POSTMODERN FILM APPROACH:
THE KILLERS (Part 2)
Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, William Conrad
Robert Siodmak, Mark Hellinger, John Huston, Ernest Hemingway
Here in this second part of my tentative examination of Siodmak’s The Killers I’d like to explore the director’s choices and technique, as I see them, a bit further. This is an admittedly random analysis, jumping around a bit with no formal plan or structure – shards of observation, if you like.
The film begins with the camera in the back seat of the killers’ car as they drive down the road to Brentwood, NJ, to find and kill the Swede. We see their silhouettes, a road sign announcing Brentwood, and then a street in the town where Henry’s Diner sits across from a gas station. Again, we get silhouettes of the hit men – they walk across the town square to case out the closed gas station. Then they look across the road to the diner in profile, almost like models posing for their busts.
Inside the diner we have George, the waiter, and Nick Adams sitting alone at the end of the counter. The first spoken word in the picture is “Ketchup” – Nick Adams speaking to George. This is curious – the bottle of ketchup is literally inches away from him on the counter.
This shot establishes Siodmak’s methodology, which includes almost complete eschewing of a much employed Hollywood strategy – the shot/reverse shot way of showing a dialogue. The vast majority of the film works with two- and three- shots, with the camera well back from any individual face. There are some mid range close-ups – for example the face of the Swede as he waits for the killers to burst into his room, or that of the gangster Dum Dum as he recollects events for the insurance man Reardon.
For the most part, trying to punch holes in the logic of a traditional Hollywood screenplay isn’t going to be any great task, and the killing of the Swede is no exception. Nick Adams knows the two strangers intend to kill the Swede at any moment, yet after he tells the Swede and the Swede retreats into his own indifference and lethargy, Nick does nothing. What? He doesn’t run to the police? He just goes away?
Although, if he did report what he knows, he would doubtless encounter the silly chief we see in the next scene, where the main character, Reardon, is introduced. After the chief makes a few speeches trying to absolve himself of all responsibility Reardon and Nick Adams go to the morgue to view the body of the murdered Swede. Here is where the flashback structure that the screenplay follows begins in earnest. Nick Adams is the first of the characters to relay parts of the past to Reardon.
In the flashback we see the Swede is already resigned to the fact that he’s going to be killed by Big Jim Colfax. This is something we only grasp fully later on, in reflection, after most of the story has been told. We, as viewers in real time with our initial watching of the film, only sense that Colfax makes the Swede uncomfortable. We don’t know why.
Reardon next visits with the maid in an Atlantic City hotel, Mary Ellen Daugherty, whose nickname, in a little inside joke, is the same as that of the actress who portrays her, Queenie Smith. Queenie’s recollections reveal, among other things, the significance of the green handkerchief that Reardon found among the Swede’s effects.
And next – Reardon goes back to his office to see what information his secretary has managed to uncover about the Swede.