Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stubs – The Killers (1946)

The Killers aka Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1946) Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene.  Directed by Robert Siodmak.  Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, John Huston.  Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Produced by Mark Hellinger. Run Time: 105 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama, Crime, Film Noir

It’s not every day you come across a movie that ignited not only one film career, but two. The Killers (1946) is such a movie. Prior to this film, Burt Lancaster had never appeared on film and Ava Gardner, as beautiful as she was, had only had minor roles in about 20 plus features, oftentimes in an uncredited role. But both careers took off after they appeared in this film.

The film was produced by Mark Hellinger. A journalist by trade, Hellinger, at one time, had a syndicated column that appeared in 174 newspapers. (Yes there used to be that many.) In 1932, Jack Warner hired him as a writer/producer. He provided the story for The Roaring Twenties (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney. He then became a Hollywood producer with such films as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Naked City (1948), all for Warner Bros. Hellinger decided to go it alone and paid Ernest Hemingway $36,750 for the screen rights to his short story, The Killers, which had first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927.  

The Killers opens with two hit men, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) arriving in Brentwood, New Jersey, in search of Pete "Swede" Lund (Burt Lancaster). They initially stake out a diner he frequents, questioning, among others, customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown) about Swede's whereabouts. After the men leave, Nick races to Swede's boardinghouse room to warn him and is stunned when Swede seems resigned to his fate. "I did something wrong, once" he says to Nick as an explanation. Shortly after Nick leaves, Al and Max arrive and shoot the Swede to death in a hail of gunfire.

In the opening, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) arrive at a diner, the Swede frequents.
Customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown) (l) and the proprietor George (Harry Hayden) (r) are briefly taken as hostages.

When it is discovered Swede had a small life insurance policy, through his job with Atlantic Casual, insurance investigator James Riordan (Edmond O’Brien) begins investigating his murder. The Swede worked at a filling station with Nick, so Jim starts his investigation with him. Nick recalls that Swede stopped coming to work the week before his murder after waiting on a wealthy, middle-aged stranger who arrived at the station driving a black Cadillac sedan.

The last car the Swede (Burt Lancaster) ever worked on.

Jim then calls on Swede's beneficiary, Mary Ellen "Queenie" Doherty (Queenie Smith), a cleaning woman at an Atlantic City hotel. Queenie recalls Swede staying there six years earlier and that she stopped him from throwing himself out of the window, distraught after a woman left him.

Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien) is an insurance investigator who takes a great interest in the Swede's last words.

When he turns to his office, Jim learns that Swede was a former boxer, whose real name was Ole Anderson, and that after his fight career ended, he served three years in prison for robbery. Jim visits Swede's arresting officer, police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who tells him that he and Swede had grown up together in Philadelphia and that his wife Lilly (Virginia Christine) dated Swede before their marriage.

Sam talks to Jim about the night of the Swede’s last professional fight. Despite the urgings from his corner by his manager, Packy Robinson (Charles D. Brown), to lead with his right, Swede doesn’t and gets knocked out. Only after the fight do they discover that the knuckles on Swede’s right hand have been broken. How they got broken is never explained. With his career over, Sam suggests the Swede join the police force, but he rejects that idea.

Lilly then recalls her final date with Swede that shows he got mixed up with the wrong crowd. At a party given by Jake "the Rake" (John Miljan) in a lavish apartment owned by "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker), the two meet Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey) and singer Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), to whom Swede is immediately and quite obviously attracted.

Despite bringing Lily (Virginia Christine) to the party, the Swede can't take his eyes off of Kitty (Ava Gardner).

Then Sam tells Jim that sometime later, while working on a jewelry heist, a tip led him to Jake and Kitty, the latter whom he suspected of wearing a piece of the stolen jewelry. He followed the lead to a nightclub. Sensing the jig is up, Kitty removes the pin she’s wearing and tries to hide it in the dirty dishes. Then when Sam tries to arrest her, Swede intervened. Swede, now involved in running numbers, tries to convince Sam to let Kitty go for old times’ sake. But when that doesn’t work, he claims responsibility for stealing the jewelry, which lands him in prison for three years.

Sam (Sam Levene) confronts Kitty with the broach she tried to ditch. The Swede will take the fall.

Sam asks Jim if he can help with the investigation and later that afternoon, at Swede's burial service, Sam points out Charleston (Vince Barnett), a small-time hood and acquaintance of Swede's, to Jim. Over a bottle in a bar, Charleston reveals that he and Swede shared a prison cell together and that Swede referred to Kitty as "his girl," and asked Charleston to visit her upon his release.

Charleston (Vince Barnett) was the Swede's cellmate.

After Swede gets out, Charleston is sent by Colfax to summon him to a meeting with Blinky, another thug, “Dum Dum" Clarke (Jack Lambert), and a mysterious woman, who turns out to be Kitty. Colfax has planned a payroll heist at a hat company which promises a $250,000 payoff, but the older Charleston finds the risk too great and withdraws, and never sees Swede again.

Kitty is there when Colfax plans the payroll robbery. The Swede tries to ignore her.

After leaving Charleston, Jim digs up information that Atlantic Casual insured the hat company and discovers details of the heist. Sam then contacts Jim to inform him that Blinky has been discovered shot and near death, or as a doctor says, "He's dead now, except for he's breathing". Both men hurry to the hospital, where Blinky, semi-conscious, rambles about the robbery: After the heist, the group was forced to change their meeting place because the scheduled halfway house had burned down unexpectedly. Swede arrives last and, after accusing Colfax of trying to cheat him, takes all the money and flees, shooting out the tires on the other cars so no one can chase him.

After Blinky dies, Jim feels sure the robbery is connected to Swede's murder and stakes out his old room at the boardinghouse. Soon after, Dum Dum rents Swede's old room and starts to ransack it. Jim breaks in on him and demands to know more details of the robbery, specifically why the meeting place was changed. Dum Dum admits Kitty was involved and that just after midnight the night before the robbery she had told each of them separately about the change, which Swede later claimed he was not told. Jim tells Dum Dum that Swede had run off with Kitty and that later in Atlantic City, Kitty had disappeared with the money. Dum Dum escapes from Jim and, despite a police cordon, gets away.

Jim rents the room next to the Swede's old one and is about to confront Dum Dum.

Later when Jim receives notification that the halfway house burned down after two a.m., not midnight, he is certain Colfax and Kitty are behind Swede's murder, but Sam insists Colfax has gone straight. Jim goes to see Colfax, who is now a successful building contractor. Jim lies, telling Colfax that he has enough evidence to convict Kitty, but Colfax claims no knowledge of the robbery or of Kitty's whereabouts. Jim puts out the word that he wants to speak to Kitty and she does call him. She suggests meeting at the Green Cat night club, but Jim nixes the idea, suggesting instead a meeting outside a theater. He tells Kitty that he’s sending a man who will bring her to him, but he goes himself to the rendezvous. But despite his cautions, Al and Max trail them as Jim has the taxi take them to the Green Cat club.

An interesting establishing shot of inside the Green Cat using a mirror reflection.

Once there, Kitty tells Jim that the night before the robbery, she convinced Swede that the others were double-crossing him, so he would agree to take her away from Colfax. She insists that she left Swede in Atlantic City with the money and pleads with Jim not to involve her further as she is now married and has a good home. Jim tells her that he’s interested in the money, but Kitty only still has less than a third of the take left. To compensate, Jim demands that she give him proof of Colfax's participation and she agrees.

Kitty pleads with Jim to show her leniency, but it's just another set up.

Before they leave the club, she excuses herself to the ladies room. While she’s in there, Al and Max begin to move in on Jim, but are cut off and shot by Sam who is also at the bar. When they break into the ladies room, they discover Kitty has escaped out the window. Jim, with Sam and a police backup, head to Colfax's house. They arrive to a series of gunshots and find Dum Dum dead at the bottom of the stairs and Colfax fatally wounded on the landing with Kitty hovering over him.

Jim tells Colfax he had discovered Kitty was his wife and could not testify against him. Colfax admits to having Swede killed, in fear that the other gang members would find him and realize that Colfax and Kitty had double-crossed them and kept all the money. Colfax dies as Kitty pleads for him to declare her innocence. Back at the office, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), who has leniently let Jim go above and beyond the normal investigation, congratulates him on a job well done. Seeing as it’s Friday, he offers to let Jim take a long break; seeing as its Friday afternoon, Jim can have until the following Monday.

Sam and Jim watch as Kitty hovers over a dying Colfax (Albert Dekker)
and pleads for him to confess her innocence, but to no avail.

The film apparently is very faithful to the Hemingway short story, but that only accounts for about the first 20 minutes. The rest if fleshed out by Arthur Veiller in a Citizen Kane meets Double Indemnity fashion. Like Kane, the story of Swede is told through a series of interviews after his death and through flashbacks, but instead of a news reel producer, the person asking the questions, trying to figure out the Swede’s last words, is an insurance investigator who becomes more fascinated by the case than simply tracking down the life insurance benefactor.

The movie is very slow paced, which does make it more suspenseful, but also makes it seem overly drawn out. The movie is under two hours, but seems longer, which is not a good thing. But overall the film was critically well received at the time, receiving Academy nominations for Best Director (Siodmak), Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Miklos Rozsa) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Veiller). Hemingway also apparently thought this was the best film adaptation of one of his stories and used to show the film regularly at his home to friends.

There is nothing like the look of a black and white film noir, with its deep black shadows. The opening sequence, as the hit men descend on Brentwood, in particular looks great with it play of light and dark. When we first see the Swede, his face is in shadows. The reveal of his face is like the introduction of a new star, Burt Lancaster. 

Love the Black and White: Al and Max arrive in Brentwood looking in the shadows for the Swede.

Lancaster was plucked from obscurity by agent Harold Hecht after appearing in a Broadway play, A Sound of Hunting (1945), which ran for only three weeks. Hecht introduced him to Hal Wallis and the rest is, as they say, history. The Killers was the start of a very long career for Lancaster. Already 33 at the time the movie was released, Lancaster would become a very popular and versatile actor. Nominated four times, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor only once for Elmer Gantry.

Burt Lancaster became a star from the first moment he was on film.
As an actor, Lancaster played a very diverse group of characters across many genres. He starred in film noirs, Brute Force (1947), I Walk Alone (1948) and Criss Cross (1948); suspense: Sorry Wrong Number (1948), Rope of Sand (1949); adventure: The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Ten Tall Men (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952); biography: Jim Thorpe – All American (1951), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); westerns: Apache (1954), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Valdez is Coming (1971); dramas: Separate Tables (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Sweet Smell of Success (1957); comedies: Tough Guys (1986) and even worked in foreign films: 1900 (1976); La pelle (1981); Il Giorno prima (1987) and La Bottega dell’orefice (1989).This list doesn’t even include From Here to Eternity (1953), Seven Days in May (1964) or Atlantic City (1980).

Not only was Lancaster a big major star, but he was also an independent producer forming a production company in the mid-50’s with producer Harold Hecht and screenwriter James Hill. The company not only produced films for Lancaster: Apache, Sweet Smell of Success and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) to name a few, but also films such as Marty (1955) which starred Ernest Borgnine and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

But Lancaster was not the only one to benefit from success of The Killers. So did his co-star, Ava Gardner. Up until this film she had labored in obscurity, but afterwards, she would become one of Hollywood’s leading actresses. Her films include My Forbidden Past (1951), Show Boat (1951), Lone Star (1952), Mogambo (1953),The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), Seven Days in May, and Earthquake (1974). She was nominated once for an Academy Award for Best Actress in Mogambo.

Ava Gardner was not only a good actress, but was considered
by many to be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.
She is also remembered for her three marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw and to singer/actor Frank Sinatra. Gardner also had much publicized romances with billionaire-odd boy Howard Hughes, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and actor George C. Scott and a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway.

My only complaint about the story is the slow pace. But if you can stay awake, the film has got pretty much everything you could want in a film noir: a handsome, but flawed leading man, a beautiful femme fatale, a complicated plot and a bunch of great supporting characters. The acting is good across the board and the film looks great. All in all I would recommend The Killers (1946).

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