it is a good film, a solid detective film in the classic noir tradition.
The film bills Burt Lancaster (in his debut) first as the Big Swede and Ava Gardner, as the Swede's old flame, second. Burt probably has about 20 minutes of screentime; Ava 15 or so. These are weird billings. Our hero is played by Edmond O'Brien, an insurance investigator who thinks the Swede's death might have an interesting, and potentially relevant, story behind it. This hunch doesn't make too much sense, but of course it pans out, and our intrepid gumshoe turns out to have been right all along: the death of an obscure prizefighter did, in fact, have something to do with his insurance company. Go figure.
Undoubtedly, The Killers' plot, with its femme fatale, heist gone wrong, hitmen out of the past, and melodramatic love story was not terribly cliched in 1946, at least not in film. But its take on all of those familiar noir elements feels, in retrospect, like the filmmakers were going through the motions. Its best elements by far are the production values; the film uses both negative space and shadows brilliantly, with whites glowing and blacks fading into nothingness.
The Killers is a pretty good movie with a fantastic opening sequence. It's also got a great coda which deflates the movie's aspirations in a refreshing way. After the mystery is solved, the wrongdoers punished, and the insurance industry saved, O'Brien's boss congratulates him, noting that 1947's insurance premiums will go down "one tenth of a cent." When O'Brien responds that he's tired after such a hard case, the boss needles him again: "Why don’t you take a good rest? I must say you’ve earned it. This is Friday; don’t come in till Monday."
O'Brien's boss apparently didn't take his heroic and nigh-psychic solving of the case of the Big Swede too seriously. I didn't either.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.