“Noir exploits the oddness of odd settings, as it transforms the mundane quality of familiar ones, in order to create an environment that pulses with intimations of nightmare.” – Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen
You can read more about this iconic noir masterpiece in The Dark Pages feature issue.
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The Dark Pages Giant Killer Issue
Produced by Mark Hellinger (The Naked City, Brute Force, and The Two Mrs. Carrolls Music by Miklós Rózsa; Cinematography by Elwood Bredell (Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, Phantom Lady 1944). Boldly directed by the great Robert Siodmak. The Screenplay is by Anthony Veiller and uncredited co-writers John Huston and Richard Brooks.
The Killers (1946), with its doomed hero, flashbacks, and seedy characters is one of the finest in the film noir canon. The film is a gritty dream with carnal fluidity and monochromatic beauty. The Killers is a neo-gangster noir film with a liminal and evocative intensity. Director Robert Siodmak gives the film a violently surreal tone— it’s a stylishly slick, richly colorful black and white film where the players live in a world condemned by shadow. Burt Lancaster plays out the obsession theme with ‘unfaithful women’ leading to his ultimate demise.
The evocative opening scene is one of the most powerfully ferocious in film noir. It is faithful to Ernest Hemingway’s short story. The determined thrust of the first twelve minutes mesmerizes. It has a villainous and cynical rhythm, paced like shadowy poetry in a dark room with no open windows. The film opens with Miklos Rozsa’s ominous brassy jazz that later becomes the killer’s motif. Two men drive into a small town, Anywhere, USA. We see them from behind in the darkest black silhouette inside the car.
While cars and trains are iconographic means of escape in noir films, the opening sequence of The Killers offers no escape. The two gunmen enter the screen in their vehicle veiled by the darkness of the highway road. The vision is more like one of bringing the means of death to this ordinary environment. The peculiar, unsettling gunmen Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) are two dark forces invading an ordinary landscape with their malicious and aggressive presence. The dark highway is a typical Hemingway metaphor for the eternal strife, of ‘going nowhere’ and his cycle of ‘heroic fatalism.’ The road is an unfinished trajectory, unpredictable and unknown with no way out but ‘the end.’
We see the two walking onto the street silhouetted in shadow. We know they are trouble. They enter a diner reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks.’ Perhaps this American Diner scene influenced scavenger-hunting director Quentin Tarantino for his Pulp Fiction in 1994.
The men ask about a man they’re looking for, ‘the Swede.’ They make no effort to hide their malevolence. They revel in belligerence as they demean and degrade the men in the small-town diner. Al and Max begin to psychologically torture George (Harry Hayden) who works the counter and Nick the boy at the end of the counter. They exude an offensive egotism and a cruel antisocial spirit as they barrage the men with perverse assaults.
George: “What’ll it be, gentlemen?” Max: “I don’t know. What you want to eat, Al?” Al: “I don’t know what I want to eat.” Max: “I’ll have the roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.” George: “That’s not ready yet.” Max: “Then what’s it on the card for?” George: “Well, that’s on the dinner. You can have that at six o’clock. That clock is ten minutes fast. The dinner isn’t ready yet.” Max: “Never mind the clock. What have you got to eat?”
The conversation is absurd and meaningless. It is just a mechanism to bully these townsmen. They continue to harass George asking “You got anything to drink?” George tells them “I can give you beer, soda, or ginger ale.” Al: “I said you got anything to drink?” George submits a quiet “no.” Max says “This is a hot town, whatta you call it?” George: “Brentwood.” Al turns to Max “You ever hear of Brentwood?” Max shakes his head no. Al asks George “What do you do for nights?”
Max takes a deep breath and groans “They eat the dinner, they all come here and eat The Big Dinner.” The outsider mocks the small-town conformity of eating whatever is served. George looks downward murmuring “That’s right” and Al says “You’re a pretty bright boy aren’t you?” He uses “boy” to demean. George mutters “Sure” and Al snaps back “Well you’re not!”
Al now shouts to the young man at the end of the counter “Hey you, what’s your name?” he looks earnestly at Al and says “Adams. Nick Adams.” Al says, “Another bright boy.” There is sadism at work here, almost subconsciously homophobic/homoerotic in the way they are using the term “boy” to subvert these bystanders’ manhood. Max says, “town’s full of bright boys.”
The cook comes out from the kitchen bringing the plates. ”One ham and one bacon and” George starts to serve the men the food and asks “Which one is yours?” Al says “Don’t you remember bright boy?” the continued use of this phrase truly begins to tear at the layers of our nerve endings. George starts laughing and Max says “What are you laughing at?” “nothing.”
“You see something funny?” “No.” “Then don’t laugh.” “Alright.” Again Max says ”He thinks it’s alright.” Al says “Oh, he’s a thinker.” It’s an antisocial backlash to an intellectual society that would perceive Al and Max as outcasts. This is where a noir film begins to break the molds of Hollywood’s civilized society. The two intruders have trespassed into an ordinarily quiet community to shatter its sense of security. It is the death of humanism in film language.
Max and Al tie up Nick and the cook in the kitchen. “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen, we’re gonna kill the Swede, you know big Swede, works over at the filling station.” He lights a cigarette. George says, “You mean Pete Lund?” Max takes the cigarette out of his mouth and the smoke enervates George’s face, “If that’s what he calls himself… Comes in every night at 6 o’clock don’t he?”
Georges asks “What are you gonna kill him for? What did Pete Lund ever do to you?” Max replies,” He never had a chance to do anything to us he never even seen us.” The conversation is so matter-of-fact that it’s chillingly absurd. Again George asks, “What are you gonna kill him for?” Max smirks “We’re killing him for a friend.” Al pokes his head through the sliding window to the kitchen “Shut up you talk too much” but Max says ”I gotta keep bright boy amused don’t I?”
When George explains that ‘the Swede’ never comes in after 6 pm, the killers head to the station where he works. George unties the men in the kitchen. Nick leaves to warn ‘Swedes,’ jumping fences on his way to the rooming house.
At the rooming house, Pete (Lancaster) is on his bed in almost complete darkness, face hidden in the shadows, his body’s repose in stark contrast to the backdrop of the frenetic orchestration by Rozsa. Nick enters and urgently warns him about the two dangerous men. Nick asks, “Why’d do they want to kill ya?” He replies: “There’s nothing I can do about it. I did something wrong. Once. Thanks for coming.” His tone is soft and fatalistic.
Nick offers “I can tell you what they’re like?” Swede replies “I don’t wanna know what they’re like… thanks for coming.” ”Don’t you wanna go and see the police?” “No that wouldn’t do any good.” Nick asks “Isn’t there something I could do?” “There ain’t anything to do.” “Couldn’t you get out of town?” He answers “No… I’m through with all that running around.”
A merciful violin plays while Swede remains resigned to the dark bed. His large hands rub his face. We hear the squeaking of a door downstairs as it opens slowly and then shuts. The Swede turns his head looking slightly worried for the first time. He leans up in the bed, the light from outside hitting his face, as Al and Max mount the staircase that leads to his room.
The Swede listens like a trapped animal. He does not betray any fear, only a gloomy resignation that his life is about to end. It is not death that he ponders, but memories and another enemy. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell switches between close-ups of Lancaster’s face and the door, then suddenly the two men come in blasting. From pitch black begins a light show, arcing like electricity striking a void. The canon fire gunshots pour into a field of blackness. The killers walking up the stairs acts as foreplay and the gunfire is like violent intercourse… White hot flashes of light break grave blackness. The last image we see as it fades to black is Lancaster’s hand falling limp by the bedpost. The last words we hear are Swede uttering “Charleston was right, Charleston was right.”
This is where the powerful prologue ends and Hemingway’s story leaves us with no explanation as to the reason for Swede’s murder, nor insight into why he acquiesces to his death by not trying to elude the killers and his fate. From this moment on Veiller’s screenplay starts to expose the back story of the killing.
This has been a killer post! Your Everlovin’ Joey