Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.
- Ernest Hemingway
If owning the best dialogue in a film was the definition of villainy, Max and Al, the hit-men in Robert Siodmack’s The Killers (1946), would be its poster boys. They’re curt, they speak with authority, and you’d be a bright boy to listen. They also back up what they say with action, “We’re going to kill the Swede”, and they do. While we could easily peg these two as the villains in this film, we might be jumping to conclusions. That’s because, like many noir films, the narrative is constructed through backstory, the killing of the Swede is just the starting point. It’s only through the eyes of multiple people that we get the story of why the Swede let himself be killed, and who it was that hired Max and Al to do it. But the story is disjointed, not a complete backstory. Rather it is a story of Ole from the perspective of the people who interacted with him.
After the unusual death of Ole Anderson it is up to insurance agent Jim Reardon to track down his beneficiary and pay out. Or maybe he’d rather investigate the strange death of the man everyone called the Swede. I mean, why did he let those men come and kill him without putting up a fight? What he finds is a tale of deception, obsession, and the “bad thing” Ole did once that lead him back to one person, Kitty.
Nick, who was tied up at the diner by Al and Max, gives us our first glimpse into the story of the Swede. Not only was he witness to the killers, but also the man who hired them, as we will later find out. A black Cadillac pulls into the filling station in Brentwood, NJ. There is some awkward tension between the man and the Swede. After the man leaves, Ole isn’t feeling so hot and goes home.
The next person interviewed by Reardon is Ms. Mary Ellen Daugherty, a housekeeper at the Palm’s Hotel in Atlantic City. She is the beneficiary of the Swede’s life insurance, though she doesn’t even remember who he is. She does remember Ole as a man name Nelson who was stressed out about the loss of a woman. He attempts to jump out a window only to be stopped by Mary. Grateful for this, Ole makes her the beneficiary of his insurance. But who was this woman?
Reardon’s hunch leads him(the office secretary Stella) to discover that his mystery man is Ole Anderson, a boxer from Philly.
Turns out Ole was picked up for robbery and did some hard time. Reardon talks to Detective Lubinsky, the cop who caught Anderson. Turns out they were childhood friends. Lubinsky became a cop and Anderson a criminal. Lubinsky describes the night Ole stopped being a fighter after losing to Tiger Lewis. The guys name was Tiger, he had to win. The Swede’s girl, Lilly, is there by his side. Though he didn’t really notice too much. She recalls the night she knew it was over between her and the Swede. They attended a party hosted by a known mob boss. Moments after stepping inside, the Swede spots Kitty. From that moment on it was a Lilly states “I knew the boat had sailed on that one.” But no worries, Lilly ends up with Lubinsky. So it worked out. For him at least.
Before having his iced tea and leaving, Lubinsky recalls one more story for Reardon. He had a tip that some stolen jewelry was at a cafe in town. He notices Kitty wearing a piece of jewelry,and before she can slip it away in some soup he nabs her. The Swede takes the wrap for the stolen property. This act gets him put into prison, where is cellmates with Charleston.
Charleston regails about his time in prison with the Swede over some drinks. Charleston’s story reveals the origin of the scarf found in the Swede’s possession. It was a gift some Kitty.
But Charleston didn’t just see the Swede while in prison. The last time he saw his was at a meeting for a big job. The meeting was with Big Jim and a couple other fellows. If you recall from earlier, the man in the Cadillac looks like Big Jim. Now we’re getting somewhere. Big Jim fits a lot of stereotypical villain roles. Firstly, his name begins with the word “big”. This denotes some sort or power Jim has within the criminal community. Also, no one ever followed a plan executed by Little James. But I have to wonder what the other mobster’s name “Jake the Rake” denoted. Perhaps his zen like demeanor. The second thing that typifies Jim as a villain, he brings his girl with him. Not only does this distract the other men involved, and she is distracting. It also shows the he has control over others. The third thing that makes his villainous is his attitude. He doesn’t want to wait for anyone, and he doesn’t take lip from anyone. Lastly, he takes the largest share of the loot without question. He’s not liked, but tolerated. And as we already know, he holds a grudge.
Anyway, the heist goes off without a hitch. Ok, so maybe someone got shot, but other than that, no hitches.
Skipping a couple of flashbacks, we to Blinky's description of how the group lost all the money to the Swede. It seems the meeting point burnt down the night before the heist, conveniently. So the meeting was to take place at a farmhouse. No one told the Swede, but he finds out anyway. Taking all the money, and shooting out the other's tires, he escapes. It's assumed that the Swede took the money to the hotel in Atlantic City with Kitty, who in turn dumped him a few days later. So who has the money?
The only way for Reardon to find out is to talk to Kitty. Since his meeting with Big Jim led nowhere. Kitty arranges to meet Reardon at a café. But it's a set up, and our boys Al and Max are there to help Kitty. This is where the bodies start to pile up. Max and Al should have used some of their quick whit rather than their guns.
At Colfax's house there is another shoot out. The gang is basically all dead now, except for Kitty, who is pleading with Big Jim to lie for her.
In the end she has to pay for the crimes she aided in committing. As Reardon states in his assessment of the case "The double cross to end all double crosses!"
So who is the villain in this film? Both Al and Max were essentially pawns, hired guns. From a male point of view, I would lean towards Kitty as the villain. She plays the Swede, getting him to take the money from the others. Like most portrayals of women in film, their power comes not from their ability to force others to their will, but rather it is through manipulation. Kitty uses her sexuality to manipulate the Swede. She can control him, to the point of wanting to kill himself. Leaving him to even accept his own death. And yet in the end, Kitty didn't run off with the money. She went right back to Big Jim.
Big Jim Colfax lives up to his name. Ordering the death of the Swede, organizing the heist, and manipulating all involved, even Kitty. True villainy lies in masterminding all the players involved. Knowing what others will do, and not caring who you hurt. It is a selfish act. Big Jim fits all of this, but in the end, like other villains, he perishes. And like the Swede, he couldn't escape the past.
I watched The KIllers on Criterion Blu-Ray. It also contains the 1964 version of the story staring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson, and Ronald Reagan. I highly recommend that you pick this set up. It's a killer (pun intended) set.
Also, this post was intended to be for the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Speakeasy, and Shadows & Satin. However, due to some illness I was unable to post in time. You definitely check out some of the other posts in the 5 day long blogathon here. And my thanks goes to the hosts of the blogathon.
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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Classic Film and TV Cafe
Shadows And Satin
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CineMavin's: Essays from the Couch
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In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Outspoken and Freckled
B Noir Detour
Journeys in Darkness and Light
The Talk Film Society
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