Two professional killers, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad, star of Seventies cop show Cannon), invade a small town and murder unprotesting gas station attendant Ole “the Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster). Insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) is puzzled why the Swede gave up his life so willingly. Probing this mystery, Riordan uncovers the sorry story of how the Swede went from washed-up prizefighter to wrongly convicted criminal, pulled off a payroll robbery with a gang of mismatched miscreants and wound up a patsy thanks to the machinations of deliciously duplicitous femme fatale, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).
Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers ranks among the archetypal examples of that favourite genre among cineastes: film noir. These days it has become all too common to label any classic crime thriller, detective story or heist picture from the Forties or early Fifties as film noir. Most of these are terrific films, but only a handful truly encapsulate the unique tone of film noir and The Killers is undoubtedly one of them. Many mystery buffs have noted the plot’s immediate flaw given it is unlikely any professional hitman would blab about their intention to kill the Swede, especially to innocent bystanders, but none of that really matters. This film is pure poetry from start to spellbinding finish.
Adapted for the screen by Anthony Veiller, with uncredited input from writer-director John Huston, the killer combination of sharp scripting, sublime direction from thriller master Robert Siodmak (for whom film noir was the next logical step after a run of superbly atmospheric gothic horror movies), vivid characters inhabited by a pitch perfect cast and gorgeous velvety black and white cinematography by the underrated Elwood Bredell combine to craft a palpable aura of doomed romanticism, set in a fatalistic universe of dumb lugs, wisecracking killers and alluring yet amoral femme fatales. This was Burt Lancaster’s first film. Right off the bat he had star billing. Lancaster gives an uncanny performance, going in reverse from a haunted, broken, shell of man to the muscular dupe, yet he isn’t in the film all that much. Our actual hero is essayed by the equally compelling Edmond O'Brien, who pieces the Swede’s life together from details fed by multiple narrators, including the ravings of a dying, demented criminal.
Both the snappy characterisation of the almost playfully menacing killers (“You got a lot of luck, bright boy”) and the layered flashbacks told in reverse chronological order anticipate the kind of story structure Quentin Tarantino made fashionable some five decades later. Siodmak seeps almost the entire film in shadows and fog drawing upon his German Expressionist days, save for the masterfully handled payroll robbery shot in broad daylight which some critics claim established the security camera aesthetic found in modern heist thrillers. Also influential was the film’s gruelling boxing scene that perhaps stands as the film’s defining metaphor given the Swede leads the life of a human punching bag, too punch drunk in love to recognise the lurking doom embodied by Kitty Collins.
While it is fair to say Barbara Stanwyck essayed the best scripted of all femme fatales in Double Indemnity (1944), one would argue that along with Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), Ava Gardner embodies what many would picture as the archetypal film noir antiheroine. Luscious in an iconic figure-hugging, black satin dress that seems painted on, Gardner turns a simple “hello” into a showstopping entrance. The screen goddess was often dismissive of her own acting abilities, but the fact is she sketches an indelible characterisation as the frightening yet irresistible Kitty Collins, who memorably snarls “Touch me and you won’t live till morning” at lesser villain Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). This Kitty has claws. Interestingly, producer Mark Hellinger’s first choice to direct the film was Don Siegel, who made his directing debut the same year. Eighteen years later, Siegel got the chance to deliver his own version of The Killers (1964).