The Killers opens with two hitmen (Charles McGraw, William Conrad) entering a diner, looking for somebody named “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster). Although minor characters, the hitmen remind us of how guys used to be tough without resorting to obsenities or violence. Call it the lost art of intimidation (something Lee Marvin perfected in the otherwise inferior remake).
When Ole “The Swede” Andersen is finally tracked down, he makes no attempt to escape. For the rest of the film, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to piece together Andersen’s story, not just to recover money from a old robbery, but to try and understand why the man didn’t try to save himself.
Although Lancaster gets top billing, it’s really O’Brien who carries the film. But, while certainly a capable actor, he doesn’t exactly heat up the screen. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, at the time at least, O’Brien had twice the talent as Lancaster and half the charisma.
It’s a somewhat run-of-the-mill movie, but there are two things that stand out about The Killers:
1) Jim Reardon is actually an insurance investigator. He gets involved because he has to make sure Andersen’s estate (all 2500 dollars of it) gets passed on to his beneficiary, a hotel maid who hardly knew him. Both the main character and the beneficiary angle that gets the story moving are original, refreshing changes from the usual police/detective storylines.
2) Like the reporter in Citizen Kane, Reardon pieces together a man’s life based on the testimony of others. Though not as complex as Kane, The Killers does involve a number of flashbacks told out of chronological order. It makes for a more interesting story structure, though I’ve found flashbacks to have a distancing effect, as they often feel more like interruptions.
The Killers falls in the Film Noir category, with its use of shadows and nighttime scenes, its cynical deals and double-crosses, and its femme fatale (Ava Gardner), but such labels add little to the movie. It’s just as productive to simply call it “average”.
Shameless self-promotion: Martian War Machine