This is the kind of noir thriller the word quintessential was minted for. ‘Tense! Taut! Terrific!’, ran the poster headline for Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s dark tale of two killers who arrive in Palookaville to top a former prizefighter. It might have added ‘Doom-laden! Curious! And Resigned!’.
‘The Killers’ – revived in a new print in the BFI Southbank’s Burt Lancaster Season – starts off in laconic Hemingway territory. ‘What do you want to eat, Al?’, says hitman Max (William Conrad). ‘I don’t know,’ says Al (Charles McGraw). ‘I don’t know what I want to eat’, with the goons displaying all the weary, matter-of-fact psychopathy Quentin Tarantino has spent a career trying to emulate.
Their quarry – boxer-turned-criminal ‘The Swede’ Andersen (Burt Lancaster) – plugged, the film spirals off in its expressionist, flashback-within-flashback investigation into his past, with Edmond O’Brien’s insurance man-investigator embodying a kind of fateful ‘curiosity’ in a pointedly less idealistic equivalent to the ‘tenacity’ with which Edward G Robinson unravels the themes and the characters in its pessimistic cousin, ‘Double Indemnity’.
It’s one of the great films of disenchantment. And one content to do without grandstanding moments – no crazy camera angles or paranoid rants. ‘High Sierra’ producer Mark Hellinger injects some of his taste for gritty realism into the location choice – boxing rings, ‘luncheon counters’, pool halls – just as cinematographer Woody Bredell’s chiaroscuro, long shadows and enclosed lighting and composer Miklós Rózsa’s discordant piano and portentous brass artfully conjure the strangely seductive atmosphere of post-war pessimism.
But like much pulp art and classic noir, subtext is king. German exile Siodmak declares its broken, defeated heart in a great early scene, where Lancaster, in a transfixing debut, emerges slowly from the shadows of his bunk to offer a weakly welcoming arm to his assailants – it’s what classicists might call an embrace of Thanatos. Was he slain by Ava Gardner’s femme fatale or his loser’s past? As contemporary audiences knew, he should have listened to his cell mate: ‘Stop listening to those golden harps, Swede’. Good advice, then and now.