Character Assassination: The Killers (1946)
Directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Garner, The Killers starts out with the murder of a gas station attendant known as “The Swede,” and spends the rest of its time showing us the hows, whys, and wherefores of the crime. There’s a lot to love about this 1946 noir – it features fast-paced direction, an awesome Miklos Rozsa score, a painterly use of lights and shadows, and an opening scene so good that I could put ice cream on top of it and eat it with a spoon. Best of all, for me, the film also serves up a mélange of fascinating, well-drawn characters. Here’s a look at some of the many standout personas in The Killers:
Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad)
We first see Al and Max – the “Killers” of the film’s title – underneath the opening credits. It’s a really distinctive entrance, especially since they don’t appear until about 35 seconds after the credits begin. If you’re not looking carefully, you may not even notice at first that they have entered the screen and are walking toward you. We don’t really find out a lot about these two, beyond the fact that they are stone-cold killers and are quick with a salty quip, which we learn when they visit the small-town diner that is frequented by a fellow by the name of Pete Lund, also known as The Swede. Demonstrating demeanors that are the very epitome of cool, Al and Max quietly take over the diner, beginning with the moment that they step inside (interestingly, they each enter from a different door and join each other at the counter. I don’t know why I find that particularly interesting – I just do! It somehow adds to their aura of bad-assery.).
The Swede (Burt Lancaster)
We are introduced to The Swede when a customer from the diner, Nick Adams (Phil Brown), arrives at his boarding house room with a warning about the killers who are on his path. The Swede submissively receives the news, conceding that he “did something wrong – once.” He doesn’t even bother to get out of his bed, let alone attempt to escape his impending demise. But why?
Through a series of unrelated flashbacks, we learn more about The Swede – not the least of which that his real name was not Pete Lund, but Ole Andreson, and that he was a former and once-promising prize-fighter whose career ended when he broke his hand. We also learn that he loved not too wisely, but too well – in the final analysis, it was his devotion to a gorgeous dame by the name of Kitty Collins that turned out to be his undoing, in more ways than one.
Jim Riordan (Edmond O’Brien)
An insurance investigator, Riordan was like a dog with a bone – he was determined to unearth the story behind The Swede’s murder, and he didn’t give up or give in; even getting kicked in the head – literally! – didn’t scare him away. I read in a review on another website that the film doesn’t make clear why Riordan is so passionate about the case, which, I suppose, is true. But it doesn’t really matter. He’s crafty, intelligent, and relentless, putting together the pieces of The Swede’s life and death like a puzzle master. He’s certainly not the most flashy character in the film, but he’s always interesting to watch.
Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene)
Lubinsky was Ole’s childhood friend – Ole went into boxing, Lubinsky joined the police force; he was at Ole’s first fight and his last. He was obviously devoted to his longtime friend, but on the surface, that might not be so evident. It was Lubinsky, for instance, who was responsible for sending Ole to jail for a three-year stretch for burglary (a crime he didn’t commit, incidentally – he was, instead, covering for a certain dame). Lubinsky also wound up marrying Ole’s former girlfriend, Lilly (Virginia Christine) – but they were such good friends that Ole served as best man. And when Lubinsky learned of his old friend’s murder, he sent for his body and, along with his wife, held a small service.
Lubinsky was no dummy, that’s for sure. The Swede himself described him as “one smart copper.” In an early scene, he easily nabs Kitty for some stolen jewelry, despite the fact that she cunningly (she thinks) stashes it in a bowl of leftover stew. Lubinsky teams up with Riordan and, together, this dynamic duo finally tracks down all of the principal players involved – whether directly or indirectly – in the murder of The Swede.
Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker)
Gang leader Jim was smooth, understated, and deadly. From the first time we see him, it’s apparent that he’s not the kind of guy you want to cross. We’re briefly introduced to Big Jim when he arrives at the gas station in Brentwood, California, where The Swede works. Although he doesn’t do more than make curt requests for car service, Big Jim’s piercing, unblinking stare makes his menace more than apparent. He demonstrates this trait again in a later scene, when he asks a member of his gang, Dum Dum (Jack Lambert), if he’d like to play a game of Blackjack. Dum Dum declines: “Not with you, I don’t. I know your reputation.” Big Jim barely reacts, except to give a rather humorless titter – he just continues smoking and playing with the cards. But a few minutes later, he calmly tells Dum Dum: “A minute ago, we were talking about reputations. Well, you’ve got quite a reputation yourself. You’re supposed to be a trouble-maker.” Jim then removes his cigarette from his mouth, practically impaling Dum Dum with his deadly gaze. “Okay,” he says. “Make some.” (Zing!)
Charleston (Vince Barnett)
Charleston (we don’t know whether that is his first name or his last) shared a cell with Ole during his stretch in prison – he’s a, shall we say, “seasoned” ex-con with a love for astronomy (“I don’t guess there’s a better place in the whole world for learning about stars than stir,” he tells Ole.). After the two are released, they meet with Big Jim and his gang about a planned payroll heist. Unlike the others, however, Charleston turns it down. “If it’s as big as you claim, it’s not going to be any easy pickings – nothing that big ever is,” he explains. “And that’s what I want from here on in. Easy pickings.” He attempts to share his wisdom with Ole, cryptically warning him against getting involved again with Kitty – but, unfortunately, Ole fails to catch the drift.
Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner)
Last, but positively not least – not if she has anything to say about it. Beautiful, raven-haired Kitty was passionate and fearless, duplicitous and self-centered – a femme fatale through and through. She may have been soft on the outside, but she was like steel on the inside, a fact that she shows in a scene where Big Jim threatens to slap her and Ole springs to her defense. “Mind your own business, Swede. I can take care of myself,” Kitty says. Then she turns to Jim. “You touch me and you won’t live ‘til morning.” And that’s the end of that conversation. Memorably, Kitty also shows what she’s made of near the end of the film, when we learn that she will do anything – and I do mean anything – to save her own skin.
From The Swede to Kitty, Big Jim to Charleston, The Killers is truly rich with characterization. It’s like a treasure trove of fascinating personalities, brought to life by a series of superb performances. And I didn’t even expound on Dum Dum, so named because of the unique bullets he liked to use; Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey), an ex-drug addict with an almost child-like demeanor; and Lily, Lt. Lubinsky’s wife and Ole’s ex, who lost Ole’s affection the second he laid eyes on Kitty (and that gorgeous one-strap black gown). If you’ve never seen this first-rate film and had the pleasure of meeting these unforgettable characters, be sure to check it out! And if you have, see it again!
You only owe it to yourself.
This post first appeared at Movieman’s blog, 1001 Movies I (Apparently) Must See Before I Die, as part of our joint Seven Shadows blog event.