Review of The Killers (1946)

Suspenseful, compelling and deliciously twisty, The Killers showcases director Robert Siodmak as a master at work. He's like a symphony conductor, first alternating between two very different themes, then gradually orchestrating things for a head-on collision. The result is explosive. Simply put, The Killers is one of the greatest films noir.

Siodmak deftly negotiates a tricky storyline that constantly intercuts between past and present through no less than eleven flashbacks. Extending Double Indemnity's opening scene with a mortally wounded protagonist, Siodmak introduces his hero, the troubled Swede, and boldly kills him off in the first few minutes of the film. It's a risky move, but it's intriguing to the viewer as it is to the film's second hero, the investigator of the Swede's death who finds his present threatened as he uncovers the past.

The suspenseful opening sequence is sufficiently brilliant to make one great film. Two outsiders arrive in a small-town diner looking for one of the regulars, nicknamed the Swede. Their mood escalates from simple irritation to more-urban-than-thou rudeness to threatening. In trademark fashion, Siodmak creates great suspense through complete physical stillness. The men don't move even a facial muscle as they terrorise the diner workers and patron and nonchalantly reveal their plan to kill the Swede. The diner patron races to warn the Swede of the killers, but the Swede is immobile as he waits to die.

Intrigued why the Swede willingly submitted to his own death, an insurance investigator pieces together the Swede's life story. The film's pace slows a bit as multiple flashbacks reveal the Swede's descent over the years from boxer to criminal. Time does nothing to lessen his obsession over sometime girlfriend Kitty Collins, the other-time girlfriend of thief Jim Colfax. As Riordan the investigator gets closer to resolving the mystery of the Swede's death, the tension mounts as the past threatens to repeat itself, with Riordan as the target.

What separates and links the past and present, the obsessive Swede and the equally-obsessive Riordan, is Kitty. At turns nonchalant, withering and as vulnerable as a little girl, Ava Gardner's always alluring as the femme fatale who makes the Swede slide blissfully into masochism. Burt Lancaster's Swede is muscular, athletic and easygoing--a mucho macho man and completely defenceless from her. She would be just as alluring to Riordan, but he's more interested in the Swede.

In a way, the Swede is the homme fatale of The Killers. It's on his account that Riordan trades the calm, orderly world of the insurance business for the dangerous criminal underworld. Even after he proves himself inadequate during an encounter with one of the Swede's old gang members, Riordan willingly makes himself a target for the Swede's killers. Maybe the Swede's masochism is catching.

The Killers of the film's title refer to more than the two hired gunmen. Included are those who paid the assassins and who, it's revealed in the twisty final revelation, set the Swede up so cleverly he wasn't even aware of being framed. The killer is also the Swede himself, not just because he doesn't move a muscle to save his own life when his time is up, but because he's incapable of doing anything more than go through an imitation of life after his involvement with Kitty. You might say that it's all Kitty's fault. Or maybe it's The Killers' quiet portrayal of a man's unending capacity for self-destruction.

(February 4, 2001)

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