Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Killers (1946)

Editor's note: This week's Film Noir of the Week is from film noir historian Bill Hare. Bill previous Noir of the Week on John Huston is not to be missed. He has written a number of books on film including Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style.

Two Dynamic Newcomers Light up Screen

By Bill Hare

Picture a conversation involving producer Mark Hellinger talking in the Universal Commissary over lunch with a tried and true professional we will call Mr. Conventional Wisdom. The conversation proceeds as follows:

Hellinger: I acquired the rights to Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” and I’ll be doing a film on it.

Mr. Conventional Wisdom: Great move, Mark! Big name writer! Great PR right off the bat. So you’ve got a big name leading man to match, right? Got it cast?

Hellinger: Actually I’ve got a newcomer. Broad-shouldered young guy just out of the service. He just did a play on Broadway. Closed right away but it wasn’t his fault.

Mr. Conventional Wisdom: What? You’re kidding me, right?

Hellinger: No, not at all.

Mr. Conventional Wisdom: Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all. I figure, though, that you’ve got a big name leading lady opposite him. That’ll kind of balance things out. So you got a leading lady lined up?

Hellinger: Oh yes. Definitely.

Mr. Conventional Wisdom: Who is she?

Hellinger: Actually she’s a newcomer too.

Mr. Conventional Wisdom: What? You out of your mind, Mark? Two newcomers in the leads? Tell me you’re kidding!

Hellinger may well have had more than one conversation of the aforementioned variety when he revealed his casting choices in one of the most perfectly executed films in the history of the industry. The words that separate the conventional types who are prevented from reaching the gigantic heights that a Mark Hellinger scaled are “creative imagination,” the ability to catch those sparks. Those of creative skill recognize star power while those of lesser skill almost invariably miss.

Manhattan Giant

Mark Hellinger was one of those colorful show business figures called a legend in his own time. A leading New York City columnist, he reportedly had a regular reading audience of 18 million. A drama critic as well as a columnist, a Broadway theater would be ultimately named after him. The perpetual man about town lived the part all the way to his marital choice, with his wife a beautiful former showgirl.

Hellinger’s shrewd eye took him to his native Manhattan bastion as his attention riveted on a broad-shouldered Army USO man who made his living as an acrobat and had appeared in a Broadway play in which he attracted attention, despite its early closure. “A Sound of Hunting” played the Lyceum Theater for two weeks, but the star’s raw magnetism impressed film scouts. A fellow member of the cast, character performer Sam Levene, knew just the person to handle this dynamic East Harlem hunk.

Harold Hecht would not only represent superstar Burt Lancaster; he would become a partner with him in the highly successful independent production company of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. The team would achieve history by becoming the first independent production unit to secure an Academy Award for “Best Film” with the 1955 release “Marty” starring Ernest Borgnine, who garnered a “Best Actor” Oscar.

Hellinger had first sought burly leading man Wayne Morris, who had performed in various films as a professional fighter, with his most notable role in this genre being the 1937 Warner Brothers release “Kid Galahad” also starring Edward G. Robinson. Since the male lead of “The Killers” Ole Anderson is a former professional fighter Morris was an understandable choice of interest, but Hellinger looked elsewhere after investigating the size of the loan out cost Warner Brothers demanded for his services.

Lancaster filled the bill as a physical type for the tragic male figure of Hemingway’s short story while his superb dramatic instincts filled in the rest of the necessary equation for the role. Ole Anderson was ultimately a big lost kid vulnerably exposed to be devoured by the right woman.



Part Two of the Dynamic Equation

So a shrewd and confident Mark Hellinger defied conventional wisdom once by signing a newcomer in Burt Lancaster to play an important key dramatic role in a major Universal Pictures presentation. So why did he not at least, as conventional wisdom assuredly dictated, hedge his bet by casting a box office tested female lead?

Kitty Collins, the ruthless femme fatale, was the kind of woman who could literally reduce poor Ole Anderson to a panting hunk willing to do anything to achieve the kind of all-encompassing love he desired but would never be able to attain.

Creative instinct is the hallmark of great filmmaking. Hellinger possessed a great eye for talent with much experience from his Broadway theatrical days. He knew female animal magnetism when he saw it and also knew supreme beauty. Therefore, newcomer or not, when he saw a screen test of a young actress fresh from North Carolina named Ava Gardner, Hellinger knew he had found Kitty Collins the ruthless temptress.

Raw, combustible energy is the grist of cinematic drama. One of the best kinds, so familiar in the film noir genre, is silent energy. One of the premier scenes in Hollywood annals involving that kind of silent energy, that explosive chemistry, occurs when Burt Lancaster, after his character Ole Anderson’s final and losing ring battle, is invited to a party and becomes mesmerized by the sultry singer sitting at a piano.

Once that Lancaster observes Gardner his attention is so strongly fixed on her that he forgets everything and everyone else, including the fact that he is with his regular girlfriend, played by Virginia Christine. Christine’s response is to switch her order from a soft drink to hard liquor, knowing that her boyfriend has fallen hard for another woman.

The initial meeting between Lancaster and Gardner is comparable for raw, electrifying, and silent sensuality to the initial meeting of John Garfield and Lana Turner in a noir film also released in 1946, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

In addition to securing a devastating team in Lancaster and Gardner, Hellinger, in tapping German émigré Robert Siodmak as director, had a skilled craftsman with valuable film noir experience prior to directing “The Killers.” Siodmak, who had escaped the wrath of Hitler along with his screenwriting brother Curt, had registered impressively just two years earlier in directing a bona fide noir classic.

Introducing “Phantom Lady”

Siodmak’s earlier foray into the film noir realm came with “Phantom Lady,” in which a loving secretary seeks to save her boss, with whom she falls deeply in love, from a date in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Brunette beauty Ella Raines typified the wholesome girl next door, and in “Phantom Lady” she works overtime in a battle against the clock to find a lady wearing a large distinctive hat, played by Fay Helm, who is boss Alan Curtis’ lone alibi after his wife has been found strangled.

Curtis, an engineer, believes that Franchot Tone is his best friend, but the bizarre genius architect has a dark side and has attempted to set up Curtis. When Raines seeks to play sleuth by extracting information from professional drummer Elisha Cook Jr., who seeks to seduce her, she ends up inadvertently costing Cook his life.

The mystery is kept very much in play throughout, with detective Thomas Gomez, who initially arrested Curtis for murder, becoming a convert as to Curtis’ innocence and assisting Raines in her efforts.

The mystery element is explored with devastatingly brilliant results in “The Killers” as well with the object in this case being the money confiscated in the robbery of a hat factory with Lancaster victimized by the beauty of Gardner along with the cleverness of mob boss Albert Dekker.

Both “Phantom Lady” and “The Killers” were adaptations of works by celebrated American authors. In the latter case, as mentioned, the author was Ernest Hemingway while Cornell Woolrich, whose “Rear Window” was brilliantly adapted by the team of director Alfred Hitchcock and scenarist John Michael Hayes, wrote the original story and Bernard Schoenfeld adapted it to the screen.



The issue confronting Anthony Veiller in adapting Hemingway’s short story is one of “Where do we go from here?” when so many details have been left out. The Hemingway short story, frequently read by college literature students for its brisk, clean prose and snappy dialogue, is completed largely in one scene.

Veiller, who approached this challenge shortly after spending the war writing episodes of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” documentary series, later adapted the play “State of the Union” (1948) to the screen for Capra. He also performed heavy duty for another directing legend, John Huston, in penning “Moulin Rouge” (1952) and adapting Tennessee Williams’ play “Night of the Iguana” (1964) while doing non-credited work on “Beat the Devil” (1957).

The veteran screenwriter shrewdly left the first scene set in the diner of a small New Jersey town basically as Hemingway wrote it. He did the same with the scene in which Nick Adams, Hemingway’s short story alter ego, darts over to the rooming house where the former fighter lives and warns him that his life is in danger.

Two superb character performers who would later became famous leading men of television, Charles McGraw and William Conrad, play vicious hit men with sarcastic and acerbic verbal demeanors. As they wait in vain for Lancaster to come there for dinner so they can hopefully dispose of him, they ridicule the diner’s proprietor for his evening special that they sardonically and repeatedly refer to as “the big dinner.”

The scene in the small room rented by Lancaster in which he lies on his bed wearing trousers and undershirt, reveals a man who will run no more and has exiled himself to the fates. They will surely and promptly emerge in the forms of McGraw and Conrad. Young Phil Brown as Nick Adams stares at the doomed ex-boxer with helpless resignation, knowing that the sad and tired victim will soon be dead and has lost the faith or the will to resist what he deems an inevitable fate.



Part Two and Creating a Story

Since the Hemingway short story ended with Nick Adams delivering a warning to a former boxer pursued by the mob, it was up to Anthony Veiller to create a devastating part two to the story, filling in the blanks by flashback as to how the hapless Ole Anderson attained his ultimate fate of being gunned down by a team of ruthless mob hit men.

Veiller chose to open the second and longer part of the story through the eyes and ears of a curious insurance investigator wondering why a quiet, unobtrusive man working as a gas station attendant in a small New Jersey town would attract the attention of presumably big city mobsters and become a murder victim.

Playing the role of the investigator was Edmond O’Brien. His determined manner and pursuit of the truth was reminiscent of O’Brien in a film noir classic released three years later, D.O.A. In that instance O’Brien had been given a slow acting but lethal dose of luminous toxic poison. O’Brien spent the final day of his life tracking down his own killer.

O’Brien’s quest for truth and justice in “The Killers” takes him to Philadelphia. He then finds a retired Philadelphia detective who assists him in his pursuit. Playing the boyhood friend of Lancaster who ends up on the other side of the law is Lancaster’s New York acting pal who steered him to Harold Hecht.

Sam Levene not only was a boyhood Philadelphia friend of Lancaster’s; he ended up marrying his former girlfriend, Virginia Christine. At times Levene as a seasoned police officer sounds a lot like Trevor Howard warning Joseph Cotten in “The Third Man” (1949) to be careful in his vigilant pursuit of justice against the efforts of professional criminals adept at meting out instant death.

A Memorable Cast of Criminals

Veiller not only gives us an excellent mystery in which investigator O’Brien with the aid of Levene seeks to unravel what happened to the missing money stolen in the robbery of a hat factory; he presents a fascinating array of criminal types who battle one another in a race for the missing booty.

Veteran comedian and character actor Vince Barnett emerges as the film’s Greek chorus. As Lancaster’s cell mate, he entertains him by staring out the window of their cell as he discusses star formations and provides astronomy lessons.

While Lancaster listened to Barnett while they were prison mates, he failed to respond to his words of wisdom when he warned him to get away from Gardner. The wily Barnett declared that Gardner was poison for him. He also warned Lancaster not to become involved in any criminal enterprise run by Albert Dekker.

Jack Lambert displays a ruthless hunger in seeking to acquire the missing money. On one occasion he almost bumps off O’Brien after wresting a gun away from him. O’Brien is spared by the arrival of the police.

Jeff Corey was well known not only as a brilliant character performer, but as one of Hollywood’s best known drama coaches, numbering Jack Nicholson among his students. Corey is provided with one of the film’s most difficult acting challenges, which he performs with consummate gusto.

We observe and listen to a squirming, heavily perspiring, dying Corey mixing fact and hallucination after being shot by Lambert. O’Brien and Levene listen intently as the dying Corey reveals details of the hat factory job and other important facts along with mutterings.

The Strange Case of Albert Dekker

Albert Dekker and the devastating Ava Gardner form a fascinating crime team. Dekker has risen to the level of crime boss who gives orders to the likes of Lancaster, Lambert and Corey due to his intelligence. That shrewdness ultimately enables him to become a leading businessman and prominent figure in his community, but meanwhile O’Brien and Levene look into his past while Lambert and Corey are on the prowl for money they believe is owed to them.

Dekker starred in the 1940 science fiction-horror cult classic “Dr. Cyclops” and portrayed the brilliant but ultimately mad scientist in the 1955 film noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly.” His own life ended in a manner as mysteriously fascinating as any role he played on screen in his long career.

Dekker moved from Hollywood political activist to candidate for office and served his Hollywood district in the California State Assembly, courageous fighting for liberal causes and battling McCarthyism during the fifties.

He was found dead in his Hollywood apartment at 1731 N. Normandie, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, on May 5, 1968. Dekker was discovered in the bathroom hanging by the end of a rope, which was tied to the shower curtain rod. His hands were bound with a pair of handcuffs. Two hypodermic needles were stuck in his body.

Obscenities were scribbled all over the corpse, leading police to wonder at one point if Dekker had been killed in the midst of rough sex. Police originally listed his grotesque death as a suicide. Several days later the L.A. County Coroner’s Office ruled his death to be “accidental.” The conclusion was accompanied by a brief statement, “We have no information that Mr. Dekker planned to take his own life.”

The same area where Dekker met a bizarre death was the scene of two other grisly homicides. In 1960 a landlady was strangled by one of her tenants after they had returned from the Hunley Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The film they had just seen was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

During the seventies Vaughan Greenwood, the notorious “Skid Row Slasher,” after moving his murder spree from downtown Los Angeles claimed his last victim at an apartment in the same area by slashing his throat.

Forget the Remake

Universal Pictures continued to hold the rights to “The Killers” and remade the film almost two decades later. The 1964 release is as forgettable as its predecessor is unforgettable.

A trivia anecdote attaches to the 1964 release of “The Killers.” It marked the final film appearance of Ronald Reagan prior to running for governor of California two years later. Some critics have speculated that Reagan’s performance in the role previously enacted by Albert Dekker might have hastened his ensuing career change.



6 comments:

  1. Another super article! Boy Gardner was gorgeous and that chin of hers made her even more irresistible.

    I'm buying the book.

    Best--

    ;-) Luigi

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  2. Some facts about THE KILLERS(1946):
    Mark Hellinger's wife, Gladys Glad recommended Lancaster to her husband. John Huston holed up in a New York hotel room with Anthony Veiller to knock out the basic script during January 1946. Veiller paid Huston out of his own kick, but Hellinger was in communication with both men about the script. Ava Gardner was a M*G*M contract player who was offered up by Billy Grady, casting director at Metro as a substitute choice after Hellinger's first choice for "Kitty", Audrey Totter, opted for her assignment with Bob Montgomery in LADY IN THE LAKE.

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  3. living large: Wow. What was Totter thinking turning this one down for a turkey like Lady in the Lake?

    Thanks for posting the extra info. Huston's touches are clear now that I think about it.

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  4. Interesting background, but director Robert Siodmak should be given greater credit. Hellinger died before production commenced, giving Siodmak unprecededented creative control. Siodmak shifted the film's focus to the amore fou aspect of the Lancaster/Gardner relationship, while Hellinger was a hard-boiled type of guy.

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  5. brilliantly this gets a good and proper two weeks at the bfi in a new print as part of a burt lancaster season in feb.
    x

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  6. Splendid review (and anecdotes) of a film that must be regarded in the top five films noir. A masterpiece of the first order with outstanding achievements in cinematography, editing, acting and script. The quintessential noir.

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