A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, at the start of their Hollywood careers, shine out against the noir background of The Killers like the stars they became. Which is perhaps the only major flaw in Robert Siodmak's version of -- or rather extrapolation from -- Ernest Hemingway's classic short story. They're both terrific: Lancaster underplays for once in his film career, which began with this movie, and no one was ever so beautiful or gave off such strong "bad girl" vibes as Gardner. But their presence tends to upend the film, which really stars Edmond O'Brien and a fine cast of character actors. Hemingway's story accounts for only the first 20 minutes or so of the film, the remaining hour of which was concocted by Anthony Veiller, John Huston, and Richard Brooks. In the Hemingway part of the movie, two hitmen (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) enter a small-town diner looking for their target, a washed-up boxer they call "the Swede." They bully the diner owner and tie up the cook and Nick Adams (Phil Brown), but when they decide that the Swede isn't going to show up for his usual evening meal, they leave. Nick runs to warn the Swede, Ole Anderson (Lancaster), in his rooming house, but the man exhibits only a passive acceptance of his fate. The short story ends with the Swede turning his face to the wall and Nick returning to the diner, but in the film we see the hitmen arrive at the rooming house and kill the Swede. What follows is a backstory that Hemingway never bothered with -- although he later told Huston that he liked the movie -- about an insurance investigator's probe into the killing. The Swede had left a small insurance policy, and when the investigator, Reardon (O'Brien), contacts the beneficiary he begins to find threads that lead him back to an earlier payroll heist. With the help of a friend on the police force, Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who knew the Swede from his boxing days, Reardon sorts out the tangled story of what happened to the loot and how the Swede became the target of a hit. Siodmak's steady hand as a director earned him an Oscar nomination, as did Arthur Hilton's editing and Miklós Rózsa's score, which features a four-note motif that was lifted by composer Walter Schumann for the familiar "dum-da-dum-dum" title music of the 1950s TV series Dragnet, leading to a lawsuit that was settled out of court. Veiller was also nominated for the screenplay, but the contributions of Huston and Brooks went uncredited, largely because they were under contract to other studios.

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