Tonight's double bill at the Noir City Film Festival honored director Robert Siodmak.
First up was CRY OF THE CITY (1948), starring Victor Mature and Richard Conte. I reviewed it last year and enjoyed it even more in a gorgeous 35mm print. An excellent film with two of the great noir actors in the leading roles.
The second half of the evening's fare was THE KILLERS (1946). It was my first time to see this classic, which has an amazing cast and is filled with iconic noir images. I had a tremendous time watching it, starting with the opening moments when hit men William Conrad and Charles McGraw stroll into a small-town diner.
The story quickly continues with a man named Swede (Burt Lancaster) done in by the hitmen. From there, his story is told in a cascade of fast-paced flashbacks as an insurance investigator, Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien), pieces together Swede's life as he interviews various people.
Jim meets Police Lt. Sam Lubisnky (Sam Levene), who grew up with Swede; Sam's wife Lily (Virginia Christine), who once loved Swede; Big Jim Kolfax (Albert Dekker), who masterminded a robbery in which Swede participated; and Kolfax's girl -- and Swede's obsession -- the gorgeous Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).
This film is so well known that I feel it's a title where I may not have a great deal new to contribute, but a couple personal impressions. First, it's rather curious that Burt Lancaster has been in a number of excellent films I've enjoyed -- including another classic noir, CRISS CROSS (1949) -- yet I've always felt I can take him or leave him as an actor. Maybe it's the fact that he so often excelled at playing weak, dumb clucks or egomaniacs, but I find that I tend to be more interested in the characters surrounding him, and so it was with this film -- which worked out well, given that he dies at the outset! This was Lancaster's first film, and he immediately became a star.
The joy for me was in the film's great look, the interesting story, and the other performers, starting with favorites Edmond O'Brien and Sam Levene; Levene was also seen by me Sunday in GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950). O'Brien could play a tortured noir hero with the best of them, but here he's the light note in a dark film, a charmer as the enthusiastic insurance detective.
Levene always manages to imbue his characters with a warm humanity in limited screen time, and he and Virginia Christine are appealingly teamed.
As for Ava Gardner, what can be said? She's amazingly beautiful, photographed in stunning black and white by Woody Bredell. Along with Yvonne DeCarlo of CRISS CROSS, she is certainly one of the ultimate noir femme fatales.
And William Conrad and Charles McGraw? In their coats and fedoras, they are film noir.
If one were to make an "intro to film noir" list, THE KILLERS would surely have to be in the top half dozen or so titles to illustrate the genre. I almost regret it has taken me so long to catch up with this great movie -- yet I can't be sorry that I waited to see it in a perfectly projected, shimmering 35mm print. It was an experience I will treasure, especially as watching "real film" will perhaps inevitably become a more rare experience in the future, even on the classic film circuit.
The movie runs 103 minutes. The screenplay by Anthony Veiller was based on Ernest Hemingway's story; the movie's clever flashback structure was also developed by an uncredited John Huston.
THE KILLERS was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a nomination for director Siodmak; it didn't take any Oscars home, as the awards were swept that year by THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946). Incidentally, the great Oscar-nominated score by Miklos Rozsa is apparently where TV's DRAGNET theme originated. I did a mental double-take when I first heard the classic notes playing on the movie soundtrack.
THE KILLERS is out on DVD from Criterion. The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix. It also had a release on VHS.
Southern Californians have the chance to see THE KILLERS when it will be shown again on May 4th at the Burt Lancaster Centennial festival at UCLA, paired with CRISS CROSS. The evening will be hosted by the Film Noir Foundation's Alan Rode.
Most highly recommended.