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The Citizen Kane of Noir Film: The Killers

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Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane begins with the titular character, Charles Foster Kane, on his deathbed, whispering “Rosebud” just before he dies. A reporter then investigates Kane’s life in an attempt to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Though the reporter learns virtually everything about Kane’s life, which is revealed, in flashbacks, from the perspective of virtually everyone who knew Kane but never from Kane himself, the reporter never does learn the meaning of Kane’s last word. The alert viewing audience, however, does know it meaning: Rosebud is the name of Kane’s sled, from childhood, and represents the only time Kane was ever happy, the long-ago childhood time before his mother, who became wealthy after a goldmine was discovered on her property, sent Kane away to live with a stranger and be properly educated. Citizen Kane, shot in black-and-white with dramatic shadowing and lighting, has long been considered one of the best films ever made, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for its multi-perspective, flashback narrative. “Citizen Kane is particularly praised for its cinematography, music, editing and narrative structure, which have been considered innovative and precedent-setting.”

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

The 1946 Noir film The Killers, “a neglected screen classic from director Robert Siodmak, is an intense, hard-edged, stylish film noir of robbery, unrequited love, brutal betrayal, and double-cross.” It has been called the Citizen Kane of Noir because of the film’s
structure, “a fractured puzzle of multiple narrations,” which closely mimics that of Welles’ famed film. The protagonist of The Killers — The Swede — carefully played by Burt Lancaster in his film debut, is just as baffling and flawed as Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, though the audience itself is left to determine the meaning of The Swede’s enigmatic final words: “I did something wrong… once.” Lancaster’s subtly nuanced performance is only one of the elements that elevates this film to its classic status.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as the contract killers in The Killers © Universal

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive, idiosyncratic dialogue (which then disappears from the film: the remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original). Two professional killers walk into a diner just before 6p.m. and terrify everyone there by openly announcing that they’ve come to town to kill someone called “The Swede” and may just decide to kill everyone in the diner while they’re at it. Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s stories, has a very minor role in the film. A coworker at the gas station where Swede pumps gas and repairs tires, Adams runs to Swede’s boarding house to warn him about the contract killers who are looking for him. Adams is stunned and confused by Swede’s resigned reaction.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

Noir performances are always about the ways people cope with a bleak and violent universe, whether they arm themselves with [icy remoteness]… or with abraded cynicism, desperate defiance, or spellbound fatalism. This last response is distilled by Burt Lancaster in his screen debut, playing the killers’ target, The Swede. It is a surprising introduction for one of cinema’s most physically resplendent and powerful men: we first see his muscular body supine on a bed, his head blacked out by shadows. When Nick Adams comes to warn the Swede about the killers, the doomed man speaks out of the dark, his voice low and lifeless: “There’s nothing I can do.” When his face appears in the light, it is calm, frozen in a mixture of numbness and dazzled resignation—the same expression he wears at many points in the film.

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Intrigued by the motive behind the contract hit and disconcerted by the fact that Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him, an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life. (By the time Reardon does seem to have a motive for investigating Swede’s death, he’s already spent a significant amount of time researching Swede’s life story, so the motive of recovering robbery money is insufficient to explain the insurance investigator’s initial interest in Swede.)

Edmund O’Brien as Investigator Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Investigator Reardon, who carries a gun and shoots at people with impunity, discovers that Swede, a former boxer, had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster named Big Jim Colfax, Reardon is convinced that the girlfriend, Kitty, had something to do with Swede’s death.

Ava Gardener plays Kitty, the film’s “duplicitous, strikingly-beautiful, vixenish, and unsympathetic femme fatale, [and the role] made Gardner an overnight love goddess and star.” Kitty seems to be the stereotypical femme fatale, a gorgeous woman who is “giving a performance of a performance, enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty that satisfies the expectations and desires of their marks,” in this case, the big, dumb brute, Swede.

Virginia Christine as abandoned Good Girl Lilly, Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

The Swede, as written, is truly a big dumb animal, deep enough to feel pain, no deeper. “She’s beautiful,” he states in open stupefaction at his first glimpse of Kitty. As she sings… he stands so close she likely feels his nostril steam on her neck. Later, he emerges from a bed­room and remarks with what seems goofy pride at basic bodily functions, “I fell asleep.” But Lancaster, built to defeat a white T-shirt as well as any man, imbues the animal with existential dimensions by the thwarted intelligence lighting his eyes.

Though no one ever relays Swede’s final words — “I did something wrong… once” — to Investigator Reardon, it becomes clear to the audience that Swede is not, in fact, as dumb or brutish as Big Jim and fellow criminals think. Further, Swede’s stoic acceptance of his fate when the contract killers arrive has more to do with his relationship with Kitty than with any crimes he ever committed, even if Swede never seems to regret the shabby way he treated archetypal Noir Good Girl Lilly (Virginia Christine).

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

And Kitty is even more calculating and vicious than anyone could imagine, even Investigator Reardon. The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The Killers was considered somewhat radical when first released because it departed from the traditional, chronological narrative format, using flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story, but was nominated for four Academy Awards and was a box-office success. Available for rent ($2-99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle: 3 Noir Film Classics

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How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

No Spoilers

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Popular with audiences and often made by renowned directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger, the films were frequently based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the male protagonist is more bad than good, although he mostly justifies his criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blames it on something (or someone) else. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character since their worldview is usually limited to that of the doomed male.

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits or neatly pressed clothes, and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a drifter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), or an unscrupulous insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. He’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the female protagonist: the femme fatale.

John Garfield & Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

The femme fatale is a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl” or the “girl next door” who loses the male to the dangerous femme. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. When the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart.

The Film Noir classics Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on crime fiction novels written by James M. Cain. The Killers used Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same name to start the film, then supplied a gritty original screenplay with the characters’ back-story. Screenwriters, directors, and actors worked hard to keep the films as close to their literary inspiration as possible, giving audiences some of the best films ever made.

Double Indemnity
(1944)

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a confession, which becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film. Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

With Phyllis’ reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, & Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity ©

When Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man) and the victim’s daughter Lola get suspicious about the husband’s “accident,” Walter’s and Phyllis’ adulterous relationship and their forbidden love are severely tested.

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity has all the hallmarks of the Noir genre: atmospheric lighting, a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous femme fatale.

The film was closely adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which is itself a classic of crime fiction, and which the author based on the true story of Ruth Snyder’s notorious 1920’s murder trial. Available for rent ($3.99 for 24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946)

When the unemployed, homeless drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops at a roadside diner, he’s immediately attracted to the owner’s curvaceous, long-legged, young wife Cora (Lana Turner, in her most famous role).

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

Frank takes the job offered by diner-owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and begins pursuing Cora, who treats him with disdain. Soon, though, Cora, who married her older husband for security, begins to fall for Frank. The couple wants to be together for the rest of their lives, but Cora doesn’t want to run away and live a drifter’s life. She has ambitions “to be somebody.” Somebody who has an established home and income. Somebody who runs a successful diner. Somebody who is a widow rather than a penniless divorcée.

Lana Turner & John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

After an initial “accident” goes awry, the lovers realize that neither of them is the type who could commit murder. Their attempt at a “trial separation” and a platonic relationship prove frustrating, however, and the two decide that life without each other may not be worth living. When outside parties who suspect nefarious goings-on at the diner intentionally pit the lovers against each other, Cora’s and Frank’s love is strained and their trust in each other frays. What are they willing to do for love, and can that love survive murder and betrayal?

The title has nothing to do with the story itself, neither in the James M. Cain novel nor in the film, though the film unsuccessfully attempts to force the title to fit by pretending, at the conclusion, that the “postman” is God, who’s not present anywhere else in the film.

Cain himself claimed that he chose the non-sequitur title because he had always been nervous after submitting a manuscript for publication, and noticed that his postman always rang twice. The Postman Always Rings Twice is available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Killers
(1946)

After the murder of quiet, industrious, unassuming gas station attendant “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, in his first role) by contract killers, fellow townspeople are confused and frightened. Furthermore, they’re disconcerted by the fact that The Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him.

Burt Lancaster, The Killers ©

Intrigued by the reason behind the contract hit, insurance investigator Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life.

Reardon discovers that Swede had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster, Reardon is convinced that Kitty Conway (Ava Gardener, in the first role that brought her extensive attention) had something to do with Swede’s death.

The killers in The Killers ©

The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, however, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes, especially after he learns that Swede knew his killers personally. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive dialogue (which then disappears from the film). The remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original. The Killers was considered a somewhat radical film when first released because it departed from the then-traditional narrative format and used flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story. Available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

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I Ain’t Never Been No Hero: More Great Westerns

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I love Westerns, though most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. My Top Ten Western films have characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place. Here are more of my favorite Westerns, films I can always watch one more time.

 The Long Riders
(1980)

Starring sets of real-life brother actors as historical brother outlaws, The Long Riders explores America’s violent post-Civil War past in a unique way. The most factual of any film about the James-Younger Gang, it covers the activity of Frank and Jesse James (Stacey and James Keach); Ed and Clell Miller (Dennis and Randy Quaid); Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger (David, Keith, and Robert Carradine); and Bob and Charley Ford (Nicholas and Christopher Guest).

Jesse is the titular head of the Gang, but after he disapproves of Ed’s behavior during one of that raids/robberies, rifts begin to form among the Gang members. Pursued by posses and the Pinkertons, the Gang is nevertheless protected by family and neighbors, who consider them local heroes rather than criminals. When hiding out, the brothers court women, and are courted by them in turn, which causes added stress in the Gang. As the Gang’s crimes escalate, so does the Pinkertons’ determination to capture them. After innocent people begin to get hurt and killed, the Gang loses its local support and goes further afield to rob stages, trains, and banks, increasing the Gang’s notoriety and fame, but also increasing its risk.

Even if you know the story of the James-Younger Gang, this film is engaging and worth watching. The cinematography is very effective and powerful, especially as the Gang escalates its violence. The Long Riders is available for rent $3.99 from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Professionals
(1966)

Four American “specialists,” i.e., mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), are hired for an extremely dangerous but potentially lucrative, once-in-a-lifetime mission: deliver a $100K-in-gold ransom and rescue the beautiful young wife (Claudia Cardinale) of an older, wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy). Because two of the professional soldiers fought in Pancho Villa’s Army during the Mexican Revolution, they’re willing yet wary, if only because they know the ostensible kidnapper Razza (Jack Palance) intimately, and “kidnapping doesn’t seem like his thing.”

Fighting the desert, weather, rogue bandits, self-doubt, and each other, the Professionals use their individual skills — with dynamite, knives, bow-and-arrow, guns — as they head for Razza’s presumed hide-out. When they come upon Razza derailing a train and executing soldiers, they realize their mission may be more dangerous than they’d originally than anticipated because “something’s dicey about this set-up.”

Lancaster as the woman-loving wit is especially entertaining. With surprising (and satisfying) plot-twists, The Professionals is an often-neglected gem of a Western. Available from Amazon available for rent $3.99 (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Shootist
(1976)

Opening with a montage of John Wayne’s film roles as the “history” of gunslinger J. B. Books (Wayne), narrated in Voice-Over by The Boy (Ron Howard) who idolizes him, The Shootist is my favorite role by both of these actors. Diagnosed with advanced cancer, with only about 6 weeks to live, Books settles in for a last stay in the lodging house of Widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall), mother of The Boy. Though Books wants anonymity and privacy, The Boy discovers his identity almost immediately and proudly trumpets that a famous Shootist is staying at his house. Books wants to keep him terminal illness secret, too, but he’s forced to tell people in order to stay quietly in the town till he dies.

When the stories of Books’ impending death begin to spread, other gunslingers who want to improve their own reputations by killing the famed Shootist arrive. Books’ instinct for survival and self-preservation combat with any desire he has to die quietly. Worse, he decides he doesn’t want to be alone, and the Widow Rogers and her son have caught his eye.

The chemistry between Wayne and the impressive line-up of guest stars —  James Stewart, Henry Morgan, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brien, Sheree North — is surpassed only by the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, and by that between Wayne and Howard. This is the role that should have won Wayne the Oscar: he’s better by far as the fighting-fading Books than as True Grit‘s cantankerous Cogburn. The Shootist is available from Amazon ($3.99 to rent).

3:10 to Yuma
(2007)

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma packs powerful Western icons with clever dialogue and strong performances. Civil War hero Dan (Christian Bale, in one of his best roles) is about to lose his ranch because he didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage and to buy feed for his cattle, purchase water during the drought, and to obtain the drugs for his consumptive youngest son.

When attempting to retrieve some of his cattle scattered by ne’er-do-wells, Dan and his sons run into escaped Bad Guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, below R) and his Gang, who have just ambushed the Pinkertons to rescue one of their Gang members. After rescuing the wounded Pinkerton McElroy (Peter Fonda), Dan, who is determined to save his ranch, offers to help escort the proverb-quoting escaped convict Wade to Detention so he can be put on the 3:10 to Yuma Prison.

The treacherous journey turns into a contest of wills between idealistic Dan, whose oldest son idolizes the criminal, and the notorious Bed Wade. As Ben’s Gang attempts to rescue its leader, Dan tries to earn his own son’s respect by completing the job he was hired to do. 3:10 to Yuma is filled with excellent writing, rousing action, and memorable characters. The scenes between Bale and Crowe are exquisite. Available from Amazon ($9.99SD-$12.99HD to purchase, or free with a 7-day Showtime trial), or free with a subscription from Showtime or DirecTV.

Salvation
(sometimes translated as The Salvation)
(2014)

Salvation, sometimes translated as The Salvation, is the Danish tribute to Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, exploring some of the genre’s classic icons: The Man with No Name, The Town Besieged, The Cowardly Townspeople, The Man Seeking Vengeance. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, below R) has come the the American West, from Denmark, with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, below L) after the disastrous War of 1864.

Seven years later, Jon has enough money to bring over his wife and 10-year-old son. Though these two characters are not developed — existing only as a reason for Jon to seek revenge for the heinous crimes against them, the film doesn’t suffer from that weakness. Instead, it plunges into Jon’s story as he and his brother seek revenge against the Bad Guys, led by DeLaRue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Terrorizing a town where no one is willing to stand up to the villains but where everyone wants a Saviour, DeLaRue and his Gang rule the populace with the aid of a corrupt Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and a milque-toast Preacher-Sheriff (Douglas Henshaw). Eventually joined by “The Princess” (Eva Green), who appears to have been the captive “wife” of one of the rapists/murderers and who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was kidnapped as a young girl, Jon fights for justice.

The addition of the mystery-suspense sub-plot makes this Revenge Tale one of the more interesting Westerns. Everyone in the film is more realistic than iconic, as they are in some of the classic Spaghetti Westerns: it usually takes Jon several shots to put down an assailant. Moody and atmospheric, with artistic cinematography, Salvation is available from Amazon ($4.99 to rent, or free with a 7-day trial from Showtime), is available for purchase for $14.99 from iTunes, or for $12.99 from GooglePlay, and YouTube, and is available free with a subscription from Showtime, IFC, or DirecTV.

If you know of any other classic Westerns that I might enjoy, please feel free to tell me about them in comments.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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