Thursday, April 2, 2009

Megan, Charles, and Killers (1946)

1) This is your last warning. Megan Abbott is in town today and speaking at St. John Fisher College tonight at 7pm. You should be there.

2) Thanks to Charles Benoit for being a good sport yesterday. At least, I think he was. We'll find out tonight. If this is my last post, you'll know what happened.

3) THE KILLERS is the story of The Swede, a boxer-turned-goon thief who has been double-crossed by the woman he loved and awaits his fate at the hands of nameless gunsels. But in a brilliant (and the more I think about it, it only gets better) structure, his story is never told from his point of view. The main characters we follow for the first few minutes of the film are the killers of the title. Once their job is done, an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) comes on the scene. His job is to find out if the $2500 policy that The Swede had through his employer is payable. To this end, he searches out people from The Swede's past, and we get his story, through a series of flashbacks from at least seven different characters, a la CITIZEN KANE. This construct reflects the way our legacy is truly seen after we're gone: through the eyes of others.

The Swede is truly a tragic character, seemingly not in control of himself and his life, and even if he hadn't been killed in the beginning of the film, the fatalism of his charcter would still be there. The earliest we meet him he is a boxer in his last fight, suffering from a broken right hand that ultimately finishes his career. He is then attracted to the flash and fast life of a criminal, and then by the wiles of a woman (Ava Gardner). In all of these instances, there doesn't appear to be a clear choice made by The Swede. Instead, he is motivated by suggestion or plan, or by a code that he feels he should embody. In fact, the only singular decision he makes is to do nothing, to let death find him in the form of The Killers.

Expressionist lighting is important in evoking mood here, whether it's the low ceilings with unnatural shadows on them oppressing the characters, or the insurance investigator caught in the crosshairs of light streaming in the window while he waits for his prey, or The Swede lying in his bed awaiting his fate, decapitated by shadow. Again we have the flashbacks, which contain the unreality of memory, but there is little strange about the film. We experience the eroticism of Ava Gardner through the eyes of The Swede, already filtered through the memory of flashback, which makes me wonder whether this aspect was played up or diminished, based on who was telling the story.

Cold-blooded murder at the beginning of the film is followed by scenes of boxing, where the audience is part of the bloodlust. In response to this, Ava Gardner's character decries the cruelty of the sport, saying, "I could never watch a man of mine suffer like that." Violence bookends the film and the threat of violence is intertwined with the plot, but the real cruelty seems to be the exploitation of innocence and naivete.

No comments: