Hollywood’s oligopoly through the 1940s created both a problem and an opportunity. The auteur filmmaker we think of today when talking about directors – Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Ford and the like – was fighting against a studio system designed to turn a profit more than it was about creating form or style for form or style’s sake. While competition between the big studios produced some of the greatest films of all time, it also churned out a lot of the same kind of movie because it was a reliable earner.
Enter: film noir. The genre spawned out of the pulpy detective thrillers so popular in trashy novels of the era, but had so much more to say about the society around it than just being a black-and-white, narrated, urban crime film with a private investigators lambasting “chicks” who walk into their joint, of all the joints in the world. Nowadays, noirs are associated with those that have already been covered in Set The Tape’s Noirvember series, such as classics like Vertigo and Mine Own Executioner, and post-modern reinterpretations of the familiar noir themes, like those in Se7en and Mulholland Drive.
If the classic period pretty much began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, it was virtually spent by the time Touch of Evil rolled around in 1958. It was perhaps the mid-40s that the genre had its most significant impact after the end of World War II. Director Robert Siodmak’s fatalistic thriller The Killers arrived in cinemas a year after the war was over and subtly dealt with all of the conventions of a film noir. There’s the archetypal femme fatale, the working class protagonist, the unsettling visual style and not forgetting the moral uncertainty and ambiguity of it all.
As the Smashing Pumpkins song goes, the end is the beginning is the end. The Killers starts with a diner, two heavies and a shooting; a scene so famous that you’ve probably seen it before. If not, then a spoof or passing mention to it has almost definitely crossed your path. It is iconic for a reason – the set, the style, the dialogue, the performances; it all just oozes class and is exactly the type of scene that makes the genre so attractive. The somewhat non-linear structure allows Siodmak to play around with the concept of there being an unreliable narrator leading the story that could very well be untrue. Or, at least, biased or not the full picture.
Ava Gardner is exceptional as the alluring femme fatale Kitty who ensnares the troubled boxer ‘Swede’ (Burt Lancaster) but, as she points out, is poisonous to the male of the species. If there’s one thing in particular that classic noir was exceptional at, it was identifying, emphasising and deconstructing the gender expectations placed upon contemporary society and the threat that non-conformity represented in the post-war era. Men returned from the front to find women had occupied a new role within society. They were more independent than ever; partly through necessity, but it frightened those soldiers who came back home to find the country they left behind had progressed without them. What role could the male occupy if the woman had taken their place? For many veterans, these scary emboldened women were poisonous to the values they had grown accustomed to. The Killers might be a romantic tragedy at its surface-level, but it explores these themes in greater depth than the average pulp fiction.
Not only that, but America was an affluent place compared to the depression-era left behind by the G.I.’s; and with it came excesses. Again, this offered opportunities to women in particular to break free from the shackles that chained them to their assigned gender roles. But rather than accept this potentially revolutionary status quo, men fought back against it even harder, asserting their manliness at every opportunity to pressurise women back into the home and become the domestic housemaids that they once were forced to be. As the investigation is carried out in the embedded narrative, clues are gradually revealed to Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) and Lt Lubinsky (Sam Levene), allowing the viewer to unravel the tale piece-by-piece, drawing their own conclusion along the way.
Mostly, the conclusion is that women are getting too uppity. Instead of coming across as chauvinistic or patronising, even though it is seen through the male gaze, it’s the man’s role that is questioned by this action, rather than the woman’s. Sure, it is easy to pin all of Swede’s problems on Kitty, but where does the responsibility stop? Who is ultimately to blame for the eventuality? One need only look at the duality between the characters of Kitty and Lilly (Virginia Christine), who is the very image of domesticity, to better understand how the other is seen.
As with most film noirs from the period that kowtowed to the pressures of the studio system, the point of the ending is undermined slightly. We know from the very opening scene depicting the bedsit-dwelling Swede’s grizzly end that there’s not going to be a happy ending, that he’s not going to get the girl, that he probably won’t get the money (or, if he has, that he’s lost it somehow), and that he’s trapped by his own inescapable sense of guilt. The neat tacked on ending that ties everything up for the viewer with a pretty bow (not even shot by Siodmak) probably isn’t necessary and undercuts the cynical assault on the (masculine) American dream. Nevertheless, The Killers is a prime example of just what a classic film noir could say, do and achieve.