The Killers (1946): Brutal Noir- A green silk hankerchief with golden harps

The Killers (1946) is the quintessential existentialist film. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s 1920’s short story who was immersed in the pre war existentialism of that time period, that fostered tales of crimes and violence. As the two French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton remark in their fantastic read and seminal work A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-153 the killer’s gunmen walking into the diner in Brentwood N.J. and begin complaining about the menu predates the dark Absurdism of the existential movement of playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

It reminds me of how great directors like Quentin Tarantino pay homage to films like The Killers in Pulp Fiction, or the work of Samuel Fuller who didn’t hold back on the vicious realism that was ground breaking in it’s day.

According to Electric Sheep blog “the first twelve minutes of The Killers (1946) is a faithful (almost word for word) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s much-anthologized short story. Two hit men enter a diner (shot to look like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks – itself apparently inspired by Hemingway’s story) typical Hemingway heroic fatalism.”

From what I’ve understood about Hemingway, the debate still rages on as to whether or not Hemingway was guilty of being a misogynist. Here is a decent essay about this question that tries to think about it critically and not write from a place of subjectivity or take a defensive stance. http://thequatrain.org/?p=285

The Killers (1946) the original version scripted by Hemingway himself, was produced by Mark Hellinger (The Naked City, Brute Force and The Two Mrs Carrolls– 3 of my favorite films,) and once again boldly directed by the great Robert Siodmak. With the rise of Nazism Siodmak left Germany for Paris and then for Hollywood. He’s singularly responsible for a great deal of the noir films that are so memorable.

In my opinion Siodmak’s film is a meatier piece of work that rendered a more brutal impression than the 1964 version directed by Don Siegel.

Perhaps due to it’s more neo-gangster noir style it gave it a liminal and evocative intensity. Siodmak’s Killers has a more violently surreal tone, than the stylishly slick and richly colorful pulpy Siegel version.The effective black and white environment of the 1946 Killers once again sets the stage for the players to live in a world that is condemned by shadow. While I love Siegel’s version, it does seem brighter and the world more aired out than usually frames noir desolation.

Although I’m a huge fan of Angie Dickenson and she was incredibly lush and provocative in the role of Sheila, Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins was a more subtly carnal as the temptress who becomes Swede’s downfall. Siodmak’s version gives us the noir police investigation, there is a pervasive Machiavellian cruelty, and the characters have more stratum to their persona’s. John Cassavettes is more icy while Burt Lancaster’s Swede is a very sympathetic yet imperfect man, that fatalistic heroism.

Burt Lancaster plays Ole “Swede” Andersen ex boxer and con, Ava Gardner is Kitty Collins, Edmond O’Brien is  Jim Reardon insurance investigator, Albert Dekker is Big Jim Colfax (Dr. Cyclops) criminal mastermind and Virginia Christine is Lily Harmon Lubinsky (she cameos in the ’64 version as the blind secretary).

Sam Levene is Lt. Sam Lubinsky Swede’s old childhood friend and Charles McGraw( The Narrow Margin) is Al the killer and William Conrad (Cannon tv series)is Max the other killer. The Killers also casts Jeff Corey as “Blinky” Franklin (The Outer Limits O.B.I.T.episode) one of Big Jim’s criminal lackies with a “monkey on his back” implying that he has a drug addiction. And Vince Barnett as Swede’s devoted and world weary petty thief Charleston.

The film opens with Miklos Rozsa’s ominous brassy jazz score that later becomes the killers motif, as the two men drive into a small American town, anywhere USA,  we see them from behind in darkest black silhouette in the car. Then a long view of them walking onto the scene still surrounded in shadow, we know they are trouble. The opening scene of The Killers is perhaps one of the most powerfully ferocious I’ve seen from a 1940’s film.

The two men enter Henry’s Diner William Conrad’s Max and McGraw’s Al, are The Killers, who begin to psychologically torture George who works the counter and Nick Adams the boy at the end of the counter. They exude an obnoxious egotism. A cruel anti social spirit as they barrage the men in the diner with verbal assaults, having a somewhat perverse quality which begins with the menu.

George: What’ll it be, gentlemen?
Max: I don’t know. Whatta 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?
George: Well, I can give you any kind of sandwiches: bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, ham and eggs, steak…
Al: I’ll have the chicken croquettes with the cream sauce and the green peas and the mashed potatoes.
Max: Everything we want is on the dinner.

They continue to harass George, asking for alcohol, “Al: 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 and then Al asks George “What do you do for nights?”Max takes in a deep breath and groans out “They eat for dinner, they all come here and eat The Big Dinner” George looks downward and murmurs  “that’s right”and Al says

“You’re a pretty bright boy aren’t you”, meanwhile George is a grown middle aged man. The term “boy” is designed  to demean him. 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 an emerging sadism at work here, almost subconsciously homophobic/homo erotic, in the way they are using the terminology of “boy” working to subvert these bystanders’ manhood. Max says, “Town’s full of bright boys”

The cook comes out from the kitchen bringing the plates of ” 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 flay 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” Here we see the anti social backlash to an intellectual society that would perceive them as outcasts. The term “thinker” is used pejoratively as is “boy.” This is where the film begins to break the molds of the Hollywood window dressing of a civilized society, when two intruders trespass on an ordinarily quiet community and shatter it’s sense of security. It is the death of humanism in film language.

Max and Al proceed to tie up Nick Adams and the cook in the kitchen. They further taunt George who asks “what’s this all about?” Max “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen, we’re gonna kill a Swede, you know big Swede, works over at the filling station” he lights a cigarette. George says, “you mean Pete Lund?” As Max takes the cigarette out of his mouth the smoke enervates in 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 almost chillingly absurd. Again George asks, “what are you gonna kill him for?” and Max smirks “we’re killing him for a friend.” Al pokes his head in from the sliding panel window to the kitchen “shut up you talk too much” but Max says ” I gotta keep bright boy amused don’t I?”

Once the killers believe what George tells them, that Swede isn’t coming into the diner for his supper because it’s passed 6pm, they go to Swede’s boarding house. George unties the two men in the kitchen who have been bound up with dish rags, and Nick jumps over fences trying to head off the killers and warn Swede that they’re coming for him. Nick bursts into Swede’s room.

At first we only see the obscured figure of a man lying on his bed, only from the neck down to his feet. We do not yet see the figure clearly. Swede is framed in shadow.Nick tells him about the men at Henry’s Diner, they were going to shoot him when he came in for supper.”George thought I oughta come over and tell ya” out of breath Nick is panting , and we still only hear Lancaster’s substantial voice in a whispering tone “There’s nothing I can do about it” Nick says ” don’t you even wanna know what they’re like?” “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” Swede tells Nick he’s sick of running and “I did something wrong (pause) once, thanks for coming” he ends very solemnly. Nick leaves. The last words we hear Swede utter are “Charleston was right, Charleston was right.”

Now we see Swede’s face just staring and waiting. Sitting up, as the killers come bursting into the room, blasts of light from the gun spray, we are left looking at Swede’s hand lying limp against the side of the bed, surrounded in shadow once again, he is dead.

The Killers relies a lot on the noir mechanism of the flashback. At times there are flashbacks within flashbacks.

We’re now at the police station with Nick and Sam the cook giving their statements. We see a silk scarf with harps among his effects. Swede left a death benefit life insurance policy for $2,500 that goes to a woman in Atlantic City. The case is now being investigated by an insurance detective for the Atlantic Casualty and Insurance Company. Edmond O’Brien plays Reardon, who refuses to drop the case even after his boss insists that it’s not financially worth the company’s time. But Reardon wants to know what happened to this man who had “8 slugs in him, nearly tore him in half.”

Reardon goes to the hotel in Atlantic City and talks to the old chamber maid, Queenie, who is the beneficiary of Swede’s death benefit. She tells Reardon that at least he could be buried in consecrated ground and Reardon asked why she thought it was a suicide.

Queenie tells him in flashback how she was working that night and came into Swede’s room to clean, and he was visibly disturbed, smashing and stomping the furniture crying out “She’s gone, she’s gone!” Queenie asks “who’s gone mister?” He picks up a chair and breaks the window and tries to jump out, but Queenie grabs him and tells him” for the sake of God, you’ll burn in hell for all time” and stops him from killing himself. The death benefit was his way of paying thanks for her kindness.

Reardon embarks on a journey to get the bell to ring in his head, about why the green silk handkerchief with the golden harps is on the tip of his mind.His boss says that claims are piling up and he’s off running around with a 2 for a nickle shooting, but Reardon wants to know why 2 professionals put the blast on a filling station attendant, a nobody. He also notices his hands, scarring which indicate that Swede had been a boxer at one time.

He meets up with Swede’s old boyhood friend from the 12th ward in Philly. Lt Sam Lubinsky who is now married to Swede’s one time girlfriend Lily played by the a young and ever present character actress Virginia Christine who was also in The Killer Is Loose. In The Killers, she is absolutely beautiful as the “nice girl” playing opposite Ava Garner’s femme fatale role as Kitty. Sam joined the police force and Ole Swede started fighting professionally. They always kept in touch, but “when you’re a copper, you’re a copper” and eventually after taking a savage beating in the ring, Swede breaks his knuckles beyond repair and has to stop boxing. Sam winds up putting ” the pinch”on his friend Ole later on.

In a flashback we see Lily and Swede at a party thrown at a swanky hotel by Jake, one of Big Jim Colfax’s men. Lily doesn’t like Jake, he’s got mean eyes. Swede sees Kitty for the first time sitting at a piano. Swede is mesmerized by Kitty. The women share competitive glances. Kitty says, “Jake tells me you’re a fighter” he says “Do you like the fights?” Kitty says “I hate brutality Mr Anderson the idea of 2 men beating each other to a pulp makes me ill.” Lily tells Kitty that she’s seen all Swede’s fights, but Kitty comes back with “oh really, I couldn’t bare to see the man I care about hurt” at that point Lily is finished once Swede remarks how beautiful Kitty is Lily leaves the party.

Lt. Lubinsky tells Reardon that “It seems like I was always in there when he was losing, ever see him fight? He took a lot of punishment.”

Ole’s manager leaves Swede after he isn’t any good as a money making fighter anymore since the bones in his hand are crushed. It’s why he didn’t use his right hand to fight the night he lost the bout to Tiger Lewis. That night his manager says ” no use hanging around here, never did like wakes”

In a flashback within a flashback, Ole starts dating Kitty Collins, Big Jim’s girl. Evidently she shop lifts a diamond pin, Reardon recognizes it as she’s wearing it at a table sitting with a group of thugs who work for Big Jim Colfax. She drops it into a plate of soup, but Reardon stops the waiter, fishes it out and rinses it off in a cup of coffee then tries to take Kitty in, but then “Ole” Swede walks in and winds up taking the rap for her spending 3 years in jail for Kitty’s robbery then he gets released for good behavior.

Kitty’s given him this green silk scarf with golden harps of hers, which he strokes in jail. Swede has a cell mate and friend in a man named Charleston, a petty larceny crook and old time hoodlum who bonds with Swede while in prison. Charleston brings up Jupiter one night. He liked to look at the stars after lights out, he knew their names because he got a book from the prison library.

“You can’t learn any better about stars then by staring” Swede and Charleston staring out the window at the stars, while Swede is stroking the silk scarf Kitty gave him. He asks Charleston is he knows what “harp” means. He says “yeah, angels play ’em” “they mean Irish, Kitty gave me this scarf.” But Kitty hasn’t come to see Swede once while he’s in prison for the robbery she pulled. Swede asks Charleston to look up Kitty when he gets out, because he’s worried about her. But Charleston knows she’s not sick or in trouble. Swede is too much in love to see it.

Later on Charleston relates to Reardon at a pool hall that he was told to bring Swede on the day after his release from jail, because Big Jim is planning a “big set-up.” Also in the room is a thug named Dumb Dumb and Blinky Franklin. Charleston opts out, he only wants easy pickings at his age he’s spent half his life in stir, but Swede seeing Kitty in the room, still Big Jim’s girl, says he’s in. Kitty becomes Swede’s mistress again. We see the glances between the two, and Swede knocks Jim down when he tries to hit Kitty. The two men swear that after the heist, they will even up the score with each other.

The last thing Charleston says to Swede before he leaves the room is “Want a word of advice?, stop listening to golden harps, they’ll land you in a lot of trouble.” We now know what Swede meant by his last words.Charleston leaves the room. Closing the door, hoping Swede will follow, but ” he never showed up, and I never seen the Swede again” We see the character Charleston in flashback standing outside the door. Framed by the shot making the door a principal moment in the film. Charleston staring at the door waiting, looking trapped and small. The door symbolizing the unknown and what lies behind or ahead.

Back at Atlantic Casualty and Insurance Co. Reardon tells his boss the “bell rang” he remembered hearing about it in relationship to a big caper that was pulled on July 20th, 1940 at The Prentiss Hat Company. Armed gunmen got away with quarter of a million of Atlantic’s money. One of the robbers was seen wearing a green scarf with golden harps wrapped around his face like a bandit. Swede was one of the people involved in the heist. Now hiding out under an assumed name, and working at a filling station supposedly hiding all the loot from the Hat Company heist, taken away from the other members of the gang.Who sent the killers to assassinate Swede and did Kitty Collins sign his death warrant?

The Killers, details double crosses of all double crosses, as The Killers go to the sleepy town of Brentwood to even a score with Swede, who didn’t take Charleston’s advice and stop listening to golden harps. In noir films there is often a fetishistic quality to an item or action. I think the scarf is a sexual symbol of Kitty for Swede. It bares her scent, it was a token of her sexuality being made of “real silk” as if her skin. the idea of touching something golden. The scarf acts as surrogate for Kitty’s body, as he strokes it in place of the real thing.

Phantom Lady: Forgotten Cerebral Noir: It’s not how a man looks, it’s how his mind works that makes him a killer.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Directed by the master of suspenseful thrillers and fabulous noirs- Robert Siodmak; (Son of Dracula 1943, The Suspect 1944, Christmas Holiday 1944 The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, The Killers 1946, The Dark Mirror, The Spiral Staircase 1946, Cry of the City 1948, Criss Cross 1949, The File of Thelma Jordon 1948) is as nightmarish and psychologically aromatic as it is a penetrating crime noir. The distinguishing cinematography by Woody Bredell.

Phantom Lady is a sadly neglected film noir based on a story by Cornell Woollrich and scripted for the screen by Bernard C. Schoenfeld. Stars the quietly enigmatic Ella Raines (Cry ‘Havoc’ 1943, The Suspect 1944, Impact 1949), as Carol “Kansas” Richman, Franchot Tone as Jack Marlow and Alan Curtis as the leading man Scott Henderson. The film also co stars Thomas Gomez (Key Largo) as perceptive Detective Burgess, the intelligent and compassionate detective who eventually comes around to believe in Scott Henderson’s innocence.

Phantom Lady utilizes noir’s innocent man theme beautifully. Siodmak’s directing creates an often nightmarish realm, the characters float in and out of. The intersectionality frames the story between crime melodrama and psychological thriller. Siodmak is a master storyteller who earned an Oscar nomination for The Killers in 1946.

Although on the surface you would assume Phantom Lady to be a man in peril film, it actually functions as a woman in danger as well because Carol “Kansas” puts herself in harms way in order to help her boss, whom she’s in love with. Fay Helm’s mysterious woman has a tragic trajectory herself as a woman who is spiraling into oblivion by mental decline after losing her beloved fiance.

Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), spends the night with a mysterious woman whose identity is unknown to him. Only later do we learn that her name is Ann Terry (Fay Helm) The two first meet in a bar, after Scott has been shunned by his wife for the last time. The phantom lady is obviously disturbed by something causing her emotional pain, she finally agrees to take in a show with Scott who has tickets. The conditions are that they do not exchange names as it’s just a way for both of them to keep themselves occupied at a moment when both are feeling dejected.

The “Phantom Lady” is wearing a sensationally quirky hat which the film revolves around in a sense, because Scott returns home to find his apartment crawling with police after his wife has been brutally strangled, with one of Scott’s expensive ties. The anonymous lady who wore this stand out hat is the only key to providing Scott’s with an alibi.

Scott proceeds to tell Inspector Burgess (the wonderful Thomas Gomez), that he spent the night with this no name woman, after fighting with his wife and that there are several people who would have seen them together. The bar tender, the cabbie with a very memorable name, and the temperamental lead singer/dancer in the musical review could identify him accompanied by the phantom lady, because of her supposedly original hat– the performer Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda) was also wearing the same hat on stage, which is later used as a lead. Aurora shoots daggers at the phantom lady for having worn the same design. You could see the fury on her face as she sings her musical number. Estela Monteiro has a fit, walks off stage and decrees that no one would have the nerve to wear one of her original hats, and throws hers away. Wonderful character actor Doris Lloyd plays the designer Kettisha who is sought after for her one of a kind hat designs.

Inspector Burgess takes Scott around to each of these witnesses but no one recalls having seen him with the woman at all. They all very curiously deny seeing the lady, and it becomes obvious that something is very wrong with the testimony from all these people who were obviously covering something up. The outcome looks bleak for Scott.

Inspector Burgess: [Questioning] You’re a pretty neat dresser, Mr. Henderson.

Detective Tom: [Taunting] Yeah. Everything goes together. It’s an art.

Inspector Burgess: Nice tie you’re wearing.

Scott Henderson: [Upset] Tie?

Detective Tom: Pretty taste. Expensive. I wish I could afford it.

Scott Henderson: Hey, what are you trying to do to me? Marcella’s dead, gimme a break! What’s the difference if my tie is OK or not?

Inspector Burgess: It makes a great deal of difference, Mr. Henderson.

Scott Henderson: Why?

Inspector Burgess: Your wife was strangled with one of your ties.

Detective Chewing Gum: Yeah. Knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife.

Because it appears that Scott is guilty of the crime he is sentence to death and faces the electric chair in 18 days. With no witnesses to back him up.

Even his best friend sculptor Jack Marlow played by gravel toned sophisticate Franchot Tone who doesn’t come onto the scene until midway through the film, is away on business in Brazil, so there is no one but sweet and devoted secretary Kansas who is left to stand by Scott. Scott resigns himself to his fate and doesn’t even blame the jury for their decision.

Scott Henderson is a civil engineer who was in a loveless marriage with  with a beautiful associate who works for him, which he affectionately calls Kansas. She never doubts his innocence for a moment and devoutly sets out on a mission to try and find this mysterious lady to prove she really does exist, before it’s too late. She also tracks down those whom she knows have lied about seeing this woman.

Kansas assumes the role of serious cookie as she taunts Mac the bartender who denies having ever seen the woman with the funny hat in his bar with Scott at the time his wife was murdered. She also goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous and super frenetic drummer Cliff Milburn played to the sweaty frenzied nines by Elisha Cook Jr.

Along the way, Inspector Burgess, confronts Kansas in her apartment and tells her that although he did his job at the time, he also believes in Scott’s story because a child could make up a better alibi than the story he has stuck to so religiously. So now Kansas and Burgess set about to prove that someone has been tampering with these witnesses.

At this point, Jack Marlow comes back from Brazil to lend a helping hand in getting to the bottom of the case. The always present Jack begins to play an important role in helping solve the murder.

What lies ahead is a very gripping story with several taut and fiery moments amidst the looming shadows and dead ends.

Elisha Cook Jr. is too believable yet fantastic as the tweaked sleazy drummer who’s got an appetite for women in the audience, even the phantom lady whom he flirted with.

And Fay Helm plays a very palpable victim of her own sadness as the Phantom Lady who alludes the police after that one night at the musical revue with Scott.

What adds to the noirish obfuscation of the story is the witnesses who are despicable in their evasiveness, which creates an atmosphere of obstruction that is stirring and at times, maddening. But they will all meet a certain cosmic justice by films end.

Woolrich was a prolific writer who’s work came close to being as popular as Raymond Chandler, and he was responsible for many of the screenplays of the 1940’s as well as the radio drama Suspense. Ella Raines is absolutely breathtaking to look at. And sadly Alan Curtis having died in the 50’s of complications from surgery was not only great at being sympathetic, he was strikingly handsome as well.

 

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: [Visiting Scott in prison] Is there anything I can do for you?

Scott Henderson: Yes. You can thank the foreman. I forgot to.

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: I don’t know what to say.

Scott Henderson: Skip it, Kansas. I’ll be all right now that I know where I stand. Yes, I’ll be fine. Last night for the first time I didn’t have to count sheep. I slept like a guilty man.

Phantom Lady is a cerebral excursion, which uncovers a lot of psychological layers for us, as it progresses.

Without giving away any key parts of the plot , I’ll say that the film shows us a dark side of humanity.

Without going into the background of the characters, the narrative of Phantom Lady is drawn out in little scenic bursts of disclosure. While the film doesn’t describe to us why these characters are doing what they do with the use of  flashback another noir technique, we see who these people are by their actions. The film explores human nature in a slightly gritty naturalistic style.

The cinematography by Elwood Bredell (The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, The Mystery of Marie Roget 1942, Christmas Holiday 1944, Lady on a Train 1945, The Killers 1946, The Unsuspected 1947, Female Jungle 1956)  is remarkably as Bredell paints a landscape of looming shadows, dark sinister corners and breaks of light that cut through the clouds of mystery and excursions into bad spaces.

A nightmarish journey of the wrongly accused, the tragedy of loss, greed and true madness and sometimes darkness of the soul. And ultimately the love that bears its fruits by unrelenting devotion and the pursuit of the truth at any cost.

Kansas will need to wash her mouth out with bleach after the predatory Cliff plants a raptorial kiss on her!

Inspector Burgess: The fact remains that none of you could have committed these murders.

Jack Marlow: Why not?

Inspector Burgess: You’re all too normal.

Jack Marlow: Oh, the murderer must be normal enough. Just clever, that’s all.

Inspector Burgess: Yes, all of them are. Diabolically clever.

Jack Marlow: Who?

Inspector Burgess: Paranoiacs.

Jack Marlow: That’s simply your opinion. Psychiatrists might disagree.

Inspector Burgess: Oh, I’ve seen paranoiacs before. They all have incredible egos. Abnormal cunning. A contempt for life.

Jack Marlow: You make it sound unbeatable.


 

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