THE KILLERS ( 1946 )

Universal / Dir. Robert Siodmak

by Fernando Silva  ~ posted  December 1st, 2022


I always liked Ava Gardner. Ever since I was a kid I thought she was one of the most beautiful stars of all time and I always remembered that my long-ago deceased maternal grandmother stated that in her day, people thought she resembled Ava. What a compliment! To be compared to that Screen Goddess. l also liked Burt Lancaster, who is my mother’s-in-law favorite guy, but I discovered THE KILLERS later in my life.


   The first time I saw “The Killers” it must have been a so-so print on TV or a faded VHS tape. But when I had the chance to buy and watch the fantastic print released on Blu-Ray by Criterion, for me, it was like watching the movie for the first time. In fact, I raised its rating from 8 or 9/10 to 10/10, that is how that print affected me. The film has several elements that make it a masterpiece of the Film Noir genre and a hell of a movie. But the main one for me is the impact made by Ava’s character (Kitty Collins) and the strong, kind of sadomasochistic chemistry she has with Burt Lancaster.


When I first saw this marvelous release, I had recently read Ava Gardner’s very good and absorbing biography by Lee Server titled “Love is Nothing.” In it, there is a lot of information about the making of this movie, which I devoured. This biography truly “captured” me and that’s saying something, because many times I have finished reading movie celebrities’ bios, just for the sake of finishing a book I started reading, and not because of its worth.

Besides providing a lot of information about Ava’s troubled personal life, Server analyzed in depth some of Ava’s most relevant films, most notably “The Killers” (1946), her breakthrough film. I did not know that Ava was such a conventional girl when she arrived in Hollywood, and I felt that after her marriage to Artie Shaw ended, she lost her way and her troubles began. Underneath she was a sweet Southern girl. And at that particular and crucial time of her life and career, “The Killers” was made.

It is indeed the film that made Ava Gardner a star and a film that is definitely one of her very best. And just like in Burt Lancaster’s case, it might as well have been her film debut. I doubt that there was ever such an amazingly beautiful and sexy woman than Ava as she appeared in this film; especially in that black satin dress she wears when she meets The Swede. She is something out of this world; a sight to behold. This film made me ponder if Hedy Lamarr, my number one choice for most beautiful woman of all time, was in fact second to Ava. In Ava, there was a blend of a kind of ethereal-otherworldly creature with an earthy-sexy woman, and much more that was beating underneath that perfection. No man of any decade or any age can look at Ava and not surrender to her charms.

No one can ever say: “What did they see in her?” 

She is, indeed, a devastatingly beautiful creature in that very first scene in which she appears. “Wow!” ~ which I thought when I saw her ~ defines it. The Swede (Lancaster) is flabbergasted when he watches her, and his sweet heart (the very talented Virginia Christine) realizes immediately that she has lost him forever. Kitty becomes the center of the attention, without doing much, by just being…and he is attracted to her like a moth to a flame: 

CineMaven:  “Can the metaphor be any more stark?”

Watching her sing in that sultry, “whispery” voice, in the dress that has become iconic
*, with that wondrous cleft chin of hers . . . The Swede can’t take his eyes off her, nor can we, the audience. As I watch her, already knowing she was the femme fatale and praying mantis of the story, I could not help but think about Jane Greer in “Out of The Past” ~ comparing them both…who’s deadlier?

I don’t know….but Ava’s Kitty Collins was definitely beyond ravishing and beautiful. It was love at first sight for The Swede. On the other hand Ava’s Kitty was screened to movie audiences first and Jane’s Kathie Moffett only graced the screens the following year. 

Burt Lancaster as the Swede is also great; a perfect combination of a naïve, “not too smart” 
dreamer who is trapped in the deadly web of this cold femme fatale. He’s a guy doomed by his basic decency. He got immersed in the gutter because he was manipulated. He was weak . . . he was lost, and he fell deeply in love with a deadly woman. Now that I am writing this, Im thinking that his character is related, in a way, with Brando’s Terry Malone in “On The Waterfront”; the only thing is in that film, Eva Marie Saint’s character saves him, the very opposite of what Ava does with The Swede.


With just some small effort on her part, Kitty makes The Swede take the rap for her and he is imprisoned for three years.


His cellmate warns him about her, but he does not listen to reason.


In the scene where Kitty says to Colfax “You touch me and you won’t live till morning!” she means it and we all believe it. Her fiery eyes say it all. Although we eventually get to know that Kitty and Colfax (Albert Dekker) are the masterminds behind all the deceit and manipulation of The Swede, we also realize that Kitty is only using Colfax and she does not love him either. We know that for sure in the film’s ending, when we see just what she is: a dame truly deadlier than the male, a treacherous, double-crossing bitch. She says she’s poison and that’s an understatement. She is a selfish wench trying to be saved in the very end. But we can’t hate her. And we understand and connect with The Swede’s plight. Kitty is simply irresistible. She has the face that launched a thousand ships.


The whole supporting cast of this feature is excellent: Edmond O’Brien as the insurance detective, Albert Dekker as Colfax, Sam Levene as The Swede’s childhood friend, Virginia Christine as his former sweetheart, Charles McGraw, Vince Barnett, William Conrad, etcetera. A brilliant piece of casting.





Robert Siodmak’s deft direction and the film’s awesome cinematography ( Elwood Bredell ) and musical score ( Miklós Rózsamade it a landmark of the Film Noir genre, a true masterpiece. But the essential ingredient that makes this film work, in my opinion, was Ava’s Kitty. Without Ava’s Kitty Collins, there is just no motivation…she is responsible for all that comes after the robbery… she is The Swede’s perdition. With this film, Ava Gardner’s myth begins.

♦     ♦

* CineMaven’s Aside ~ For more about that dress from the book: Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s, film and fashion historian Kimberly Truhler writes (p.161-162):

“When she stands, she pauses to model the gown in its entirety; black satin with a strap starting at the center of her décolletage and crossing over her left shoulder. It’s an aspect of the design that may have been prompted by the Production Code since censors warn the production: ‘care will be needed with this low-cut gown.’

West makes the most of the fabric, pinching and draping it in ways that would catch the light and make the ‘phosphorescent material [give] off a subtle glance in strategic places,’  according to one columnist. Fellow Universal costume designer Yvonne Wood recalled Vera’s vision of the characters backstory in her most famous design: “it looked expensive; it was expensive; but it just missed enough so it was slightly lacking in good taste. It was the type of gown a girl of that background buys when she suddenly has a lot of money.’” 





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