Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)—or more properly, Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers—wasn’t the first time the German director had made a film noir, since it was preceded by Phantom Lady (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944), The Suspect (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) and The Spiral Staircase (1945). Even his 1943 Son of Dracula might be termed a “noir” horror picture. But somehow—maybe it’s the clout of the Hemingway name—The Killers seems to be the one for which Siodmak is remembered. That’s a little ironic, since, apart from the opening sequence, there’s not much of Hemingway’s short story clinging to Siodmak’s film, seeing as how the beginning pretty much is the short story. The rest is the screenplay offering backstory. What does cling to the movie, however, is the shadowy sense of both hopeless dread and resignation that marks the genre. That Siodmak should have proved to be a master of noir is hardly surprising, since his roots were in German Expressionist film—a form not unlike noir in many respects.
The Killers is a complex work that begins with the gangland murder—for reasons that are unclear at the time—of a character known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster in his film debut). The remainder of the film follows the investigation into his death by insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) and police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene). Each piece of their investigation involves a flashback that finally pieces together the story of what led to the Swede’s murder. Complex as its structure is, the film does manage to be coherent. But it’s really a triumph of atmosphere and style over content when all is said and done. It’s less the story that compels the viewer than the feel of it all—and the grim sense of how everything leads to the inevitable ending we saw at the beginning of the film.