“The Killers” is an excellent film noir, starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien. It starts with two contract killers who come to a small town to kill a man working at the local gas station. When a friend tries to warn him, he makes no attempt to escape or hide, merely lies on his bed and waits for them to come. This starts the film with a mystery, which is then uncovered by an insurance investigator during the course of the film.
Burt Lancaster stars as Ole ‘The Swede’ Andersen, in his first film. He is the murder victim at the start of the movie, whose story is told in flashbacks during the course of the investigation. He gives a solid performance in spite of his inexperience, in what is a staple character type of film noir, the doomed man drawn into the darkness.
Edmond O’Brien is the insurance investigator, the ‘point-of-view’ person whose investigation draws out the story. O’Brien’s stolid performance keeps the film moving, as the outsider putting together the pieces of the mystery.
Ava Gardner is very good in her role in another staple noir character type, that of the femme fatale. As Kitty Collins, she is responsible for Andersen’s fate, by tricking and double-crossing him. Gardner is very convincing as she moves between different personas, sultry and sexy, to innocent and wide-eyed, to crocodile tears of helplessness. She’s great to watch in this.
The plot is structured in a compelling way, juxtaposing the investigation with flashbacks to past events. In this way, the audience is in the shoes of the investigator, seeing different pieces of the mystery before it all comes together at the end.
The director, Robert Siodmak, made many other noir films, and was an expert at this kind of film, The cinematography of darkness and shadows is used to great effect to highlight the mystery and fear of the plot. The insurance investigator is the main character in terms of screen appearance, however the main characters of the story are Andersen and Kitty. In a sense they gain in mystery due to their lesser time on screen. Ultimately we are never told why Andersen accepts his death as he does. Maybe he feels foolish for falling for Kitty, or just regretful for the bad things he has done. Or maybe he is just tired of hiding and wants to die. This is never made clear, and I think this is an effective way of keeping some mystery.
The beginning of the story, with the killers coming to town, is based on an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. While the short story merely dealt with that part of things, the film then uses this as a step off point to weave a tale about what might have been behind it. it’s a great way to start a movie, with suspense, violence, and so many questions. What is going on? Who is this man? Why were hired killers sent to kill him? Why did he just lie there and wait for them? It’s an effective way to ensure the audience is going to keep watching to find out the answers.
“The Killers” is a solid example of classic film noir. It has all the hallmarks of the genre – the night shots, the light and shadow, the impending doom. A solid cast, and a plot that keeps you guessing, make for an entertaining watch.