Although some noir movies came earlier and some came later, to me, the 1940s was the decade of the film noir. There are any number of great ones to choose from this period: Double Indemnity, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past, and the list goes on.
As for me, I can only focus in on one (for now), and my goal here isn’t to direct you toward the obvious. I consider the movies I’ve mentioned above to be classics of that genre. But what to do once you’re done with those? I’m recommending you start by checking out The Killers.
Before I begin, I should clarify that I don’t mean to imply that The Killers is some undiscovered gem. It was nominated for four Academy Awards the year it was released, and was selected to the National Film Registry just last year. So clearly people appreciated it then, and still do today. Even so, I don’t think it garners quite the same degree of recognition that other similar films from the same period do. If you ask most people to name a noir film, this is unlikely to be the first one to come to mind.
Released in 1946, The Killers stars Burt Lancaster (in his first feature film), Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien. The screenplay was partly based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The rest was written by Anthony Veiller (who was nominated for an Oscar), Richard Brooks, and the legendary John Huston, although Brooks and Huston were uncredited.
The first scene in the movie sees two gangsters with murder on their minds breeze into a small town one evening. They terrorize the occupants of a diner while they wait for their quarry to come to them. When he fails to show, they opt for a more direct approach.
This film grabs you right from the get-go. Charles McGraw and William Conrad have a great time playing the two gangsters. Their dialogue is taken directly from Hemingway’s writing, and it’s delivered convincingly and menacingly. The original story ended after the opening diner scene, so the aforementioned trio of writers extrapolate what happens from there. Thankfully, it’s a pretty skillful extrapolation that preys heavily on noir conventions, including the femme fatale, the tireless investigator, and the traditional convoluted ending of double crosses galore. Although Veiller’s writing is solid, some of the dialogue lacks the snap that was evident in Hemingway’s portion. Fortunately, the film’s brisk pacing helps to keep the movie from getting bogged down.
After the opening scene, the movie follows insurance investigator Jim Reardon (played by O’Brien) as he tries to unravel the circumstances behind a seemingly simple crime that the city cops say they would rather to leave to the state police.
O’Brien plays the role as a doggedly determined man. His persistence, though never fully explained, is certainly challenged, particularly by his boss R.S. Kenyon (played by Donald MacBride). When Reardon brushes off new assignments and asks for more time to investigate on his current case, Kenyon can only bark “I’d fire you,” before cracking a smile and adding, “If I didn’t know you’d go right over to more money at Prudential.” We see that despite his reservations, Kenyon does not want to lose Reardon. As for Reardon himself, he appears to simply hate loose ends. Though that may seem a rather dubious motivation, it works well enough.
Reardon’s investigation is realized as a series of flashbacks, as each lead he follows brings him ever closer to the truth. Director Robert Siodmak and editor Arthur Hilton use these flashbacks to great effect throughout the film, but particularly during one scene which depicts a daring robbery carried out in broad daylight. The scene unfolds as Kenyon reads aloud from a newspaper article about the hold-up. His words act as a narration as we see the robbery take place. It’s a precisely choreographed scene that lasts about 2 minutes and never cuts, showing the carefully-planned crime from beginning to end. Both Siodmak and Hilton earned Oscar nominations for their work on The Killers.
I also have to mention the score for this film, which was composed by Miklos Rozsa. The score is a great addition to an already solid film. It serves to heighten the drama at key moments and really adds to the experience. Rozsa had 16 Oscar nominations in his lengthy career, and one of them was for The Killers.
In the end I don’t think there’s a single aspect of this film that isn’t interesting in some way. Acting, directing, music, editing, cinematography, script – there’s a lot to like. Despite a few flaws, it’s still definitely worth watching.