Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner star in this re-issued classic of film noir. Adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers (1946) borrows the investigative flashback structure of Citizen Kane (1941) to uncover why ‘the Swede’, a seemingly ordinary gas station worker (Lancaster), came to be murdered by a pair of professional hitmen (Charles McGraw and William Conrad). Investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) pursues the life insurance policy that the deceased had taken out, leading him to a hotel maid (Queenie Smith), a police officer (Same Levene) and his wife (Virginia Christine), a former crook (Vince Barnett), and the Swede’s glamorous ex-girlfriend, Kitty Collins (Gardner).
Each recalls a pivotal moment in their interactions with the dead man in an episodic, flashback-filled structure that allows for plenty of enjoyable reveals and reversals. The non- linear retelling of the Swede’s story, pushing Reardon ever closer to the truth of the murderer and their motive, create a thoroughly satisfying narrative jigsaw that never feels piecemeal. Admittedly, not all of the witnesses are equally interesting, and none of the characters ever quite manage to transcend the particular noir archetypes they’re representing (ex-boxer-turned-hood; femme fatale; cop; mob boss; dim-witted thug). Yet amongst the convention, director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller spin an engaging tale from this Frankenstein’s monster of genre tropes.
Siodmak and his director of photography, Elwood Bredell, compose more than a handful of great visual moments: the Swede’s girlfriend realising that she’s lost him as Lancaster watches Gardner sing; a flowing, single-take heist accompanied by the following day’s newspaper report. The film is never better than its opening sequence, when two strangers turn up at cafe to wait for the Swede. McGraw and Conrad menace and crack wise with a wonderful air of resignation – this is the job: to arrive in the target’s town, make some jokes, fire some shots, leave – and the whole sequence is choreographed to perfection. It’s no slight to state that it never hits such heights again; those initial minutes are some of the finest the genre has to offer. Uneven though it may be, The Killers remains an entertaining and finely constructed film. Nearly seventy years after its initial release, it still holds the power to thrill.