Sunday, November 08, 2009


This is the movie that some critics point to as the archetypal film noir: a dark, shadowy look to match a dark, fatalistic tone; a flawed anti-hero; a sexy femme fatale; city streets; and, of course, murder. It also has a complex narrative structure with overlapping flashbacks. The first 10 minutes of the movie are drawn directly from the very short story of the same title by Ernest Hemingway: two tough guys come to a small town diner to carry out the contract killing of a fellow known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster). When a friend goes to Lancaster’s apartment to warn him, Lancaster refuses to budge, as if there is no escape, his only explanation being, “I did something wrong once.” Sure enough, the killers barge in and shoot him dead. And that’s all Hemingway wrote; this adaptation continues as an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) starts interviewing people who knew Lancaster, a former small-time boxer who was forced to give up the game due to a hand injury and made some money in the numbers racket. His “good” gal (Virginia Christine) loses him to a “bad” gal (Ava Gardner at her sexiest). Lancaster takes a shoplifting rap for her and goes to jail; when he comes out, she’s hooked up with gangster Albert Dekker, and Lancaster winds up joining up with Gardner, Dekker and his men for a hat factory heist. Double-crosses occur, leading to Lancaster’s fate.

Though this movie is not quite CITIZEN KANE, it seems to have used KANE as its storytelling model: one man delves into the background of a dead man, looking for some meaning to his life and death. O’Brien is far more active here than the reporter in KANE, and though Lancaster steals the show with his smoldering performance, O’Brien is in some ways the main character, not just putting the pieces of Lancaster’s puzzle together, but actually finding the bad guys and getting some form of justice. He’s very good, as is Sam Levene as a cop and former friend of Lancaster’s, but the movie belongs to Lancaster and Gardner, who are impossibly sexy, work together well, and strike me as the 40’s equivalent of a modern silver screen pair like George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The inky blackness of the cinematography and the glossy close-ups of the stars make this a treat for the eye. Following the flashbacks (occasionally out of order) as O’Brien collects testimony is not difficult, but for the most part, the secondary characters are not as compelling as those in KANE, and the middle of the movie, building to the heist, drags a bit. Still, as exemplary a piece of film noir as you’re likely to see. Available as part of a wonderful 2-disc set from Criterion, along with the 1964 version which I'll review soon. [DVD]

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