Killers, The (1946)

Killers, The (1946)

“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).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ava Gardner Films
  • Burt Lancaster Films
  • Edmond O’Brien Films
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Flashback Films
  • Heists
  • Hit Men
  • Obsessive Love
  • Robert Siodmak Films

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

Must See?
Yes, as a noir classic. Selected in 2008 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Killers, The (1946)

  1. Agreed, a must – for its place in cinema history as a well-made genre flick.

    As for Peary’s remark about the storyline being “dated”…it sort of bothers me when the nuance of that word is ignored. In essence, ‘dated’ means that ‘it no longer applies, in a way that we can no longer relate’. The story would, in fact, have to feel strange to us, so far are we removed from what it’s comprised of.

    But, in fact, the storyline of ‘The Killers’ is not dated: people still double-cross and kill people in situations like that…and probably always will. The territory of the film is not foreign to us, even now.

    I’m a huge fan of Siodmak’s work – and it’s largely what he and his DP bring to this film that I like most. (I’m not that familiar with Bredell’s name – but have just noted that he was not connected with a large number of high-profile films.) Overall, ‘The Killers’ is a movie I admire more than find to my personal taste. By that, I mean it’s not a film I feel the need to return to much. (This may only be my 3rd viewing.)

    That may be because of the villains in the piece, who I don’t find all that interesting as characters – outside of Conrad and McGraw, who really make an impression in the opening sequence (the heart of Hemingway’s original piece). I do, however, have feeling for the decent characters played by O’Brien, Levene and Christine…even if I feel they’re also a bit serviceable, as presented.

    With this film, it feels like the mechanics of the plot are more important than the people who fill it. And I’m usually more drawn to character as an audience member.

    That said, the film deserves its reputation as a respected classic.

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