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The Citizen Kane of Noir Film: The Killers



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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A Comedy of Noir: 5 Must-See Films


No Spoilers

Two silhouetted figures in The Big Combo (1955). The film's cinematographer was John Alton, the creator of many of film noir's stylized images. from Wikipedia

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the protagonists are more bad than good, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else.

440px-lady_from_shanghai_trailer_rita_hayworth6 (Wiki)

Film Noir features Femmes Fatales, women of questionable moral virtue. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares unwary males who are so drawn to her that they 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 protagonists of Film Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

500px-outofthepastmitchumgreer (Wiki)

Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits 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. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. 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 limited to that of the doomed male.

lonelyplacetrailer Wiki

 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 classics). Many of the Film Noir of that period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce; Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely;  Cornell Woolrich’s story “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window) and novel I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films), and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Film Noir was not only popular with audiences, it was made by renowned directors: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, this is a disputed title in the Film Noir canon), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window), and Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face). Unfortunately, Hollywood does not live by critical acclaim alone. It is an industry that thrives more on earnings than on awards. Enter a slew of films imitating the popular classics of Film Noir.


Some of these imitators are bad, really bad, so bad that they actually manage to become amusing, although they are unintentionally so. Most often made by and starring unknown talents, Comedy Film Noir is often in black-and-white, but marred by jarring soundtracks, claustrophobic sets, and fragmented cinematography techniques that are ostensibly attempting to symbolize fractured or fragmented psychological states (see the Joan Crawford photo above).


The femmes in these films are never sans makeup, and they sometimes change glamor gowns between takes of the same scene, jolting viewers out of the fictional world. Their back-seamed stockings never have snags or runs,


négligées and peignoirs abound,


and kitten-heels are de rigeur, even in the boudoir and powder room.

The doomed male protagonists usually appear in suit-and-tie, sometimes wearing the same suit throughout the entire film (sans wrinkles, of course, and sometimes with a rather casual belt), ocassionally sporting two-tone Oxfords that “scream vintage.” Our male protagonists wear their Oxfords with bathrobes, too.


Male or female, the characters have the best-coiffed hair in history, and their hair never moves, no matter how fast they’re driving in convertibles, or how hard the tree branches above them are shaking.

Combine all of the above-named elements, throw in lots of inappropriate touching and panicked grabbing, season with sappy or melodramatic dialogue, and you’re heading deep into Comedy Noir territory.

In an attempt to restore dignity to some of these forgotten films, I’ve put together a short list of some of the more interesting Comedy Noirs, presented here in no particular order, with their prize-winning attributes at the end of each selection.


And the Winners are…



Fear in the Night

Operating on the fallacious premise that hypnotism can make people do things against their morals and their will, Fear in the Night is one of the more unintentionally humorous Noir films. From bizarro cinematic techniques to jarring music, the film features some of the best bad acting Hollywood has to offer. Virtually every scene takes place in a claustrophobically tight set, as if the director thought he was staging a play. The femmes don’t scream or shriek in this film, but that doens’t meant they’re not melodramatic.

Featuring DeForest Kelly in his film debut as the stone-faced, glassy-eyed protagonist forced to commit murder and then trapped in a nightmare of amnesia, his Voice-Over is just like the classics in Film Noir, only without any distinguishing or memorable characteristics.


Silliest Noir

Fear in the Night



Guest in the House

Anne Baxter does a scenery-damaging job in this psychological noir. As the Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Rescued-By-Her-Doctor, Baxter chews up more curtains, pillows, bedclothes, and men’s suit lapels than you can imagine. If the women’s Bride of Frankenstein‘s coiffures don’t have you laughing till the tears come, then the scenes with the bird are sure to slay you.


From the time Baxter arrives are her fiancé-doctor’s family home to the time she decides she wants the house and the already-married-brother-in-law, you’ll be wondering how the other actors got through the scenes without rolling their eyes. The diary scenes are especially cringe-worthy, but the finale, with the birds, makes it all worthwhile.


Scenery-Chewing Noir

Guest in the House



The Bigamist

With an all-star cast to die for, including Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino (who also directed), Edmund Gwenn, and Edmund O’Brien, you’d think this film would have been a clear Oscar contender. Instead, the suspense fizzles out by the time you see the title: The Bigamist. Instead of viewers wondering what the protagonist is going to do about the two women he loves, the only mystery is how many times the women in his life can give him escape routes which he stupidly fails to take.


This one will have you rollicking in the aisles by the time all the protagonists end up in court, if only because of their expressions during the judge’s didactic speech.


Star-filled Noir Trifle

The Bigamist



The Last Movie:
A Film Noir

The Last Movie is ostensibly an American film about people trying to make an American film which will be a remake of a Russian film which is an adaptation of the classic American film noir, Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, only nobody making the American remake of the Russian adaptation ever acknowledges the original classic.


More about trying to make a film than an actual interesting film itself, the sound alone  in The Last Movie is bad enough to be laughable. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Laugh every time you catch yourself trying to figure out what they’re saying in the background when you just heard it about a half-minute earlier, in the foreground.

American Film about American Film adapted from
Russian Film based on American Noir Film Classic

The Last Movie: A Film Noir



The Man with My Face

Despite the intriguing jpremise of a man’s returning home one day only to discover an identical look-alike has taken over his life, The Man with my Face, starring Barry Nelson as the horrified and confused protagonist as well as the nasty antagonist, quickly tosses out the suspense when it reveals which man is the imposter.


The special effect of the Doppleganger is marred by always being blurry, but at least the director was trying to doing something unusual in an age before CGI made it all so much easier. Blackmailers run amok in this film, and all the femmes, whether fatale or not, display mucho bare shoulders, perfectly coiffed hairdos that never move in the wind, and the requisite kitten-heels.


Most of the characters try to talk each other to death, if only because Attack-Doggie got bored and refused to cooperate until his agent negotiated a raise. If you’re not laughing by the time the protagonist attempts to muss up his crew-cut during the climactic shoot-out, you’re not paying attention.


Special award for the Doggie.

Noir with Doberman

The Man with My Face

Note: Some of these films are available free on the internet, but please don’t support piracy of intellectual property. None of these films is in the public domain, and should not be posted in their entirety. Most of the films listed in this post are available for cheap (rent or purchase) on Amazon: all are available for free viewing to Prime members.


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