This article is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Click on the links for more great articles about Aug. 8 star Ava Gardner and all of the other 2019 SUTS honorees.
"Why do they want to kill you?"
I did something wrong once," The Swede replying to Nick Adams in The Killers (1946).
Many of film noir's central characters meet their fate in violent ways, but none wait for death -- even welcome death -- as assiduously as The Swede (Burt Lancaster) in director Robert Siodmak's essential thriller The Killers. The boxer-turned-criminal-turned gas-station-attendant is played with doom-laden ferocity by Lancaster in his film debut, and this movie also made a major star out of Ava Gardner who plays the lovely but devious object of The Swede's affections.
The Killers begins on a gloomy night in the suburban town of Brentwood, N.J. Two mysterious strangers (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) walk into a local diner about five minutes before dinnertime to make inquiries on the whereabouts of a man named Pete Lund, whom locals call The Swede. The two men are hired assassins sent to kill The Swede, and, after they accomplish their mission with surprising ease, the unlucky victim is mostly forgotten until dogged insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) arrives on the scene. He is determined to find out the motive for The Swede's murder (The Swede left a small life insurance policy to a hotel maid (Queenie Smith) who once stopped him from committing suicide), and he begins investigating The Swede's past despite the protests of his boss (Donald MacBride). Reardon soon uncovers quite a bit of information including The Swede's tortured love affair with the glamorous singer Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).
The Killers is based on a 1927 Ernest Hemingway short story that producer Mark Hellinger purchased for an independent production distributed by Universal Pictures. Hellinger wanted Wayne Morris (Kid Galahad, Paths of Glory) and noir queen Audrey Totter to star, but, when he couldn't get them because of contractual disputes with rival studios, he settled for Lancaster, a former circus acrobat and World War II veteran who came to Hollywood after producer Harold Hecht spotted him on Broadway, and Gardner, an MGM contract player who was better known for her brief marriage to Mickey Rooney than any of the mostly small parts the studio gave her.
The Killers was a substantial commercial and critical success in the autumn of 1946. The film essentially launched Lancaster and Gardner to stardom, and it received four Academy Awards, including one for Siodmak as best director and one for Miklos Rozsa's memorable score (if you pay close attention you'll hear an early version of the famous Dragnet theme). The film also did well with critics with even the usually unimpressed Bosley Crowther of The New York Times handing out accolades to the two young stars. "A new actor, Burt Lancaster, gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who's wooed to his ruin. And Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him up." he wrote.
The Killers remains one of the great films of the noir genre thanks to Hemingway's stark fatalism, Siodmak's German Expressionism, and Lancaster's fantastic performance as The Swede. The film is airing at 9:15 pm ET Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, on TCM as part of Gardner's Summer Under the Stars day and it's also available on Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.
Here's three things to look for when you watch:
The Opening Scene
The opening scene of The Killers is perhaps the best in all of noir. It follows Hemingway's short story quite closely with it's clipped dialogue and stark fatalism (manly men stoically meeting their fate was the author's chief obsession), and Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell use darkness, shadows, and tilted camera angles to create a mood of tension and doom on Universal's backlot (clip here).
The Killers was Lancaster's film debut, and he gets one of the great star-making entrances in old Hollywood history (if you can call lying on a bed an entrance). The Swede, doing for undershirts what Clark Gable did for bare chests in It Happened One Night (1934), continues to languor on the bed even after his coworker (Phil Brown) tells him there are two assassins on his trail, and his quiet, almost saint-like acceptance of his fate marks a watershed for the treatment of masculinity in Postwar Hollywood.
Noir replaced the devil-may-care derring-do of stars like Gable and Errol Flynn with a still virile, but psychologically wounded man who is crushed by cruelty of this world (Lancaster, of course, excelled at this type of role, but there were other leading men who played wounded male parts, such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and John Garfield). The Swede is a strapping physical specimen who could easily have eluded his killers or, for that matter, won every boxing match he ever competed in, but he chooses his own martyrdom as carefully and deliberately as a Medieval saint.
Gardner had been under contract to MGM since the early 1940s, but her role as Kitty in The Killers was the first part that really showcased her great beauty and her considerable talent. Kitty is every inch the femme fatale in her opening scene -- the black satin gown designed for her by Vera West is one of the great film costumes (here's a fantastic article about the dress from GlamAmor) -- but she also gets to sing "The More I Know of Love" in her own lovely singing voice (clip here).
For most of the film, Kitty goes through typical femme-fatale antics -- she leaves The Swede more than once to cry into the commemorative St. Patrick's Day handkerchief she left behind -- but the extraordinary final scene, in which Kitty hopelessly pleads for absolution for her crimes, is perhaps the best single moment in Gardner's career and an encapsulation of the raw despair of so many of noir's characters.