“I did something wrong once.”
When two hit-men (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) kill a former boxer (Burt Lancaster) known as “The Swede”, an insurance agent (Edmond O’Brien) slowly unravels a complex tale of Lancaster’s obsessive love for a beautiful singer (Ava Gardner), as well as his involvement in a heist organized by crime boss “Big Jim” (Albert Dekker).
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this elaboration on Ernest Hemingway’s “concise but powerful short story about a couple of hitmen rubbing out an ex-boxer in his hotel room” features “sharp dialogue, strong, atmospheric direction by Robert Siodmak, and an excellent cast”, but he argues that “the storyline that was chosen is fairly conventional” and “has dated”. However, the reverse-chronology flashback structure is uniquely effective: despite “knowing from the start that [Lancaster’s] character is dead”, we remain curious to learn how he arrived in his hopeless situation. Peary writes that Lancaster is “somewhat stiff but okay in his movie debut”, though I actually find him perfectly suited for his cipher-role as a duped noir chump who we learn about exclusively through the memories of those who knew him — including his policeman-friend (Sam Levene), his former girlfriend (Virginia Christine), and a crook named Dum Dum (Jack Lambert).
Gardner is sexy and charismatic, but primarily a noir icon rather than a fully-fledged character — at least until her “final, loopy moments on the screen” when she shows evidence of “strong dramatic acting”. O’Brien is really the film’s primary protagonist: despite being given multiple gentle warnings by his boss (Donald MacBridge) to stop wasting time on the case, he persists out of sheer determination, ensuring we learn the truth about the Swede! However, it’s Elwood Bredell’s atmospherically noir-ish cinematography that remains the film’s true stand-out, with many visually memorable scenes — including the highly tense opening sequence in the diner. The 1964 remake by Don Siegel is also worthy viewing; both films are enjoyable in different ways.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Burt Lancaster as “The Swede”
- Fine supporting performances
- The tension-filled opening sequence
- Siodmak’s direction
- Elwood Bredell’s cinematography
- Anthony Veiller’s well-crafted screenplay
- Miklos Rozsa’s score
Yes, as a noir classic. Selected in 2008 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)