Film Noir Series: The Killers (1946)

by tigermanifesto


An entry in three parts:

Part 1: Fire

Like Double Indemnity, The Killers spends most of its time in the realm of smoke and mirrors. Its characters are unmoored from the rational and real, spending most of their time in one state of unstable mediation or another, especially since most of the plot is revealed in subjective flashbacks. When the story wants to be clear about something, therefore, it attracts some notice. I noticed that Ava Gardner’s character, the femme fatale of this particular piece, is often associated with fire and candlelight. This links her to passion and sexuality, on the one hand, and to transience and danger, on the other (putting the phallic symbolism to one side). Fire, after all, is the source of both useful heat and rampaging infernos. Like a light in the darkness, Kitty Collins is an irresistible figure, radiant and possessing a great singing voice to boot. However, as the hapless–truly hapless–Swede soon discovers, her flame not only spreads easily, it also makes easy meals out of meatheaded boxers like him.

Part 2: Mirrors

In a climactic scene taking place at the Green Cat bar–I’m always alert to colour references in black and white films–there is a shot of the characters gathered under a large mirror, which curves and warps the image in front of it. At first, the entire shot is within the mirror until it shifts down to the actors actually seated at the table. It continues to loom in the background the entire time, creating a sense of duplication, mediation, and uncertainty, mirroring the mounting and soon-to-snap tensions the film’s narrative has been building up. Mirrors are also terrific devices for showing both the psychological state of the characters and placing the audience in an uncomfortably self-conscious position. When Kitty regards herself in the mirror, we see not only a character trapped in an elegant pose but calls attention to our voyeurism, as we are joined in regarding her beautiful form by none other than she herself. By concretely representing the subjectivity and capriciousness of images themselves, the film pushes us further from realism and deeper into the dream.

Part 3: Economics

As in Double Indemnity, a major character in the story is connected to the insurance business. It is, as I have written elsewhere, a perfect marriage of occupation and thematic subject matter. Still, the character of Jim Reardon in this film is a strange beast, seemingly aloof from personal concerns about money or basic survival. Though he is often placed in danger, he appears to have no desire to gain any rewards for his troubles beyond the satisfaction of discovering the truth and recovering the money for his company. Not for himself, mind you, but his company, making him a paragon of loyalty compared to Walter Neff. In his disregard for money, he shows himself to be secure in his job and work, able to spend large amours of time shirking responsibilities at his job to pursue an old robbery case. Like all good corporate workers, he is still at the mercy of his employer, but he seems to have an almost unreasonable amount of freedom of movement and action in the story. So much the better for the audience, since otherwise we would not have a story, but it still strikes me as odd.