A Life Reconstructed in Noir Classic The Killers

A death in New Jersey

"Why'd they wanna kill you?" "I did something wrong once." This line from the doomed protagonist of Robert Siodmak's 1946 noir The Killers ends up being his last, setting off a nonlinear narrative of pondering flashbacks that succinctly encapsulates Austin Film Society's Noir Canon, the ongoing retrospective that marks its return this year with this filthy crime drama. It's a vague response that lingers, prodding investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) with a nagging demand for what this wrong deed was and why it resulted in this man's demise. Questioning the varying faces that knew him over the years – all familiar threads woven within the tapestry of noir (the benevolent close friend, the trigger-happy acquaintance, the femme fatale) – this enigmatic man whose character entrance gives "deathbed" literal meaning is gradually shaped from the perception of others into the genre's archetypal hardened lead.

The man is Pete Lund, known as "The Swede." As played by Burt Lancaster in his onscreen debut, he's an ex-con, a former boxer, a man smitten with the wrong dame, and any other image you'd associate with this type. Prior to his death, he was a gas station attendant in the quaint town of Brentwood, N.J., spending his days filling up the cars that'd pass through and evenings in the wholesome diner nearby, living in constant fear that his past will finally catch up with him.

The Killers is pure, unabashed Forties noir, and Siodmak's film remains essential if solely for its transfixing, enormously influential opening that sums up the story. It's a compact sequence that could stand alone as a short: a diner, a clock that strikes six, and two men that will forever disrupt small-town America.

From the townsfolk to that innocent, clean-cut girlfriend from long ago (Virginia Christine), everyone had an idea of who Lund was – everyone except Reardon. Siodmak's film bridges this relationship between two opposing linchpins of noir: the righteous, clean-cut sleuth and a man that once built his life around the seedy underbelly of post-World War II America. The flashbacks triggered from the early witnesses inevitably shifts Reardon into a more contemptuous and criminal setting with complicit interviewees, giving him less a sense of who Lund was as a person and more of an understanding for how the ruthless, backstabbing world he inhabited operates.

One of Siodmak's smartest tactics for this tale (based on an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same title) is how he structures the film around Lund's absence. Unlike Walter Neff, the dying lead of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (set for the Canon in July) who recalls his downfall via voiceover while solidifying his guilt, Lund's patchy trajectory – as told by various third parties – comes across as an act of cruel fate rather than one entirely of his own doing. That's a tricky portrait for an actor to embrace, but even in his debut the youthful Lancaster has an immediate presence that allows a smidgen of sympathy for a character who only exists in other people's testimony.

Noir Canon presents The Killers, Fri., June 21, 7pm, and Sun., June 23, 4pm @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org/afs-cinema.

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AFS Cinema, Noir Canon, The Killers, Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Christine

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