CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
I'll confess I'm not a massive fan of films of the 1940s: I generally like more recent productions and for me the Golden Age runs from the late seventies through the eighties. Still, I'm not entirely immune to the charms of much older movies and 1946's The Killers is an absolute corker of a vintage film noir that knocks the stuffing out of around eighty per cent of this year's shiny new attractions. Somehow I had never seen this before, but 68 years later it’s one of the highlights of the year: terse, tense, visually rich and always absorbing, an absolute revelation (especially if your recent viewing has included some less than prime Jean Claude Van Damme knockabouts).
Ernest Hemingway's original 1926 short story forms the opening act of the film: two hired guns arrive at a small-town diner and harass the staff and solitary customer while openly announcing their intent to kill the local gas station attendant, a man known as The Swede (Burt Lancaster in his film debut). But inexplicably, when The Swede gets word of this, he doesn't run, he doesn't fight, he just waits. The rest of the movie (partially scripted by an unbilled John Huston) has a surprisingly cheerful and casual insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) looking into the killing and uncovering The Swede’s past (presented as a series of flashbacks) as a washed-up boxer seduced into a life of crime by an alluring femme fatale (Ava Gardner), suckered into a payroll robbery and double-crossed for the loot….
It’s shot in that wonderful style of 40s noir: harsh, crisp black and white in which even scenes in darkened rooms are clearly visible, and it still looks fantastic today. The robbery sequence is a set piece highlight, filmed in one single crane shot with no cuts, and the earlier boxing scene is crunchingly painful. Burt Lancaster’s a star right from his first shots, Ava Gardner is gorgeous, and there’s a Miklos Rosza score (some of which was later reworked into the Dragnet theme) on top. Bottom line: I really enjoyed The Killers and it’s definitely worth picking up.