Universal International's THE KILLERS (1946) is arguably the finest Noir ever to come out of Hollywood. It certainly has the most effective opening scene of anything that was ever seen in a film of this type before or after. Bright street lighting throws long dark shadows on the street that emanate from the two wanton and pernicious hit men of the title as they stealthily walk to a diner in the small town of Brentwood seeking their prey. With stunning monochrome cinematography by Elwood Bredell and underscored by the ominous pulsating music of Miklos Rozsa it is one of the most perfectly conceived sequences ever seen on the screen. From a short story by Ernest Hemingway THE KILLERS was beautifully adapted and written for the screen by Anthony Vieller and bracingly directed by master craftsman Robert Siodmak. This was the second of three high tension crime thrillers produced for the studio by Mark Hellinger - the other two being "Brute Force" (1947) and "Naked City" (1948)
A brooding Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays ex prizefighter Ole Anderson known as the "Swede" who has buried himself in the unknown town of Brentwood where he works at a filling station. But the "Swede" is a man with a past! Years before he was involved in a robbery and after double crossing the gang he absconded with the loot. Now it's payback time and two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) have been sent to Brentwood to "take him out".("Why do you want to kill the "Swede" asks the barman in the diner "We're killing him for a friend" replies Conrad coldly). But the "Swede" doesn't run and is strangely reticent about his impending fate. Even his friend Nick Adams (Phil Brown) warns him about the two strangers in the diner intending to kill him. "Why do they want to kill you" Nick asks........."I did something wrong ......once" responds a resigned "Swede". Later after the killers fulfil their grisly contract (a brilliantly intense heart stopping scene) an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned to find out the whole story about the Swede. And in flashback we see how he fell in love with the beautiful Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) wife of gang boss (Albert Dekker) and the series of events and double crosses that occurred before and after the heist that ultimately led to his killing.
Performances are excellent from all concerned. Lancaster is terrific as the ill-fated "Swede" and Ava Gardner never looked more ravishing than she does here. But superb are those in smaller parts such as gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert, Jeff Corey, Sam Lavene as a cop and not forgetting the perfect casting of William Conrad and the chilling Charles McGraw as the title characters. Carrying the whole thing along is the extraordinary nominated atmospheric score by the great Miklos Rozsa. His raw biting music with terse rhythms and musical hammer blows adds immeasurably to the picture. ( Curiously his motif for the two killers was "stolen" and used without permission as the theme for the long running TV series "Dragnet" in the early fifties.) Rozsa'a music for films came in three distinct phases. The first phase was his writing for fantasy films which included "Thief Of Bagdad" (1940) and "Jungle Book" (1942). THE KILLERS came from the second phase which covered his output for psychological and crime thrillers like "Spellbound" (1946), "Lost Weekend" (1945) and "Brute Force" (1947). Then finally his third phase - for which he is best known - covered his work on historical and epic subjects like "Quo Vadis" (1951), "Ivanhoe" (1952),"Ben Hur" (1959) and "El Cid" (1962).These films all had unequalled rich highly textured vibrant scores.
Rozsa's powerful music is but one aspect alongside editing, cinematography, directing, writing and great performances that makes THE KILLERS an exceptional work of cinematic art. Here is a movie that maintains a palpable dramatic thrust throughout its running time. Few films achieve this. THE KILLERS does ....in spades!
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