The Spiral Staircase

Posted on May 4th, 2010 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

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There are certain settings that immediately draw me to films, trains usually work work for me as do stories taking place in old, dark houses hiding even darker secrets. By happy coincidence, The Spiral Staircase (1945) derives from the pen of Ethel Lina White who also provided the source material for probably the finest example of a movie set aboard a train - The Lady Vanishes. I guess there’s something tremendously reassuring about watching a cast of characters in mortal danger in a spooky old mansion, lashed by fierce storms, for it’s a formula that’s been used again and again down through the years. The Spiral Staircase works very well as a gothic noir melodrama that’s strong on atmosphere. If it’s approached as a whodunit the effect is lessened considerably - the identity of the killer is pretty obvious right away - but I don’t believe it was ever conceived as such anyway.

Events unfold at some unspecified time in the early years of the 20th century in a small American town. A serial killer is busy in this close community, specialising in the dispatch of young women displaying some physical defect or imperfection. The film opens with one of these murders, a girl with a pronounced limp is done in while downstairs a crowd of townspeople sit in rapt attention at the screening of a silent movie. Among the audience is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), housemaid for a local well-to-do family. Helen’s enjoyment of the silent picture is maybe heightened by the fact that she herself lives in a world of silence - we later learn that Helen is a mute as a result of a childhood trauma. It doesn’t require any great leap of deductive reasoning to see that Helen is likely to feature highly on the killer’s list of potential victims. Indeed, shortly after arriving back at her employers’ creaking old mansion just as a storm of near biblical proportions is breaking that fact is confirmed. As Helen pauses on the landing to check her appearance in the mirror the camera zooms in on the eye of the killer as he watches her secretly. This provides one of the film’s creepiest moments as we see the girl from the deranged perspective of the murderer, her face reflected back from the mirror without a mouth. As I said, the identity of the villain is fairly easy to spot when we’ve been introduced to the various occupants of the house. The owner is a bed-ridden old battle-axe, Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who shares her home with her two sons (George Brent & Gordon Oliver) - the former a serious minded academic, the latter a wastrel playboy with a roving eye. The rest of the household is made up of a motley collection of servants, although the spectre of Mrs Warren’s late husband hangs heavily over them all. It’s this unseen figure who actually provides the motive for the villain’s urges and forms the basis for the cod psychological explanation that’s practically obligatory in thrillers of this period. The story plays out in fairly standard form, with the heroine’s danger and isolation increasing incrementally as the subsidiary characters are lured away or disposed of one by one. Still and all, the whole thing is done with considerable style, the suspense and atmosphere building steadily towards a satisfying conclusion.

Dorothy McGuire being stalked by a shadowy killer in The Spiral Staircase.

As far as the acting is concerned, The Spiral Staircase really belongs to the female cast - George Brent, Gordon Oliver and Kent Smith are all passable enough without being especially memorable - and Dorothy McGuire was excellent in conveying mounting fear and paranoia with nothing but facial expression and gestures at her disposal. Both Ethel Barrymore and Elsa Lanchester were inveterate scene stealers and never miss a trick when they’re on screen. Barrymore does tend to slice the ham a little thick on occasion but her scenes are immensely watchable and her verbal jousting with Sara Allgood, as her put upon nurse, is a pleasure in itself. Having said all that, the real star of the show is director Robert Siodmak who moves his camera around the elaborate sets with fluidity and makes optimum use of light and shadow. The climax, taking place largely on the rear staircase, constitutes a virtual checklist of noir motifs, from high and low angle shots through to the shadows of railings creating bars to pin the protagonists helplessly in place.

The UK DVD of The Spiral Staircase from Prism treats the film quite well. There’s good contrast and the image is reasonably clean and sharp with no damage to speak of. There’s a gallery included as well as text bios for members of the cast and crew. To me the movie represents an exercise in how to maintain suspense and atmosphere from a slightly predictable story. The combination of pleasing performances and Siodmak’s assured and professional direction adds up to a very enjoyable movie - it may not hold too many surprises but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way.

The Dark Mirror

Posted on February 22nd, 2010 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

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The 1940s saw a run of movies that attempted to cash in on the craze for psychoanalysis. Probably the most prominent among these was Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but there was no shortage of imitators (there was even an entire series based on this premise, namely Columbia’s Crime Doctor pictures starring Warner Baxter). Generally, such films used large dollops of cod Freudian psycho-babble to simultaneously jazz up and lend a touch of gravitas to the plot. Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946) is one of the more successful efforts, helped largely by an outstanding central performance from Olivia de Havilland.

The Dark Mirror is basically a murder mystery that uses the gimmick of having a crime committed by one of a pair of identical twins - the problem for the authorities (and the audience) is working out which one did the deed, and how to prove it. The opening shot is of the apartment of the victim with the corpse lying sprawled before a symbolically broken mirror. At first the case seems clear cut as the detective in charge, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell), has witnesses that can easily identify the woman seen leaving the scene of the crime. Well, we’d be looking at a pretty short movie if that’s all there were to it. The problem is that the woman in question is either Terry or Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland), one of whom has a cast iron alibi for the evening - but which one? With the official investigation grinding to a halt due to the impossibility of the circumstances, Stevenson turns to analyst Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) for help. Elliott agrees to undertake a private examination of the twins to try and discover which one has the psychological profile consistent with a murderess. In so doing he utilizes all the recognisable tools of the trade from ink blots and free association through to a polygraph. Although he satisfies himself as to which sister is the most likely culprit, the proof remains stubbornly elusive. What complicates the situation even further is the fact that Elliott finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the “good” sister while the other jealously works behind the scenes to undermine her sibling’s sanity.

Two for the price of one - Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

From a purely technical point of view the illusion of having the same actress playing scenes in a dual role works extremely well. One scene in particular called for one of the twins to sit next to the other and rest her head on her sister’s shoulder, and it’s a compliment to the film’s level of technical accomplishment that this effect is carried off so believably. Personally, I was really only aware that I was watching process work in one slightly ropey shot late in the movie where one sister addressed the other, who was positioned behind her, via an artificial looking mirror setup. Aside from this, Siodmak’s direction is assured throughout, and he wraps the whole thing up in a tight and pacy 82 minutes (PAL). As I said at the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s performance is one of this film’s great strengths. It’s no mean feat to play twins with markedly different characters and remain convincing, but she managed it with aplomb. Thomas Mitchell’s cop is there to help ground the story for the viewer, and he plays his part well enough - if I have any criticism it’s that he imbued it with a little too much lightheartedness. Lew Ayres, on the other hand, was the weak link for me, never completely selling me on the idea that he was an eminent psychiatrist. 

Working out where the rights to a film lie can sometimes be akin to blundering one’s way through a minefield. This was originally an International picture, later to be combined into Universal International, but the R1 home video rights don’t seem to belong to Universal now. A few years ago, when the rights to the Republic library reverted back to Paramount from Artisan they announced this title (along with a few others complete with artwork) for release on R1 DVD. However, Paramount then promptly licensed the library to Lions Gate and those titles disappeared off the schedule. Bearing all that in mind, I’d imagine the chances of The Dark Mirror making an appearance on DVD in R1 are slim to non-existent at the moment. However, the film did get a release in Germany late last year via Koch Media (I think there’s also a French disc out there, but something tells me it suffers from the dreaded burnt in subtitles) and it’s a very attractive disc. It comes in a book style digipack with a booklet - 10 pages, but all in German - and boasts a nice transfer. The image is generally very strong and sharp, although there are a few instances of weakness and heavier grain. All told, it’s a pleasing disc of a hard to find movie. Slowly, more and more of Robert Siodmak’s noir films are making their way onto DVD and I found this latest addition very welcome. I’d place it somewhere in the mid-range of the director’s work, which should be recommendation enough in itself.

Christmas Holiday

Posted on December 14th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

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Following on from my previous post I’ve decided to have a look at another seasonal noir. Christmas Holiday (1944) is a movie that seems to slip under many people’s radar, and that may be partly down to both the title and the casting which are apt to give a false impression. At first glance, this is a film that might appear to be horribly miscast but the fact is it works very well. Having said that, the production remains a little odd, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. Like Lady in the Lake, the  story unfolds over Christmas but, once again, that’s really nothing more than an incidental detail - the timing could easily be changed without affecting the plot in the least.

On Christmas Eve, a newly commissioned army officer, Lt. Mason (Dean Harens), is preparing to fly to San Francisco to marry his sweetheart. However, just before he leaves, he receives a cable informing him that the deal’s off and she’s married someone else. Regardless, he decides to board his flight anyway but neither he nor the audience can be quite sure what he hopes to achieve. As it happens he never makes it to his destination, bad weather forcing his plane to make an unscheduled stop in New Orleans. He allows himself to be talked into visiting an out of town club (basically a bordello, but you couldn’t come right out and call it that under the production code) by the establishment’s PR man/pimp. It’s here that Mason meets Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin) and later hears her story. The character of Mason doesn’t really serve any purpose other than that of a narrative device - he’s simply there to provide an everyman perspective, the eyes and ears of the audience as a tale of deception, murder and obsession unfolds. Jackie explains that she’s been using an assumed name, her real one being Abigail Manette, since her husband’s conviction for murder. Via two separate flashbacks she relates how she met, fell in love with and married Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette turned out to be a wastrel blueblood, fallen on hard times, with unsavoury characteristics that are mentioned only in the vaguest terms. This is all pretty standard fare for a noir thriller, but it’s the creepy relationship between Manette and his mother (the Spiderwoman herself, Gale Sondergaard) and the stifling home atmosphere that sets this movie apart. I’ve come across a few theories which try to explain exactly what’s “wrong” with Manette and the nature of his relationship with his mother, but I’m not entirely convinced by any of them. The script makes it clear enough that this is a man with a deeply flawed character but that’s about it. However, I haven’t read the Somerset Maugham story on which the film is based so I don’t know if that casts any further light on the subject.

Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly

Deanna Durbin is credited with being the saviour of Universal as a result of the popularity of her lightweight musicals in the 40s but Christmas Holiday was a major departure from the usual formula for her. She does get to sing two songs, in her role as night club “hostess”, but this is a straight dramatic role. I thought she performed very well, and managed to handle the necessary transition from wide eyed innocent to world weary fallen woman quite convincingly. Gene Kelly is another performer not normally associated with dark, dubious characters but his Robert Manette is not at all bad. Seeing this jaunty, amiable figure jarringly transformed into a mother-fixated murderer has an unnerving quality that’s highly effective. Gale Sondergaard always brought an eerie, otherworldly feel to the parts she played and it fits right in here. The middle section of the film, told in flashback, takes place mainly in the confines of the Manette house, where Sondergaard seems completely at home amid the relics of a faded past. It’s this part of the movie that lends the slightly odd sense that I alluded to at the beginning. Maybe it’s the curious family dynamic, or the feeling of stepping into a world removed from the present - I honestly can’t say, but everything just feels a little off-centre in these sequences. This was Robert Siodmak’s second Hollywood noir, following on from Phantom Lady. It’s not quite up to the standard of his previous picture and lacks a little of the visual flair that he usually brought to the table. However, he does some good work in the club scenes, and the unusual architecture of the Manette house offers opportunities for some interesting shots.

As far as I know the only DVD of Christmas Holiday is the UK R2 from DDHE (EDIT - it appears there’s a Spanish release also available - see comment #1 below). It offers a pretty good transfer of the movie with no major damage or distraction on view. The only extra feature provided is a gallery of production stills. All in all, this a satisfying little noir that moves along nicely and has good performances from all the main players. For me, the casting of Kelly and Durbin worked, although I can see how it might lead to the film being ignored by some - fans of the two leads may be alienated by the atypical roles and storyline, and noir lovers may be put off by their presence. Nevertheless, I think the movie has a unique quality and is definitely worth a look.

With the Christmas juggernaut bearing down ominously, I doubt if I’ll find the time to post another piece before the holidays. So, I’d just like to take the opportunity to wish all those who have followed, commented on, or simply dropped by this blog from time to time the best of everything over the holiday period. Here’s hoping you all enjoy a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Phantom Lady

Posted on May 25th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

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Most people are aware that revisiting a movie can be either a rewarding or a disappointing experience. For myself, subsequent viewings have more often than not proved to be positive. That may say something about me, or it may be a result of the kind of movies I tend to gravitate towards. Phantom Lady (1944) was a film I’d seen a good few years ago and one which, at the time, I thought was OK but nothing special. Anyway, having recently bought the DVD I decided to give it another go. I thought it was fantastic, like watching a completely different film - everything just seemed to click into place. I have a hunch that a large part of the reason behind this reappraisal is due to the use of one major plot device which bugged me on my first viewing. Naturally, I knew what was coming this time around, so it didn’t bother me in the least - in fact, I found it to be one of the film’s better ideas and, lo and behold, the whole thing worked for me.

The film begins much like a standard murder mystery. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is an engineer with marital problems. After an argument with his wife he heads to a bar to drown his sorrows, and finds himself seated next to a woman with a big hat and her own troubles. Since he’s got a couple of theatre tickets and nothing better to do, he takes her along to the show. The lady in question sets just one condition - no names and no details. At the end of the night the two of them bid each other farewell, and that ought to be the end of that. However, on returning home Henderson finds his wife murdered and the police anxious to learn how he’s spent his evening. The woman who could furnish him with an alibi would seem to be an easy one to trace, after all she had drawn the attention of a number of people. But no, no-one remembers her, or if they do they’re not saying. So Henderson is tried and convicted of murder. Just when all seems lost, however, Henderson gets a lifeline. His loyal secretary (Ella Raines), his best friend (Franchot Tone) and a sympathetic cop (Thomas Gomez) take it upon themselves to try and find the mysterious Phantom Lady.

The idea of an innocent man pitched into a nightmare world where no-one believes him is a staple of noir, and Phantom Lady has an excellent pedigree as it originates from the pen of Cornell Woolrich (although this novel was written under his William Irish pseudonym). The plot device which I alluded to above is the revelation of the killer’s identity about halfway into the film. This has the effect of transforming the story from a straightforward mystery into a taut suspense picture, and it’s all the better for it. Since the viewer now knows more than the characters do, he is free to concentrate on other aspects of the film - and there’s much to admire here. The lengthy sequence where Kansas (Raines) mercilessly stalks a tight-lipped bartender is masterfully shot. From the long shot of her mask-like countenance staring at him down the length of the bar, along the slick and rainy sidewalks, on a deserted platform, to his final demise under the wheels of a truck, you can feel the tension rise and the man’s fear become palpable. This neatly reverses the roles one expects to see in a movie of this vintage, and has the effect of putting a fresh spin on a potentially trite situation. In fact, Phantom Lady is ahead of its time in a number of ways, not least the atmosphere of sexual tension it creates. Another memorable scene takes place in a back street jazz club, where a bunch of stoned and liquored up musicians do a little after hours improvisation. The edge here comes from the sight of Kansas, looking cheap and provocative, driving an ill-fated drummer (professional squirt Elisha Cook Jr) half crazy with lust. The close-up of the expression on his face as his drumming grows more and more frenzied is pure gold, and must have raised a few eyebrows at the Hays Office.

Skewed perspective - Ella Raines in Phantom Lady

Despite being billed second, the real star of the show is Ella Raines. Her part as Kansas (at the time it was a kind of fashion to hand nicknames to female leads in movies: Lauren Bacall becoming Slim in To Have and Have Not and Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning getting saddled with Mike!) is the most substantial one in the movie and offered her ample opportunity to show what she could do. I’ve already mentioned a couple of scenes above but she holds the attention throughout, displaying a tough, almost masculine, determination without ever being anything less than a woman. Franchot Tone, who received star billing, does well enough even though the nature of his role was one that encouraged a touch of overacting. Alan Curtis generally gets overlooked or dismissed by critics of the film, but I feel that’s a little unfair as he doesn’t get the opportunity to do much in the second half. When he is on screen he performs capably and believably enough - he’s no standout but he is acceptable. Thomas Gomez and Elisha Cook Jr were fine character players in many films and their presence adds some more class to proceedings. Phantom Lady was Robert Siodmak’s first in a series of excellent noir pictures throughout the 40s. All of his films made fine use of atmosphere, imagery and lighting, and this was no exception. There are countless examples I could cite, including the weird, tortured sculptures dotted around the killer’s apartment. However, aside from those already mentioned, there’s a marvellously shot scene where the killer lectures one of his victims on the ways a man can use his hands for both good and evil. As he talks the camera concentrates on his own hands, picked out stark white by a spot, while the man himself blends into the background shadows.

For some reason Phantom Lady has yet to be given a DVD release in R1 by Universal. However, it is readily available in R2 (France & Spain) and R4 and, although I can’t be sure of this, I have a feeling all these versions are sourced from the same print. I watched the R4 from Aztec (licensed from Universal) and the transfer is a good one. There hasn’t been any work done on it, evidenced by the presence of some scratches and speckles and a fine vertical line that appears on the right of the screen at one point for six minutes or so, but it is very sharp and has strong contrast. The R4 comes on a barebones, single layered disc but the relatively short running time means it doesn’t appear to be over-compressed. I don’t believe I’ve seen a poor film noir from Robert Siodmak yet and my repeat viewing of Phantom Lady has elevated its value in my opinion. This is a movie I can see myself returning to fairly often and I would certainly recommend any noir fans pick up a copy.

Cry of the City

Posted on February 22nd, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak, Victor Mature, Richard Conte by Colin

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He’s out there somewhere…in an alley, on a roof…looking for a way out.

One of the most interesting, and the most enjoyable, aspects of the best noir pictures is the blurring of the lines between the hero and the villain. In a way, the noir world doesn’t have any real heroes, just people forced to make the best of whatever circumstances life pitches at them. Characters may be stylised, situations may be exaggerated, but the dilemmas and bad breaks that have to be faced are issues that most people can identify with on some level. I think it’s this ambiguity that ensures the enduring popularity of these films. While fashions, speech patterns and social attitudes are obviously changing all the time, human nature remains constant. Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) is a classic manhunt thriller that toys with the viewer’s sympathy by presenting both hunter and hunted as two sides of the same coin.

Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is an Italian American hood who’s just taken one chance too many. A botched hold-up has left a policeman dead and Rome badly wounded and clinging to life. As his family and priest gather at his bedside to pray for him, the law in the shape of Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) hovers in the wings, waiting to hand down retribution. Rome is a doomed man, his killing of a cop can have only one outcome. But doomed men can be of value to desperate men, and so the vultures circle. With the knowledge that Rome has no future, crooked lawyer Niles (Berry Kroeger) tries to coax him into confessing to a murder that would let his client off the hook. When this approach doesn’t meet with any success, Niles makes the mistake of threatening Rome’s girl, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget). Now, he has a reason to live; both the police and Niles want to get their hands on Teena for their own ends. Rome needs to get out of the prison hospital, track down Niles and his accomplices, protect Teena, and try to make good his escape. All the while he’s dogged by his nemesis, the tenacious Candella, a man who seems to be on a personal crusade to run him to ground. As Rome runs and Candella pursues him, we get to see the contrasts and similarities between the two men. Both come from essentially the same background, namely poor immigrant families, but both have chosen different paths out of the urban squalor. Candella walks with the righteous, but the face of the law he presents is a rigid and largely inflexible one. He shows no mercy in his dealings with all the little people who offered assistance to the fugitive, promising instead only prosecution and punishment. As such, it is notable that Candella never receives any willing help whereas Rome has no shortage of people prepared to go the extra mile for him, albeit for their own reasons. Also, when Rome lay wounded in hospital he was surrounded by family and friends, but when Candella later suffers a similar fate his only visitor is his partner.

Hope Emerson putting the squeeze on Richard Conte.

Richard Conte’s smooth talking gangster is a fine performance. You know he’s no good but can’t help rooting for him. The fact that he gets to deliver the best lines of the script and enjoys the lion’s share of screen time is helpful of course. It’s also significant that the killing for which he’s originally wanted is never shown and is only referred to briefly. When he does off someone on screen, that character is such an unpleasant slimeball that you feel he’s justified in doing so. Victor Mature’s persistent detective, on the other hand, is hard to like. He plays a cold, judgmental man with only a trace of humanity; the scenes where he visits Rome’s family are where he comes off best, yet even there his sincerity is open to question. It’s not really any surprise that his character has doors slammed in his face where Conte has them opened invitingly to him. The supporting cast is excellent, although the real stand out is Hope Emerson. This imposing figure of a woman is a genuinely unnerving presence, and you feel she could crush Conte’s ailing Rome just for the sadistic pleasure of it.

Robert Siodmak made a lot of noir pictures, and I don’t believe any of them were poor. Cry of the City may not be his very best but it’s not far off. There are some beautifully framed shots on view, not the least of which is the final showdown between the two protagonists. He also handles the more suspenseful passages, such as Rome’s brazen escape from the hospital with a deft touch and excellent camera placement. The whole film exudes the noir atmosphere with plenty of wet sidewalks, flashing neon and wailing police sirens. I think what helps the film succeed the most is the inclusion of all the incidental characters and situations, from the Rome’s apartment with the Amercan and Italian flags hanging side by side above the mantle to the frightened immigrant doctor who’s willing to risk imprisonment to find the cash to care for his sick wife. I can’t help seeing some parallels between this film and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out in terms of theme and narrative structure, although Conte never achieves the level of pathos seen in James Mason’s dead man walking. I’d also like to mention the great score by Alfred Newman; this music was used on a number of occasions in Fox movies but its melancholy notes are the ideal accompaniment to this fatalistic production.

Cry of the City is available on DVD in a number of editions in R2. I have the German release, and I understand it’s the pick of the bunch. It was previously only possible to buy this in combination with Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo but it is now available in a stand alone edition. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the transfer which has very good contrast, is sharp, and displays next to nothing in the way of damage. There have been rumours for some time of this title getting the Criterion treatment but, at the time of writing, it still remains absent in R1. I’m not sure why Fox never went ahead and released this as part of their own noir line and, given recent reports of personnel changes taking place in their home video division, it remains to be seen what will be forthcoming from them in the future. Anyway, I give Cry of the City a big thumbs up, it’s an excellent film noir from a director at the top of his form.

The Killers

Posted on March 16th, 2008 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner by Colin

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I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre - if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out. 

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

An eternal triangle - she's lookin' at him, lookin' at her.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does - seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through - effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.  

We're killing him for a friend. William Conrad & Charles McGraw.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras - and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.