Director: Robert Siodmak.
Country: USA (Produced by Mark Hellinger for Universal Studios).
Context: Seminal film of the classic film noir cycle.
Themes: Fatalism, moral corruption, the past, post-war existential angst.
Form: Fragmented narrative told through 11 flashbacks, based on recollections of various different (possibly unreliable) narrators.
Over the jolting menace of Miklós Rózsa’s score, a speeding car’s windshield catches a road sign flashing past: we are entering Brentwood, New Jersey, a small snoozy town about to have its slumber rudely disturbed and at least one of its denizens sent to the big sleep. The two men in the car are professional hitmen, hired to snub out the life of a man known as ‘The Swede’. These two killers arrive like angels of Death or agents of Fate, two silhouettes slaloming through the intense Expressionistic lighting that would define the aesthetic of film noir. They are drawn to the bright lights of the diner — the only place that seems open in town.
The ensuing scene in the diner, where the two strangers harass harmless locals for information on the Swede’s whereabouts, is taut, tense, threatening, played to the rhythm of rat-a-tat dialogue lifted verbatim from the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s short story.
Blithely they announce: “We’re gonna kill the Swede”, to which the startled man behind the counter tentatively stutters: “Why, what did he ever do to you?”
“He never had a chance to do anything to us, he’s never even met us”.
Moments later, a young man runs to warn the Swede before the killers get to him. We first sight him lying gloomily on his bed, his face obscured in shadow. Run away while you can, or call the police, his friend urges. But Swede wants nothing done. He doesn’t move an inch: “There’s nothing I can do about it. Thanks for coming” he tells the baffled alarm-raiser. Mechanically the killers make their way to Swede’s lodgings, and gun him down in a flurry of bullets, without him putting up the least resistance.
Thus begins The Killers, with its first 10 minutes set in the present tense of Hemingway’s short story. The only hitch is that Hemingway stops there, never revealing why the mysterious Swede is killed or why he was so resigned to his death. This world-weary acceptance of death without any fight kickstarts the film and its questions, not what will happen but why did it happen? The Killers is a film about making sense of one death and of one life, and within that it is about the idea of inescapable fate, a tainted past and a doomed future. I’d like to analyse four different ways in which The Killers creates meaning: its narrative, its existential themes, its lighting, and its symbolic motif of the road.
I. The Citizen Kane of Noir
Since Hemingway’s mysterious short tale provides no backstory, it’s left to the movie to delve into the past through a circuitous quest for truth led by one determined insurance investigator, Jim Reardon. Picking up the pieces left by Swede’s measly $2500 life insurance policy, Reardon soon uncovers a more intriguing case and quenches his growing curiosity by tracking down anyone and everyone who might have known the Swede, also known as Pete Lund, Ole Andersson, Mr Nilsson, or by his boxer’s moniker ‘The Swede’. Reardon does his best to assemble the puzzle from the testimony of his interviewees, which the film depicts in 11 flashbacks, without regard for chronological order.
We can see already why this is the Citizen Kane of noir, and that not only because of its biographical-jigsaw structure, but also in its status as landmark film: together with Hawks’ The Big Sleep which came out the same month (August 1946), The Killers established labyrinthine narratives as the way the tortuous truth of film noir had to be told. The non-chronological order of the flashbacks in the film takes Reardon from those who knew the real Swede only peripherally, all the way to the final flashback with the woman most responsible for his ill-advised and fateful decision-making: Kitty Collins. More on Kitty later, but for now let’s briefly recap the puzzle pieces in chronological order, rather than the order the film reveals them to us, as it will be useful for subsequent descriptions.
In 1935, Ole ‘The Swede’ Andersson fights his final bout as a professional boxer, a mauling in which he was hampered by an injury to his right hand so serious that he’ll never be able to box again. His childhood friend Sam Lubinsky, a copper, offers him a job in the police force but he rejects it. Some time later, Swede takes his girlfriend Lilly to a party frequented by the criminals whose world he is trying to enter, and here he first sets eyes upon Kitty Collins, a smooth-singing siren who mesmerises him — he’ll never see Lilly again and she’ll end up marrying Sam Lubinsky.
In 1938, Lubinsky has to arrest Swede after he insists on taking the rap for Kitty’s stolen jewellery. He gets a three year jail sentence, sharing a cell with a wily veteran of petty crime named Charleston and never receiving any word from Kitty, before being released early for good behaviour.
In 1940, now both out of jail, Charleston turns Swede on to a heist about to go down, organised by Jim Colfax, a big time crook who happens to be accompanied by his moll: none other than Kitty Collins. The Swede is drawn in, as much by the return of Kitty into his life as by the lure of the $250,000 the men plan to rob. The heist goes ahead and they get away with the money, but complications arise after that. Colfax tries to swindle the Swede out of his share; Kitty warns the Swede; Swede finds Colfax and associates and takes all of the money himself, returning to Kitty with whom he plans to elope. The next day, Swede finds Kitty and the money gone without a trace, leaving him suicidal. Only a hotel maid saves him from killing himself, and for this Swede will make her the unknowing beneficiary of his life insurance policy.
In 1946, Swede is now working as a gas station attendant in Brentwood, where one day a car from out of town happens to drive in asking for gas. The man behind the wheel is Colfax, and a few days later it is his hired killers who do away with Swede. I’ve left out a few extra turns, twists and double-crosses, but this is the gist of everything made up by the flashbacks, eliding what Swede never could find out while he was alive.
In this film so obsessed with the past returning to haunt the present, Swede is continually brought back to life, by the film’s flashbacks, and of course by Burt Lancaster in a star-making performance. He incarnates the mystery man whose life the film’s jigsaw pieces urge us to reassemble, a man of contradictions, whose arc takes him from doggedly never-say-die boxer to someone tired of living who accepts, even perhaps welcomes, his death in Zen-like manner. This allows Lancaster to show off his acting range in what was his first film role. The Swede may be a thief but Lancaster literally steals the scenes, often arriving only midway through the flashback sequences, adding to his mystery as a man we only know at a remove. The Swede, with all his aliases and identity crisis, is different according to different narrators.
As a result, Lancaster has to sometimes play a numb shell of a man expecting death’s knock at his door, at others a mere gas station attendant forced to do a subtle double-take when the ghosts of his past come driving back to haunt him into the pits of his stomach, at other times still he is the infatuated lover to Kitty’s siren serenades, and at brief but fleeting interludes he is the jovial, swaggering racketeer. A man’s life is a complex, multi-faceted thing and the only certainty about The Swede, as we navigate the mosaic of his life, is the nature of his death. Beginning with this death lends the narrative an unshakeable pre-destination, and forces us to try to rationalise the shuffled portrait of the Swede into some kind of clear line, from Swede the determined fighter, via Swede the criminal, down to Swede the weary gas station attendant, with some difficulty. So the first lesson of The Killers is the near-impossibility of summing up one man’s life (as in Citizen Kane), but what can it tell us about the individual decisions that seal his fate?
II. Written in the stars
One small detail which stands out for me in this film is the first of Charleston’s two flashbacks, a brief sequence which relays a moment he and Swede shared together in their jail cell by looking at the stars. Charleston may be a veteran thief who’s spent half his life in stir but over the years he’s developed a hobby as an amateur astronomer and points out the constellations to Swede, who seems mildly impressed despite everything else on his mind. This is one moment of rare peace and simple companionship for the Swede in this film. But apart from adding colour and character, what is the purpose of this scene?
The immediate temptation is to connect this moment to the post-war mood and Existentialism. In a world seen increasingly as god-less, these two lonely men look up at the heavens, once expected to provide guidance and consolation, and find nothing but cosmic emptiness. In the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima world this is a general feeling which it’s easy to imagine as pervasive. Certainly, Siodmak was an intellectual and the upshot of Sartre’s and Camus’ ideas made some mark on many film noirs. After all this is a film about the Swede’s existence, about his finding the will to live after that suicide attempt in 1940, and the will to choose to face his death the way he faces it in 1946, echoing Camus’ notion of a Sisyphean character. His life now remains forever stuck in this loop of flashbacks intermittently brought back from the dead in fragments to be rearranged. (Incidentally, the only two interviewees met by Reardon whose testimony does not induce any flashbacks are the same two who are dead by the end of the film; if we think of the film as a loop in which Swede’s life repeats itself in fragments, then the absence of their respective flashbacks may be explained by their deaths putting them out of the loop, in the same realm as Swede himself.) Likewise, Sartre was inspired by Jean Genet’s romanticisation of criminal protagonists to turn the criminal into an existentalist hero, a man determined to live in the moment and refusing to be defined by his past.
The Killers is definitely in dialogue with all these ideas — just think about the existential death Swede goes through after being forced to retire as a boxer, the one thing that defined him, due to a crippled right hand. But there is another way to interpret this inclusion of amateur astronomy. Charleston is the one dissenting voice in the film, the only one who directly warns the Swede about being led astray into the wrong path, especially by the charms of Kitty Collins. He also pulls out of the heist, no doubt as he has a bad feeling over it. It is no coincidence that he is the only one wise enough to foresee what trouble lies ahead, since as a stargazer he (literally and figuratively) can read the zodiac. In some small way he is a sort of holy fool, able to see the fate pre-destined to Swede and it is only later that Swede will realise this, screaming “Charleston was right”, as he descends into a suicidal frenzy. Later in the film, Siodmak shoots another even briefer moment which serves no real narrative purpose, but underlines the significance of fate, stars and constellations. Reardon is staking out in the Swede’s ex-room, and unveils the drape hung to cover the bullet holes on the wall, the physical legacy of Swede’s death. The holes form a clear visual rhyme to the constellation of stars carved out on the wall of Charleston and Swede’s cell. His fate and his death were both written in the stars.
III. Out like a light
If the existential cynicism of noir remains so appealing — and was perhaps even cathartic to post-war audiences needing a new kind of mood to describe a new perspective on the world — it is largely down to the style in which it is packaged. Stylistically, The Killers has a lot going for it: unedited fluid camera movement is favoured whenever possible (including the two-minute single-take crane shot for the factory heist, as methodical and effective as the work of the criminals themselves), while Siodmak and his DP Elwood Bredell have a knack for complex and cramped compositions fitting four or five characters into the frame.
But where this film really comes to define the film noir aesthetic is in its use of lighting effects, mixing dark shadows with intense shafts of light to create high-contrast compositions. Siodmak, like so many of the directors who built up the film noir canon, was a European emigré who was directly familiar with German Expressionist cinema, where the inner mood of characters was reflected externally in the world they live in, in the sets, in the lighting. All these external elements come to express something about the general interior psychology. Film noir takes this idea and infuses its seedy universe with unbalanced lighting that makes even the most inconspicuous of settings seem unnatural and off-kelter. The even lighting and soft focus of more cheery Hollywood genres is no longer appropriate, except to be contrasted with the more pervasive shadows of noir. Just look at the difference between the cosy domestic life of Sam and Lilly Lubinsky in its even, balanced lighting, versus the prominent shadows standing in for the inner turmoil of Swede and Kitty.
Shadows connote the dark, repressed side of individual psyches out of which sinister, unknown feelings can emerge. But there is also a necessary contrast between darkness and light in every shot. I began by describing the pitch-black silhouettes of the two killers arriving in Brentwood, but those silhouettes exist thanks to the glaring white lights of the streetlamps and diner. Visually, film noir does not just have darkness, it has shafts of intense brightness too, inseparable from the obscurity. Such moody lighting in which dark and light wrestle each other is apt for a film where a battle for one man’s soul is in the balance. If this intense light emphasises the role of the killers as agents of fate, we can apply the same logic to another image later in the film, during the flashback showing us Sam’s account of Swede’s ill-fated final boxing match.
As the two men part ways, just after Swede has scoffed at the idea of joining the police force — “$2200 a year? Some months I made that much in one month” he bitterly tells Sam — the camera lingers on him walking away into a symbolic tunnel of light. His choice, his rejection of Sam’s offer (and of Sam’s friendship, since this is the last time they’ll ever meet amicably), out of greed or laziness or the desire for quick money, marks a point of no return for Swede. Sam can do nothing but look on, and we are left to likewise ponder what might have been for Swede had he made a different decision. From this point on, the one choice Swede will have left to make will be to face his onslaught of bullets with a resigned sense of acceptance, all those years later. As we see him turn into a black silhouette, we feel that this is his metaphorical death, after his existential death in no longer being able to box. It is at this juncture, disappearing into the light of the wrong path, that his fate really is sealed, although the ‘gaelic harps’ of Kitty Collins will soon sink him even further.
The impulsiveness that led Swede to reject any kind of honest work is the same trait that lands him in the trap of one of noir’s great spider women: Kitty Collins, as played by Ava Gardner in the film’s other star-making role. Siodmak and producer Mark Hellinger wanted fresh faces to add authenticity, so that these were characters whose only past associations for the audience came from the narrative of The Killers, not prior movies. So Gardner’s mix of mellifluous siren, heartless spider woman, and tragic anti-heroine creates the heady cocktail that goes right to Swede’s head and into his very being — notice how during the central heist scene he masks himself with Kitty’s handkerchief, his face literally covered by her memento speaks of how much his own identity is strung along by her influence. But the lightbulb moment came long before that, when he first sees her and hears her sing at that fatal party, hypnotised by her until he completely forgets he actually came with the less immediately glamorous Lilly. His eyes are only on Kitty, the incandescent femme fatale, whose siren call comes in the form of the song ‘The More I Know of Love’, performed next to a grand piano on which shines a lamp. The Swede is powerless to be anything other than drawn like a moth to the flame. He may have escaped the TKO on his final fight, but from thereon he was still out like a light, sleepwalking towards his fate like a sacrificial patsy.
IV. All roads lead to…
Finally, let’s reach the end of the line by discussing a motif that connects The Killers both to the theme of fate and to other film noirs: the road. The physical tarmac road upon which motorcars drive, as symbol for something else, for the inexorable momentum of fate or of life itself perhaps. The road as analogy for the journey of life, those key decisions (those Swede gets wrong) as crossroads, the signposts (“You’re now entering Brentwood, New Jersey — Drive carefully”) as scant guidance.
With this in mind, another small, but not insignificant, detail in The Killers is Swede’s occupation during his ‘second life’, that six-year period between 1940 and 1946 which the film essentially omits — a yearspan coinciding with WW2, probably not a coincidence as this early cycle of film noirs often deliberately conveyed a metaphorical amnesia towards the war as a sort of blank that haunted through its absence.
All we know is that the Swede started a new life doing what he’d rejected at that crucial crossroads with Sam Lubinsky: an honest living, in this case working at a petrol station in the town of Brentwood. This fact becomes curiouser when we remember that in another seminal film noir, released just one year later, Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Robert Mitchum’s character similarly attempts to flee from his prior missteps by moving to a small town and working at… you guessed it, a petrol station. What is it with film noirs and petrol stations?
Like the diner, petrol stations seem so characteristic of middle America, but let’s ask what petrol stations might mean in the wider American iconography, and let’s answer with Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Gas. In Hopper’s frame, several kinds of transition points converge: a lonely, middle-aged attendant (has he also fled from the past like Lancaster and Mitchum’s noir antiheroes?) is closing shop as day makes way for night; the petrol station itself is rural, a waystation between the city and the mythical American wilderness; and this then reminds us that the building of roads may stand for the transition from the old West, when petrol stations would have been staging posts for horses, into an industrialised modernity. In other words, the petrol station is one more avatar of Manifest Destiny. All this to say that the American road system can be interpreted as a circuit upon which agents of fate travel: after all, it is Colfax’s coincidental drives through Swede’s gas station which puts his grim demise into gear.
Both Lancaster and Mitchum’s characters wish these petrol stations to be pit stops, places to pause from the flow of traffic that is the road of fate and life. But they offer merely temporary respite. And more than this, they are intersections in which fate can reveal a few more tricks up its sleeve. In both The Killers and Out of the Past, the past returns via cars, both driving right into their gas stations. You cannot reverse time and nor can you out-drive your fate. In film noir, you might have free will to an extent, but take one wrong turn and you’ll end up mired in moral quicksand. In the end, wherever the Swede hides away, his pre-destination always had one terminus and it was a cul-de-sac.