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I Did Something Wrong...Once: The Killers (1946)

Review Copyright Roger Zotti, 2000


Adapted from Ernest Hemingway's short story, The Killers opens with two hit men, Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw), arriving in the small town of Brentwood. Their intended target is Ole "Swede" Anderson (Burt Lancaster, in his film debut), a professional prizefighter.

Before they kill Swede, Nick Adams (Phil Brown), who has overheard the killers' plan, warns him.

The prizefighter's reaction stuns Adams. "I did something wrong...once," he says. Tired of running, Swede makes no attempt to escape.

The two killers arrive at the sleazy rooming house where Swede is staying, enter his dim room, and summarily execute him. Satisfied that they've done their job, they leave.

Tough insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien), obsessed with finding out why Swede was murdered, doggedly conducts an investigation, and through a series of Citizen Kane-like flashbacks reconstructs the prizefighter's world of betrayal, violence, and murder.

In addition to Swede, Reardon learns about Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, in her first important dramatic role).

Foster Hirsch, in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, writes that "Swede is one of the most elusive of noir's anti-heroes, and Kitty is one of the genre's most masked spider women; and the films own devious structure, its conflicting points of view, its choppy handling of time, reinforce the enigmatic aura that enshrouds the two main characters."

That Swede fell in with a gang of thieves, became intoxicated with the sensual, duplicitous Collins and was triple-crossed by her, fuels Riordon's desire to see that justice is done.

But justice is rare in a world where Kitty Collins and her gangster boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) exist.

The cast of The Killers is excellent. Lancaster and Gardner ignite the scream, and few actors are better at portraying a relentless investigator than the talented but underrated O'Brien. Dekker is menacing as Colfax. The reliable Sam Levene is nearly perfect as a police detective.

Siodmak's taut direction, use of fragmented flashbacks, and multiple points of view give the film mood and texture.

Anthony Veiller's screenplay (assisted by an unbilled John Huston) is on dead on.

Notable, too, is Miklos Rosza's musical score, later used in the Dragnet TV series.

Best Line: "I'm poison to myself and everyone around me."
--Kitty Collins

    Principal Players:
    Burt Lancaster. . .Ole "Swede" Anderson
    Ava Gardner. . .Kitty Collins
    Edmond O'Brien. . .Jim Reardon
    Albert Dekker. . .Big Jim Colfax
    Sam Levene. . . Det. Sam Levinsky
    Charles McGraw. . .Al
    William Conrad. . .Max

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