Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Killers (1946)

In 1927 Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story in which a pair of hired killers browbeat the occupants of a diner while waiting for their target - a boxer known as the 'Swede'.  The victim never shows, so they leave.  When one of the diner customers goes to warn the Swede, the other man refuses to take action, saying there is nothing to be done about it.

This film uses the short story as its opening ten minutes.  We then meet an insurance agent who has come to pay out on his company's policy for the man; a minor matter it seems until he discovers that the beneficiary is a hotel maid whom the deceased knew for only a few short days.  Her account of the Swede's suicidal emotional state at the time - the result of a woman running out on him - plus some belongings of the dead man that nudge at a memory somewhere deep in his subconscious - set the agent on an investigation that will span the rest of the film and cover money, murder, triple-crosses, and all the other wonderful seediness of a solid noir thriller.

Films that start at the end and work back can sometimes lack tension since you know the outcome, but this one cleverly seizes on what you don't know.  Sure, the Swede is dead, but why?  As our protagonist moves from witness to witness, piecing together the story, we learn more and more of what occurred before, with the script doing a good job of letting the layers peel away with satisfying regularity without the revelations being obviously telegraphed.  It's good work.  Good enough that I have no intention of spoiling any of the details.

This film made stars of both Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, and it's easy to see why: both are good in their (surprisingly limited in screen time) roles, and they're surrounded by a solid cast working from a strong script.

If you enjoy a good mystery, and don't mind it being a little less action-packed than modern films tend to be, then you should check this out.  It's also one to look up if you have an interest in the history of film.

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