Nominated for 4 OSCARS:
Best Director, Robert Siodmak
Best Film Editing, Arthur Hilton
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Miklós Rózsa
Best Screenplay, Anthony Veiller
Two assassins walk in to a diner in the small town of Brentwood and after roughing up the owner they declare that they are going to kill Ole Anderson, the man known as ‘The Swede’ when he comes in for dinner. Realising he’s not coming the killers head over to his house. Despite a warning ‘The Swede’ sits and waits and is shot dead. The mystery is pursued when Jim Riordan, an insurance man, arrives. The Swede had a large life insurance policy so Riordan decides to investigate. He also finds a green handkerchief that he knows is important but he doesn’t know why it’s important.
Riordan starts asking questions and he finds out that the Swede was once a boxer who had to retire when the bones in his hand were broken. As he searched for something to do other than fight the Swede meets and falls in love with Kitty. He even goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit in order to protect her. When he’s released the Swede is still in love with Kitty but the problem is that she isn’t his girl, she belongs to Colefax, a racketeer who has plans for a big heist. The Swede agrees to be part of the gang. As selfish as ever Kitty sees the Swede as the perfect fall guy so she convinces him that she loves him and needs him. She also convinces him to double cross the others before they double cross him and take all the money for himself. The Swede though is left with nothing as Kitty leaves him and takes the money with her. Riordan finds out that the money and Kitty both went back to Colefax who’s had it all this time. Thanks to the persistence of Riordan the truth and the law finally catches up to everyone involved.
It is rare for a film to start with the death of it’s protagonist but it serves one important purpose and that is to reinforce the idea that everything important about this story has taken place in the past. Told primarily through flashbacks the story is carried along by the characters of Jim Riordan, the insurance man who just can’t let this particular story go. Each new person that Riordan encounters played some part in the life or death of the Swede and each of them relates a little more of the story until it’s all revealed. It is worth noting that the flash backs do not take place in the correct chronological order. Like Riordan the audience must piece together the puzzle of Ole Anderson life and death.
Traditionally, the character of a cop would have driven the investigation in a film of this kind. The devise of using an insurance man had previously been used to great effect in ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Killers’ has unashamedly borrowed from that film. Edmund O’Brien who plays Riordan was a character actor with over 120 film and TV credits to his name. He provides some of the moments of lightness and humour that lift the film and which also work to make the dark moments even more depressing.
‘The Killers’ was Burt Lancaster’s first film and it is a superb performance. The Swede’s passive acceptance of death makes him complicit in his own assassination. It is not really his crimes that the Swede is punishing himself for but his obsession with Kitty and for his sentimental heart. There is no room for sentiment in the world this story takes place in. The Swede is a man whose life has been driven and irrevocably altered by the obsessive love of an unworthy woman. Burt Lancaster puts in a performance that is extremely physical, his towering, strong physical form a sharp contrast to the weakness of character and judgement that the Swede displays.
By contrast Kitty Collins is heartless and seeking self protection even at the end, even as her partner is crime is dying, she is trying to extricate herself from any of the blame or responsibility. There is a world of possibilities for Swede in a single look. Kitty is one of the ultimate examples of a femme fatale using her beauty and her charm to get what she wants whatever the cost to other people. This was the role that really set up Ava Gardner’s career and her reputation as a sex symbol. This was also a character that reinforced the status of the bad girl or wicked woman in cinema.
Much of this film is pure imagination. The source material by Hemmingway provided the starting point only, and it is used up within the scenes set in the diner. The rest of the screenplay is an exploration of the possible reasons a man might have for allowing his death to occur in such a manner. In addition to Anthony Veiller there were two further uncredited writers responsible for this screenplay. The first was Richard Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay for ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, and ‘Elmer Gantry’, amongst others and the second uncredited writer was John Huston who had previously won an Oscar for ‘The Maltese Falcon’.
Much of what makes this film so effective and satisfying to watch is the film noir method of lighting. Deep shadows are created by high contrast lighting and these provide a visual underscoring of the ideas of moral ambiguity and the diverse desires that litter this and other films of the era. The opening scene of ‘The Killers’ has been copied and paid homage to a thousand times in the decades since this was made. There is no doubt that the diner scene in ‘A History of Violence’ owes much to the scene here. ‘The Killers’ has frequently been cited as a prime example of film noir and of film making in general. It has even been deemed significant enough for inclusion within National Film Registry but whatever it’s significance it is an excellent and enjoyable film to watch.