The Killers (1946) Arrow Academy Blu-ray Review

Noir essentials 101

Note: You can purchase The Killers on Blu-ray direct from Arrow.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1946) is a major part of film noir history, launching the Hollywood career of Burt Lancaster and eventually making screen legend Ava Gardner a major star. A popular and critical hit of its day, the gripping noir mystery remains a classic of the genre. Some have called it the Citizen Kane of film noir. The movie has inspired multiple remakes since its debut, most notably Don Siegal’s The Killers from 1964 starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan. Originally adapted from a popular 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, an uncredited John Huston wrote the screenplay.

Directed by Robert Siodmak, The Killers flashes all the trademarks of film noir with its seedy milieu and smoldering femme fatale in Ava Gardner. Ole ‘Swede’ Andreson (Burt Lancaster) is a lowly gas station attendant whom gets murdered by two men within minutes of the movie’s stylish opening sequence. None of Swede’s current acquaintances understand why he would get brutally gunned down by two hit-men. Swede had a $2500 life insurance policy, leading to the insurance company sending an investigator to look into his murder. Investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) finds it unusual when he learns the life insurance policy goes to a chambermaid that barely knew Swede, thus beginning an investigation that winds back through Swede’s former life as a boxer and criminal. The deepening mystery involves more and more associates from Swede’s past as Reardon searches for the truth of what happened and why the man was murdered.

The first fifteen minutes are nearly a perfect telling of Hemingway’s story, what follows afterwards is a clever addition to the tale that adds layer upon layer to its complex narrative. A true film of Hollywood’s golden age, The Killers is steeped in a complex flashback structure as we learn the mystery of Swede’s life and why he was ultimately murdered. Burt Lancaster would go on to become a legendary figure in Hollywood after this debut, having an acting career that spanned decades. His understated performance plays in perfectly to the weak male protagonist trope common to noir.

… this film is a first-rate example of why Gardner would soon become an international icon

Possibly the most critical element to a successful film noir is the femme fatale and Ava Gardner delivers without question. Though her role of Kitty Collins as Swede’s one-time girlfriend doesn’t get much screen time, her influence cannot be underestimated in The Killer’s success and popularity. For the MGM starlet, this Universal film would be her first major role, launching her career to new heights of fame. Burning with an intensity and desire you never really saw from other leading ladies of the period, this film is a first-rate example of why Gardner would soon become an international icon as an actress and one of Hollywood’s most revered legends. The viewer fully understands why Swede would fall for the beautiful but dangerous Kitty, Ava Gardner plays her in a remarkably charismatic and powerful performance.

It doesn’t get much better from Hollywood’s golden age than Siodmak’s The Killers. Featuring a tricky, complicated narrative decades ahead of its time and superlative performances from the cast, there are few better film noir mysteries. Ava Gardner proves why she would go on to become an international sex symbol and film legend. A true classic in every sense of the word.

Movie ★★★★★

The Killers Blu-ray screen shot 2

The Killers has been released by Arrow Academy (a division of British distributor Arrow Video) in the UK in a region B-locked Blu-ray edition. The 1946 black-and-white film noir receives an unexpectedly pleasing presentation of very high quality. It features classic film cinematography from the period with an emphasis on light and dark spaces. The 1080P presentation has superb black levels preserving fine shadow delineation and excellent contrast. Encoded in AVC on a BD-50 with strong compression parameters, the main feature runs 102 minutes.

Arrow provides this blurb in the enclosed booklet accompanying the BD:

The Killers is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with mono sound. The HD Master for The Killers was made available from NBC Universal via Hollywood Classics. The film was transferred in HD resolution from a 35mm interpositive at Modern VideoFilm, Burbank. Additional picture restoration was overseen by Arrow Films and completed at Deluxe Digital, London.

Featuring beautiful vintage cinematography, the contrast and black levels are nearly perfect. Shadow delineation is quite good, the level of visible detail is exemplary for film of this age. Overall detail is fair. Extreme close-ups were not popular at the time and most cinematography eschewed razor-sharp definition.

The film elements are in solid shape considering their age. While a new film transfer from the negative might have turned out a touch better in terms of clarity, the 35mm interpositive does an excellent stand-in job for it. A few scratches pop up, but they are the exception and not the rule. A fine AVC video encode handles the excellent grain reproduction without a hitch. This is a film-like transfer that features no serious video processing other than some very mild sharpening at times.

Definition and clarity are both better than expected, this is not a soft-looking movie by any means. A great transfer for a great film. I was very close to rewarding this transfer with the full five stars but a hint of ringing lowers it ever so slightly.

Video ★★★★☆

The included audio is a fine-sounding PCM mono soundtrack capturing every bit of dialogue with perfect fidelity. Miklós Rózsa’s score sounds better than ever on Blu-ray, mastered with excellent dynamic range and a tuneful EQ.

The disc includes an isolated music and effects track as a bonus. This is also presented in lossless mono PCM. Optional English SDH subs are included in a white font.

Audio ★★★★☆

A classic like The Killers deserves a wide range of special features and Arrow comes through once again, going above and beyond the call of duty with in-depth documentaries. An impressive reversible sleeve featuring one of the original posters and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw makes for a stylish looking Blu-ray case. Arrow includes a 40-page collector’s booklet containing new writing by Sergio Angelini and archive interviews with director Robert Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger and cinematographer Woody Bredell. Illustrated with original production stills, the included essays are a veritable film school of analysis on film noir and the movie itself.

Frank Krutnik on The Killers (54:12 in HD) – The author introduces the film and covers four pivotal scenes from the movie in a wide-ranging interview. The scholarly piece delves deeply into the film and its background. This was such an informative special feature that it should be required viewing for all film noir fans.

Heroic Fatalism (31:47 in HD) – A video essay by Philip Booth comparing the multiple versions of The Killers. It starts with Hemingway’s story and then covers the films by Siodmak, Tarkovsky, and Siegel. This is a very unusual supplement, I haven’t seen something constructed with this much care on home video in a long time. It does get a little too academic at times but provides keen insight into the differences between each adaptation in an orderly, rigorous manner.

Three archival radio stories inspired by The Killers:
– 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters (29:51)
– 1946 Jack Benny spoof (10:10)
– 1958 Suspense episode “Two for the Road” (29:03)

Stills and Posters Gallery

Theatrical Trailer (1:47)

Trailers for Arrow’s other related releases: Brute Force, The Naked City, and Rififi

Extras★★★★★

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

 

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