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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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.