The Killers - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1946

Director: Robert Siodmak

Production: Mark Hellinger Productions; black and white, 35mm; running time: 105 minutes, some sources list 102 minutes. Released 28 August 1946 by Universal. Filming completed 28 June 1946 in Universal studios.

Producer: Mark Hellinger; screenplay: Anthony Veiller, from the short story by Ernest Hemingway; photography: Woody Bredell; special photography: David S. Horsely; editor: Arthur Hilton; sound: Bernard Brown and William Hedgecock; art directors: Jack Otterson and Martin Obzina; music: Miklos Rozsa; costume designer: Vera West.

Cast: Edmond O'Brien ( Riordan ); Ava Gardner ( Kitty Collins ); Albert Dekker ( Colfax ); Sam Levene ( Lubinsky ); John Miljan ( Jake ); Virginia Christine ( Lilly ); Vince Barnett ( Charleston ); Burt Lancaster ( Swede ); Charles D. Brown ( Packy ); Donald MacBride ( Kenyon ); Phil Brown ( Nick ); Charles McGraw ( Al ); William Conrad ( Max ); Queenie Smith ( Queenie ); Garry Owen ( Joe ); Harry Hayden ( George ); Bill Walker ( Sam ); Jack Lambert ( Dum Dum ); Jeff Corey ( Blinky ); Wally Scott ( Charlie ); Gabrielle Windsor ( Ginny ); Rex Dale ( Man ).



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* * *

The Killers begins with literature and ends with film noir . The unlikely death of a filling station attendant prompts an insurance investigator to solve a puzzle of events that leads him to the cause of the murder and then envelops him in a plot ending with the murderer's death. After staging Ernest Hemingway's story in the opening sequence, the plot follows a structure that prevails in the convention of the 1940s: a man utters his last words, "I did something wrong, once," to avow his fatal mistake of falling in love with a woman who doublecrosses him. His relentless passion and blindness lead the two of them and her husband to their demise.

Director Robert Siodmak makes filmic innovation from a model anticipated in Renoir's La bête humaine (1938) and standardized since Double Indemnity (1944). The opening shots afford visual splendor in deep-focus shots taken in the confines of an empty café. Hemingway's narrative is translated into a tense volley of words and images. The rest of the film "catches up" with the initial murder after 11 major flashbacks—and flashbacks within flashbacks—before the insurance agent (Edmond O'Brien) witnesses the dying culprit's confession inculpating his attendant spouse. Something of a proto- nouveau roman , the script has the narrative cross over an unnamed abyss of time—the amnesia of the Second World War—in ways that determine the absolute immobility of the present. Recent history, as if

The Killers
The Killers
it were a memory too traumatic to be named, figures as a central abyss of violence gnawing at the surrounding fiction. 22 lap dissolves throw the narrative into a configuration of overlapping surfaces.

Narrative intricacy aside, the film is a masterful exercise in the creation of subjectivity that political scientists call "interpellation," or the forces that determine the human being as a social subject. No other film noir —save Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) or Crisscross (1949)—makes such sustained use of voice-off as instances of interpellation. Figures on frame are continually "marked" by imperatives, off , having no discernible visual origin. They leave an eerie effect matched by back lighting that makes the characters' shadows more revealing than their persons. The resulting fragmentation and doubling of figures, along with rifts of voice and image, show where the film theorizes the conventions its narrative seems to develop so patently. The film's broken synchronies not only give evidence of what film noir is and how it is effected; like Citizen Kane , Siodmak's film anticipates future experiment in European and American cinema.

Three sequences are noteworthy. In the re-enactment of Hemingway's tale, script and deep focus are used to truncate cinematic illusion and ideation. Seated in contrapuntal relation to the two gunmen at the other end of the counter, bewildered by what he sees, Nick Adams directs his words both to the killers and the spectator. Astonished, he exclaims, "What's the idea?" To which the hefty thug (William Conrad) snarls ( off ) in the direction of Adams and the viewer, "There isn't any idea." The riposte orients the eye away from metaphysics or invisibility of language to a richer play of prismatic form. The moment also shows how, second, the violence of history will be scripted onto the surface of the tale. In the first flashback that depicts Nick Adams's reconstruction of the victim's last days, told to the insurance investigator, the camera frames the protagonist (Burt Lancaster), standing in front of the "Tristate Station." He is visibly ill at the sight of the return of his repressed, the gangster Jim Colfax, who will now set a price on his life. Standing under the marquee above him, Lancaster nods and puts his hands to his stomach. His head shifts position over the letters STATE STATIC (the O of "station" carefully cut in half by a pole). His head blocks and uncovers the letters "ATE STATIC." The wording scripts the fate of a character as it figures a global malaise of narrative and political stasis in 1946. Adjacent to a sign that spells TIRES in acrostic to his left, Lancaster is a figure worn down—fatigued—by history and fate. He is not only a victim of a tri-state tryst, but also of a political atmosphere, a cold war of 1946, as "state static," determining the visible field of the narrative.

A third sequence, also crucial to the historical relation of film noir and nouvelle vague , stages a conversation between the sleuth and his boss. The latter is seen reading a newspaper clipping of 1940 recounting the story of a payroll heist from a Hackensack hat company. The present tense in the insurance office dissolves into a long crane shot that visibly depicts what is being told in words on the sound track. Seen in silence, in the style of Joseph Mankiewicz's silent flashbacks that pull an event out of time, the moving camera arches over the men staging the holdup and driving off in an exchange of mute gunfire. At one point, as it follows the vehicle exiting under the open-work metal sign over the entry to the factory (spelling the "Prentiss Hat Company"), the camera registers the reflection of the mirrored letters on the windshield, twice reversed so as to be read correctly, visibly enough to draw the spectator's attention to the reflection of the crane, the camera, and its operator. The film-in-thefilm is glimpsed: invisible editing, it had for decades excluded the camera from the image-track, is broken down; omnipresence of writing makes the deep focus flat and at once visible and legible; the illusion of narrative synchrony is divided and flattened; attention is brought to deliberate camera movement that evokes a timeless oblivion of memory. The sequence heralds techniques soon exploited by Bresson, Resnais, and Godard.

Along with Citizen Kane and Sullivan's Travels, The Killers ranks as one of the more "theoretical" films of the 1940s at the same time that it concretizes the essence of film noir . It uses Hemingway to threshold a Baroque structure of surfaces, and its self-consciousness arches verbal and visual discourses over each other, leaving the effect of a film looking at the very forms it is unfolding. Siodmak's work occupies a central niche in the history of film theory, in film noir , and in the relations of cinema and literature.

—Tom Conley

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