Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: Robert Siodmak
Way back sometime in high school I read the short story The Killers by Hemingway, and like most 17 year olds reading Hemingway, it hit me over the head like a sledgehammer.* It's a taught bit about the nature of the inevitable - by those who dole it out, those on the receiving end, and those caught up in its wake.
About twenty years after publication of Hemingway's story, it was adapted into a film starring a fresh-faced actor by the name of Burt Lancaster. Lancaster hadn't really acted before, but he walked into movies with a natural talent, charisma and muscley torso that kept him working long enough that I knew him as one of the retirement age gangsters in Tough Guys released 4 decades later.
The movie also introduced Ava Gardner to mass audiences, and broke her as a major star for decades to come. Bonus: If you need to get an idea of what to put next to "femme fatale" in the dictionary, Gardner's Kitty Collins is a phenomenal example (then put Jane Greer next to her).
But the movie opens on an empty small-town street with two men in the forms of William Conrad and Charles McGraw entering a cafe and - for the next ten minutes the movie mostly re-creates the scene from the short story, nearly word-for-word, minus some racial slurs and some logistical stuff. And, if you were a 17-year-old once who read Hemingway, its wild to see Nick Adams as a minor supporting character in a movie.
It's a hell of a scene. Taught stuff that movies have been trying to recreate now for almost 80 years - almost 100 if you count back to the release of the short story.
The rest of the film has the tough chore of going back and starting at the beginning and working its way back to the opening sequence. Eventually, it earns the sequence, but the tone never quite matches the first ten minute again. Using the flashback-via-investigator framing made famous by Citizen Kane (released 5 years earlier) the movie relies on Edmond O'Brien to play an insurance investigator trying to find out why a man set up a woman he met once as his life-insurance beneficiary. But I'll be dipped if I can say what he's actually investigating and why. It seems like he answers work-related questions by the film's halfway point. I don't know if he was looking to deny the payout or recover the money the Swede took.
What the film does do is create a good detective story infused with what would become hallmarks of noir. Femme fatales. Flashbacks. Disposable hoods. Character actors being characters. A scramble for money. Low-level gang bosses with more hair tonic than brains. And all the secrets to come spilling out in the final reel as no one escapes their fate. The only thing it's missing is Elisha Cook Jr.
Anyway, I very much enjoyed a rewatch. It's a kick of a movie.
*my understanding from social media is that Hemingway is no longer fashionable with the kids because (gestures at everything about Hemingway).
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