Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Jules Dassin, 1950
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

An egomaniacal, ambitious American hustler living in London, Harry Fabian, is convinced that he will strike it rich with his latest scheme – Greco-Roman wrestling matches. He has the support of Gregorius, a veteran wrestler, but Gregorius’ son Kristo is determined to go into business with it himself. Fabian presses on and gets financial help from Phil, a nightclub owner, and his discontented wife Helen. She promises that she’ll help Fabian if he secretly goes to business with her – opening her own nightclub. But Fabian betrays her and Phil soon withdrawals and promises to ruin Fabian, because Kristo is an old friend. But Fabian pushes Gregorius and another notorious wrestler known as the Strangler into a fight, after which Gregorius dies. Fabian flees, but an enraged Kristo declares a bounty of £1000 for whoever brings back Fabian’s corpse. He’s forced to go on the run, but it seems that London’s entire underworld is against him.

Though this is technically a British film – shot there after director Jules Dassin was forced to flee the U.S. due to his refusal to testify to H.U.A.C. and his subsequent blacklisting – it is one of the finest films noir ever made. Filmed around Soho, this is one of few noir efforts that depict war-torn England or Europe in place of the typical noir setting – New York or San Francisco – and it’s in such excellent company as The Third Man and Burt Lancaster-vehicle Kiss the Blood off My Hands. With its bombed out building and weighty sense of despair, post-war London is anything but a typical noir set, which enhances the nightmarish quality of the plot. The claustrophobic, chiaroscuro cinematography from Max Greene is one of the film’s finest elements, and Night and City is certainly far more stylized than Dassin’s previous The Naked City or Thieves’ Highway.

Night and the City is understandably nasty, due to Dassin’s recent experiences, and the cast of characters are all crooked, predatory, cold-hearted, or so desperate that it’s impossible to pity them. There is not a likable character in the bunch, with the possible exception of Gene Tierney’s Mary, who is a broken woman, deeply in love with Fabian and unable to cast him aside even though he’s no good for her. Tierney was allegedly cast in the film because producer Darryl Zanuck was afraid for her mental health, something she struggled with for years. Including Mary, Night and the City represents a post-war inferno – or at best a purgatory – populated with the damned, the criminal, and the corrupt.

Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death) is perfectly as Fabian, a completely self-centered scoundrel, but one you can’t help rooting for in comparison to the surrounding characters. With a third act that takes Hitchcock’s “wrong man” trope to the next level, Fabian is chased through the bowels of London by some of the most ruthless members of the underworld. He’s betrayed and abandoned by everyone he knows, except Mary, who he bravely tries to save in the end. The conclusion of Night and the City is foreshadowed by both Dassin’s Brute Force and The Naked City. This is where Dassin perfects the terrifying image of a protagonist – not a villain as in the aforementioned films – thrown from a bridge to his death.

There are some good side performances – keep an eye out for a very young Herbert Lom as Kristo, and Francis L. Sullivan as the Hitchcockian Phil and Googie Withers as Helen, his unfaithful wife. His suicide is one of the film’s most chilling, desolate moments. Dassin also evokes a little of sweaty-soaked, grimy filth of Brute Force with a lengthy, brutal fight scene between Gregorius (real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the aptly named The Strangler (noir-regular and former boxer Mike Mazurki).

Available on DVD from Criterion, it is difficult to say whether Night and the City is Dassin’s masterpiece, or if that honor should go to Brute Force. Either way, it comes with the highest possible recommendation and is certainly one of the best noir works ever made. It’s a true picture of post-war loathing when Europe was war-torn, America was in the grip of communist paranoia, and the Cold War loomed on the horizon. This allegory for Dassin’s blacklisting and subsequent flight from America is certainly his most hopeless film, which leaves behind a veneer of human filth and corruption. If you’re less interested in noir plotting, Max Greene’s cinematography is spellbinding and Franz Waxman’s doom-laden score is perhaps the best of his staggeringly impressive career, which includes Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, Bride of Frankenstein, Mr. Roberts, Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

THIEVES' HIGHWAY

Jules Dassin, 1949
Starring: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb

Nick, a well-traveled a ship mechanic in the war, returns home to find that his father, a truck driver, has been crippled. Though it seems to be an accident, he comes to believe that a crooked produce dealer from San Francisco, Mike Figlia, is responsible. Nick decides to put things right and gets involved in delivering a truckload of apples on a grueling 36-hour drive north, where Figlia tries to con Mike out of his stock and his money. With the help of a brazen streetwalker, Rica, Nick goes head-to-head with Mike and his gang of ruffians.

Written by A.I. Bezzerides and based on his own novel, Thieves' Market, this was director Jules Dassin’s final film in America after being blacklisted by H.U.A.C. and moving to England and then Europe. Just as his previous film noir, The Naked City, shows life in working-class ‘40s New York City, Thieves' Highway presents a surprisingly accurate view of life on the docks in San Francisco inside the busy produce market. Though Dassin used actual workers from the market as extras, this film involves far less of a look at the city as a whole, focusing more on Richard Conte (The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven) as Nick – and this is where the film stumbles.

Though Conte is a competent actor, Nick is a frustratingly simple character. He’s proud and tough, but also physically vulnerable and unafraid to access his emotions, though he lacks any shred of individuality. He is also from the typically isolated, doomed noir protagonist, yet everything that could go wrong for Nick does. His father is crippled, he is cheated out of money for a truck that his father was forced to sell, he is nearly crushed to death by the truck, undergoes several days’ worth of sleep deprivation, and he is constantly undermined and sabotaged by Figlia and his gang. When he finally gets his money back, he is robbed and beaten. When his fiancĂ©e comes to visit, she is disgusted to learn that his money is gone and she leaves him. And so on. An element that sets this apart from the standard noir – where a luckless protagonist meets misfortune through a combination of chance and his own poor decision making – is that everything that goes wrong does so because Figlia orders it, but neither Nick nor any of his compatriots are allowed to get vengeance upon Figlia himself.

It’s difficult to sympathize with Nick because of this, and because he never really gets vengeance upon anyone who wrongs him. Though Ed (Millard Mitchell), his trucking partner for a time, winds up being something of a tragic figure, for much of the film he seems like he’s waiting for an opportunity to screw over Nick. Nick forces him to give a farmer the money Ed owes, but outside of that, Ed is free to walk all over him. The film’s ending is certainly the most disappointing aspect. Dassin had no hand in it, as he was out of the country by the time the final cut was produced, so the studio intervened. In a final scene where Nick is beating Figlia, he is interrupted by the cops in a ham-fisted deus ex machina that is teeth-grindingly frustrating. It seems that Nick might be able to pull some fitting revenge out of his hat at the last minute, but instead two police officers – the same cops who have been there all along, doing nothing to fight the violence and corruption – reprimand him and say that they will handle Figlia and his gang.

Nick and Rica’s happy ending feels horribly saccharine after the constant, crushing defeat experienced throughout the film, but it is slightly less grating thanks to the presence of Valentina Cortese (Juliet of the Spirits, The Barefoot Contessa; Dassin’s girlfriend at the time). Rica is the film’s most complex character with real warmth, eroticism, and a touch of the exotic lacking in the film’s numerous other immigrants. It is implied that Rica is a prostitute, but she is revealed as being less money-hungry than Nick’s blonde, American girlfriend. Joseph Peyney and Jack Oackie put in some solid performance as the comedic relief, two rival truckers following Ed and Nick on their journey north. This is really Lee J. Cobb’s (12 Angry Men) film as Figlia, the charming and greedy produce dealer who has a hand in everything from theft to murder.

Thieves' Highway is available on DVD from Criterion. It comes recommended, though I don’t think it’s one of Dassin’s best films. It feels overly similar to the earlier Humphrey Bogart-vehicle, They Drive By Night, another film about truckers trying to escape a corrupt industry and back-breaking, often fatal work. It turns out that that film was also based on a novel by A.I. Bezzerides, Long Haul. Thieves' Highway has many elements in common, far too many to really hold my interest. In both, the road is symbolic of blue collar life and brotherly camaraderie, but also reflects those dangers and the potential for violence, corruption, and death. If you’re going to watch a bleak, noir-themed film about truck drivers, Thieves' Highway would be my third choice after Wages of Fear and then They Drive By Night, though it is still a solid work of late ‘40s filmmaking.

Monday, October 20, 2014

THE NAKED CITY

Jules Dassin, 1948
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff

One night in New York City a young model, Jean, is found dead. Though suicide is initially suspected, it’s soon clear that she was murdered. The experienced Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon and his young partner, Jimmy Halloran, investigate the crime together. While Halloran is doing the legwork on the case, he discovers the suspicious second death of a drunken burglar and some clues about a harmonica-playing boxer. Muldoon allows him to chase down these leads on his own, though eventually the two come to the same conclusion – that Jean’s murder is connected to a man named Frank Niles, possibly Jean’s boyfriend and a consummate liar, and a jewelry theft racket.

The Naked City is yet another of Jules Dassin’s excellent film noir efforts. Though his career was split between the U.S. and Europe, thanks to being blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, this film was one of his last on American soil. Influenced by a New York photography book released by artists Weegee, who actually consulted on the film, The Naked City is famous for its docu-noir style. Numerous critics have cited the likely influence of Italian neorealism and Roberto Rossellini, and the film certainly looks like an American take on Rossellini’s depictions of post-war, urban slums in Italy. Though there are several characters in the film, New York City itself is indisputably the main character.

The city is fascinating, but also menacing as shot by award-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels (Greed). It is a playground of hopes, dreams, crime, corruption, and squalor. This is a fascinating look at life in late ‘40s New York. The film takes time to wander through neighborhoods, give a glimpse of the lives of ordinary citizens not connected to the murder mystery at hand, and ignores the ritzier neighborhoods and famous monuments. Somewhat uniquely, narration is provided by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, as himself. He points out that Jean’s story is only one of many, implying that murder and crime is just a slice of regular New York life.

Though the film is full of solid performances and a number of colorful figures, the characters are bare sketches. Even the two leads, Barry Fitzgerald’s Lt. Muldoon and Don Taylor’s Halloran, are hardly fleshed out, leaving them less substantial than your average character on Law & Order. But Dassin is able to do a lot with very little. Fitzgerald (The Quiet Man, Bringing Up Baby) is charismatic and almost fatherly as the lead detective, practiced and cynical, yet also sympathetic. Don Taylor (Stalag 17) as the rookie detective is perhaps the most developed, interesting character, and the film essentially follows his travels through the city, while he questions everyone connected with Jean.

Also keep your eyes peeled for some noir and gangster flick regulars in the guise of two of the film’s bad guys, Ted de Corsia (The Lady from Shanghai, The Killing) and the pathetic, yet memorable Howard Duff (Brute Force, While the City Sleeps, also husband of the great Ida Lupino). The Naked City is less concerned with the specific psychology of the killer and more of the puzzle pieces that fit together to provide a picture of murder, crime, and corruption. This last detail – a wide-angle view of crime in the city – is really what elevates this from a solid murder mystery/police procedural into a noteworthy film noir.

Available on DVD from Criterion, The Naked City comes recommended, if only for its dazzling, comprehensive look at ‘40s New York City. Between the witty dialogue, quick pace, and Hitchcockian ending with some truly inspired camera work, there’s not much about this to dislike. The murder mystery plot is definitely formulaic, but Dassin’s skill as a director is transcendent enough that by the second half, you won’t even really care whodunit. Fans of the film noir and crime drama will definitely want to track down The Naked City, and it was successful enough that it spawned a TV series of the same name and joined the ranks of early noir-tinged police procedural shows like Dragnet, Mike Hammer, and The Fugitive

Friday, October 17, 2014

BRUTE FORCE (1947)

Jules Dassin, 1947
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford

“Nobody ever escapes.”

The prisoners of cell R17 plan to escape Westgate Prison after the kind, tolerant warden is forced to impose stricter measures and the prison’s security chief, Captain Munsey, is allowed to exercise his sadism unchecked. After returning from some time in solitary confinement, prisoner Joe Collins organizes the men and builds a plan around the drainage pipe they are forced to dig just outside the heavily guarded prison walls. Meanwhile, Joe’s sick wife refuses to have a vital operation unless he is by her side, and another prisoner is convinced – by Munsey – that his wife wants a divorce, resulting in the man’s suicide. Once the warden resigns against his will and the clock counts down to zero hour for the prisoners’ escape plan, chaos breaks out in the prison.

Though there were a slew of prison films in the ‘30s – loosely a companion genre to the first round of gangster films – Brute Force is arguably the first truly important prison film, one that would go on to influence all future movies about escaping from the clink. Director Jules Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (Crossfire) manage to cover a wide range of issues that made Hollywood – and McCarthy-era America – wildly uncomfortable. This is not a prison film about guilt and justice, or punishment and repentance; rather it is about class warfare, social control, and the evils of political power.

Inspired by a violent escape attempt at Alcatraz in 1946, there are unavoidable parallels to Nazi concentration camps. There is a tremendous sense of community within the prison, which feels more like a POW camp and reminded me somewhat of Jean Renoir’s Le grande illusion (1937). These men are not hardened criminals and their crimes are largely portrayed as minor offenses, the products of bad decisions brought about by love, war, and poverty. Though films as early as Night Train to Munich (1940) depicted references to or brief snippets of camp life, these are dull and hygienic examples that shy away from the true horrors (which the public was ignorant of until 1945).

Brute Force is a filthy, disgusting film that focuses on sweat, blood, and human filth. It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a cinematic line between this film and Pasolini’s Salo (1975), which is a more academic evolution of Dassin’s themes of forced labor, exploitation, extreme human suffering (including suicide), sewage, and filth. In both films, men are part of a Kafkaesque, almost absurdist post-war machinery where bureaucracy reigns and grinds humanity into the dirt. Munsey is a fascist and sadist set free by this bureaucracy and shots of him are unmistakably filled with a sense of Nazi style – a portrait of himself in his office, pressed black uniforms, jackboots, and a row of gleaming rifles.

Following with common film noir themes, the prisoners of Brute Force are primarily soldiers who have survived the grisly death and dismemberment of war to find that there is no place for them on the home front. They have been conditioned to a reality of violence, of which Dassin suggests there is no escape. And Brute Force certainly is violent, shockingly so for the time period. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, an informant is crushed to death in the prison’s auto-shop machinery, as Dassin weaves a dizzying choreography of workers hammering, drilling, and wielding blowtorches to distract the guards from his murder. In another scene, Sam Levene’s character refuses to talk to Munsey about the escape plans and is made an example of: he is handcuffed to a chair and beaten with an iron bar while classical music mutes some of his agonized cries.

The typical noir element of doomed romance is present in the form of a calendar pinup stuck to the wall of cell R17 that reminds each prisoner of the woman they love – who is also the source of their troubles in one form or another. The roster of lovely ladies includes Yvonne De Carlo (she would reunite with Lancaster in Criss Cross), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady and The Suspect), and Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce). There is even a nod to the femme fatale in the form of Anita Colby’s Flossie, a gambling, gun-toting dame who pretends to help a man (the flaneur character played by John Hoyt) out of a tight spot, only to steal his gun, his money, and his car.

Noir regular Burt Lancaster (Criss Cross, The Killers, I Walk Alone) shines in his finest role as the Everyman convict, Joe, who organizes the escape and punishes those who double cross him. Hume Cronyn (Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat) is unforgettable and slimy, particularly when he spouts vaguely Nietzschean psycho-babble about how might makes right and nature condones violence. Other regular noir actors appear, including Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel), Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin), Sam Levene (The Killers), Art Smith (In a Lonely Place), and more. Worth a final mention is the performance from singer Sir Lancelot (I Walked with a Zombie, To Have and Have Not), who has a memorable turn as Calypso, a prisoner who sings nearly all of his dialogue and narrates some of the events in song, adding a bitter sweet touch to the proceedings.

William H. Daniels’ cinematography is absolutely breathtaking and if nothing else I’ve said about the film seems compelling, at least watch it for shots of almost silvery black and white cinematography that is at once oppressive and dazzling. Not a single shot is wasted. Dassin must have had a fair amount of control, as this is the type of work that would appear in his future film noir efforts, such as The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City.

Available on DVD from Criterion, Brute Force comes with the highest possible recommendation. The Hays Code apparently determined the fatalistic ending, which packs an incredible punch and must be seen to be believed. Though it may not seem shocking compared to violence in contemporary films (a lot of worse things happen in HBO’s Oz, for instance), but the events are both harrowing and mesmerizing. Dassin was rewarded for this achievement by being blacklisted from Hollywood, thanks to McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1950 he fled the U.S. and permanently moved to Europe, where he continued filming noir. The themes of punishment versus rehabilitation and a pervasive culture of violence strengthened by class war and bureaucracy are more pertinent today than ever and Brute Force remains a vitally important film, one that you must see.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN

Robert Siodmak, 1950
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Paul Kelly

Assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall refuses to go home one night, because he’s tired of putting up with his controlling father-in-law, and stays at the office to get drunk. It’s there that he encounters Thelma Jordan, a woman trying to report a potential robbery of her wealthy aunt’s jewelry. She and Cleve soon begin an affair, though he realizes that her past is far murkier than it seems. One night she calls him in a panic – her aunt has been shot to death – and he comes to help her remove any evidence that may accidentally incriminate her. Cleve also winds up prosecuting in court, where he can further protect her, but he soon realizes that Thelma is not as innocent as she claims to be…

This final film noir from director Robert Siodmak is definitely underrated and shines mostly because of a stellar performance from Barbara Stanwyck – though let’s face it; she’s excellent in everything. There’s also a well-crafted script that builds slowly but steadily and makes up for a series of melodramatic moments by focusing on the moral gray areas in Cleve and Thelma, and their obvious attraction to one another. Unlike many other noir efforts, their attraction grows into love, not betrayal, which is The File on Thelma Jordan’s true source of anxiety and tension. In some ways, this is a quieter, less stylish, and more mature take on Double Indemnity. Similar themes are played out – a woman and a man decide to participate in murder for financial gain – but the elements are mixed around. While Double Indemnity is certainly the superior film, in many ways Cleve and Thelma are more complex, developed characters than the fatally sexy Phyllis Dietrichson and the good-hearted dupe, Walter Neff.

The underused Wendell Corey (Rear Window, Sorry, Wrong Number) is more aged and serious than Walter Neff. He’s not the typical noir protagonist – a cynical loner who drifts through life with no real attachments – he’s on the rise politically, thanks to his career as assistant district attorney, and has a complicated home life. He loves his wife, who clearly still desires him sexually, but strains under the yoke of her oppressive and controlling father. His affair with Thelma is intentional on her part – she does actually plan to commit a crime with her boyfriend – but their relationship blossoms into real love, which the film takes time to develop, making the events that follow far more believable. Thelma’s divided nature is expressed by Stanwyck, but is also underlined by Tony (Richard Rober), a hunky, good-for-nothing gambler who has an obvious (sexual) influence on Thelma and likely plans to double cross her when she has outlived her usefulness to him.

Their relationship is also flavored by a sense of the crushing weight of adult responsibility. Both Thelma and Cleve are stifled by their life choices. Cleve acts like he’s having a midlife crisis – he stays out late and gets drunk to avoid his wife and her father – and he treats his wife as an authority figure that he must rebel against. Any of his successes are soured by his father-in-law’s involvement or influence. Thelma is similarly controlled by Tony and the demands of her aunt. She rebels by sneaking out at night to meet Cleve and struggles to develop her own identity, which rests somewhere between Tony and her troubled past, the confining and mannerly lifestyle of her aunt, and the somewhat healthier, but doomed love she has with Cleve.

The File on Thelma Jordan isn’t a perfect film. There’s a slow first act that is dialogue heavy and overly sentimental, but if you can stick with it, it pays off. There are some memorable supporting performances from Stanley Ridges (To Be or Not to Be) as the defense attorney and Gertrude Hoffman (Caged) as Thelma’s demanding aunt. There’s also some lovely cinematography from George Barnes, though nothing is particularly above or beyond as film noir goes. The File on Thelma Jordan is enjoyable not because it hits the standard noir beats, but because it uses these in the background and crafts a well-written, well-acted story about complicated adult love birthed in the wake of desperation and crime.

Available on Blu-ray in an average, skimpy release from Olive Films, The File of Thelma Jordan is also available on Archive.org. I would recommend the latter, unless you are a rabid Stanwyck fan. I complain a lot about wishing more obscure horror and noir would be released on Blu-ray, but a barebones disc is not quite what I was referring to. They could have at least included a trailer and one or two special features about Siodmak or Stanwyck. Despite the shoddy release situation, it’s worth watching thanks to a marvelous performance from Stanwyck, who proves that she’s still got it relatively late in her career.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CRISS CROSS

Robert Siodmak, 1949
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne de Carlo, Dan Duryea

Steve Thompson returns home to L.A. and immediately gets involved with his treacherous ex-wife, though his protective mother and detective friend try to disuade him. Though Anna claims to still love him, she is really obsessed with money and runs off to marry a gangster, Slim Dundee, though she carries on an affair with Steve. To cover up the affair, Steve, an armored truck driver, organizes a heist with Slim. Though Steve and Anna plan to double cross Slim, things quickly become violent and complicated, with additional layers of betrayal.

Based on Don Tracy’s novel, Criss Cross is yet another film noir from underrated director Robert Siodmak. This is something of a follow up to his most famous noir, The Killers, and reunites Siodmak with its star, Burt Lancaster. In terms of plot, there are many similarities to The Killers and, because of this, Criss Cross is undeniably the inferior film. Both narratives are twisted and non-linear, told partly through flashback and voice over. A doomed romance is at the heart of both films, where a lovelorn man follows a beautiful, though treacherous woman towards his downfall. They engage in a heist, just so the man can be near the woman, though she is already in a committed relationship with a gangster. In the end, she predictably double crosses him, choosing money over love and, in turn, damning herself.

While Criss Cross lacks the constant, heavy sense of impending doom that made The Killers such a classic film, it is a more bitter and cynical film with a more developed sense of style. There are numerous lovely shots of historic downtown LA from cinematographer Franz Planer, and there’s yet another out-of-the-park score from Miklos Rosza. I may have just made a baseball reference, but I can’t be sure. The film’s crowning achievement is perhaps its ending, which packs a punch. Though Steve is badly injury and just barely escaped death, he runs to find Anna. She admits that she loves him, but despite this, is leaving with all the cash because his injuries will just slow her down. They are interrupted by Slim, who guns them down in jealous fury to the sound of approaching police sirens.

Unfortunately the bulk of the script is not equal to this apocalyptic ending. There are several tedious moments as neither of the leads are all that compelling. Lancaster is often great when he’s given a stronger male counterpart (as Kirk Douglas in I Walk Alone) or a more spirited female companion (as in Ava Gardner in The Killers), and, most importantly, when he’s given specific scenes and somewhat limited screen time. I can’t too much about Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters, Brute Force), as I think the limitations are with the script and not her acting talent. She was simply given a watered down version of Ava Gardner’s character in The Killers – and no one can compete with Gardner in the sex appeal department.
                                                             
One actor who does stand out is Dan Duryea, who is excellent here, as always, and just as flashy as he was in Kiss of Death and Scarlet Street. He’s less cruel and demented than in those roles, primarily because he is barely given any screen time. This would have been a very different film if he had even two or three more major scenes. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Tony Curtis, who briefly appears as Yvonne’s dancing partner early in the film, and a memorable performance from Alan Napier (the Batman TV show) in a side role.

Criss Cross is available on DVD, though I can’t really recommend it due to its numerous similarities with Siodmak’s wonderful The Killers. Fans of film noir and Robert Siodmak will probably want to check this out regardless. It’s certainly not a bad film, merely one that suffers in comparison. Apparently neither Lancaster nor Siodmak wanted to make it and Siodmak did his utmost to change the script during preproduction. Lancaster was desperate to escape the role of romantically doomed lug that established his character, but he would be forced there a few more times during film noir’s reign. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE KILLERS (1946)


Robert Siodmak, 1946
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien

A man known as “the Swede,” Ole Andreson, is warned that two men are coming to kill him, but he simply accepts his death and is murdered. An insurance investigator, Jim Reardon, is set on the case, primarily to find the Swede's beneficiary, but he begins to unravel the man's story as he interviews his friends and coworkers. He learns that the Swede had a career as a boxer, which ended with an injury. He got caught up with a group of gangsters led by “Big Jim” Colfax, partly because of Colfax's girlfriend, the alluring Kitty. He's becomes so obsessed with her that he serves time for a minor crime so that she can avoid punishment, and when he gets out he's convinced to take part in a heist organized by Colfax. Predictably, everything goes wrong and someone has double-crossed the Swede, setting him up for his doom.

The Killers is undoubtedly Robert Siodmak's most famous noir and is the synthesis of a number of perfect elements. To begin with, the film is based on a story (of the same name) by Hemingway and the script was co-written by the great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen), though he remained uncredited due to a conflicting contract. This marks the debut performance of film noir regular Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Brute Force, I Walk Alone). Though Lancaster has an incredibly physical presence, he's not the most consistent or capable of actors. But he is perhaps at his best here, which his hulking, gloomy presence is not given the bulk of the running time, but he looms over it just the same.


Ava Gardner also had her breakthrough performance here as Kitty Collins. Though she had several bit parts and uncredited roles before this, The Killers was her first major film and launched her – almost overnight – to stardom. In many ways, she's the quintessential femme fatale and it's easy to see why the Swede and other men are so smitten for her that they will believe any deception. Gardner's stardom generally kept her out of future noir, but she's certainly one of the genre's top bad girls. There are some other solid supporting performances, such as Edmond O'Brien (White Heat, The Wild Bunch) as the investigator, Albert Dekker (Kiss Me Deadly) as Colfax, and Sam Levene (Crossfire) as a police officer and the Swede's friend. William Conrad (Body and Soul) and Charles McGraw (The Birds) basically steal the film as the pair of killers who occasionally engage in sarcastic humor.

The film's doom-laden opening is perhaps its most memorable scene. It sticks closely to Hemingway's story, then fleshes out the main narrative to create a mystery about why the Swede was killed and why he went so willingly to his death. The plot becomes incredibly intricate and involves red herrings, flashbacks, and an interweaving series of crimes, punishments, and retributions. The pace is quick and these disparate elements aren't too difficult to keep track of, but the remainder of the film never surpasses its opening. Like some of the best films noir – Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard – the protagonist is a man doomed, dead, or dying, which is both a compelling and difficult premise. The Swede remains a near mythic figure, a tragic scapegoat bound and chained by his unrequited love for an unfaithful and immoral woman.

The Killers
is one of the most highly rated films noir and deserves to be seen by all fans of the genre and of crime cinema. Available on DVD from Criterion, The Killers comes highly recommended. In addition to solid direction from Siodmak, a number of fine performances, and a tight, compelling script, Miklos Rozsa's memorable score is also worth a mention. Part of it is used as the Dragnet theme song, so if you're from the Nick at Night generation, it might sound familiar. The film contain all the standard noir hits: a plot built around flashbacks, a protagonist doomed to die, a knock-out femme fatale, a detective (the insurance investigator), a heist, a double-cross, and more. If you're only going to see a handful of films in the genre, this should definitely be on your list.