Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”
Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.
The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.
The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.
When I made my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie (i.e. before 1960) I had no idea where it would take me. I’ve discovered so many terrific films due to this challenge and the limited, but good selection at my local DVD store.
A prime example is the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling, opportunistic press agent who’s both manipulating and manipulated as he tries to get the powerful J.J. Hunsecher played by Burt Lancaster to write about his clients. It’s a career based on lies, begging and creating an icy cool image. J.J. is based on Walter Winchell, a columnist who pioneered the celebrity beat. Here J.J. gets Sidney to break up a romance between his sister and a jazz musician. No one would be good enough for J.J.’s sister Susie. There’s definitely a weird one way vibe between J.J. and Susie, who’s in love with clean cut Dallas.
Sidney has few scruples about setting up Dallas. The one time he objects to J.J.’s plan, he capitulates. Anything to further his career. Sidney lives on the edge in a corrupt world with edgy, witty dialog and high stakes. The few times his maneuvers don’t work, like when he tries to blackmail one of J.J.’s rivals, it backfires. Sidney never thought that someone in his field might prefer to come clean to his wife than to do his bidding. Sidney’s doomed as he’s neither as powerful as J.J. or honest like Dallas or the clean-when-forced-to-be columnist.
The Sweet Smell of Success is set in a kind of hell, a hell with witty reparteés, stylish women and men in sharp suits sipping martini’s. It’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to come within a mile of any of the characters.
I’m now re-watching with the Criterion Collection commentary to eke all I can from the film.