Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Four

24 killers

#24 — The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Some actors get it right from the very beginning. They find their onscreen persona, the approach to character that will run like a throbbing nerve through their entire career, unifying every role they play, no matter how disparate. To a degree, that can be chalked up to unfortunate pigeonholing, especially in the desperately safe era of the studio system, when constantly reinforcing audience expectations was the smartest strategy. The performer doesn’t land upon something in themselves so much as they’re forced to offer spectral repetition of the first thing they ever did, at least the first thing that got them noticed. But then there are those instances when it truly seems like an actor locked into something vital and unique within themselves, something that amounts to a singular, creative voice within a collaborative and constantly transforming medium. From his sharp film debut, Burt Lancaster was immediately Burt Lancaster.

In The Killers, his very first film, Lancaster plays Ole “The Swede” Andreson. The character is introduced as a target of hitmen, one who is strangely unperturbed about his fate. His story is largely presented as flashbacks, as an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) tries to piece together the man’s life in a quest to determine what could have led him to be precisely this sort of victim. His history involves a thwarted boxing career and subsequent personal descent through unwise involvement with a criminal element, all of it depicted with a sordid authenticity. Even films that are cautionary tales against crime tend to glamorize it somewhat, but that’s not the case her. It looks squalid and nasty, a docking place for either grinding bullies or the unwittingly brutalized. Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell adhere to the film noir manner of making shadows a thing of alluring beauty, but that also signal that horrid danger lurks within them.

Through it all, there is Lancaster, operating in a mode that was too new at this point to be considered his trademark. He exudes steely, stubborn masculinity while simultaneously signaling in subtle ways that it’s really just a shell, covering fault lines that run deep. It’s not vulnerability, but instead something that speaks to far greater damage, as if towering above the world itself leads to poison seeping in. Life delivers more blows to the Swede than he ever encountered in the ring, and Lancaster manages to show the lingering sting of each one. The film was adapted, quite loosely it seems, from an Ernest Hemingway short story (Anthony Veiller is the credited screenwriter, but most accounts maintain that John Huston and Richard Brooks were more responsible for what wound up on screen), and it carries some of the author’s famed existential irascibility, a roar against the world that echoes back with such prevailing bleakness that it is difficult to bear. Of course, that couldn’t have suited Lancaster better. The Killers was exactly the opening play he needed.