Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Lancaster and Gardner in ‘The Killers’

Original Poster.

Re-release Poster.

The first thing to know about “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (Universal, 1946) is that it looks great. Ironically, director Robert Siodmak and his cinematographer, Woody Bredell, created one of the best looking film noirs by insisting that absolutely nothing should be shot for beauty or glamour. As much as possible, scenes were shot with natural light — eyes are often hidden in shadows because no fills were used to make the actors more photogenic. On her first day of shooting, Ava Gardner appeared on the set in full Metro-style glamorous makeup. Siodmak told her to go scrub it all off: “Please, you are going and washing off and bringing back face alone!” For years afterwards, Woody Bredell praised Ava Gardner as the first adult actress he’d ever photographed without makeup. “All we did was rub a little Vaseline into her skin for a sheen effect.” “The Killers” has the deepest blacks and intensest whites and as few halftones as possible — it’s as close to true black and white as Hollywood ever managed. From the first shot to the last, it’s a pleasure to look at. The opening titles are over a car racing down a suburban New Jersey road at night. At the end of the titles, the opening shots look like this:

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

The Icemen Cometh: McGraw and Conrad

The Icemen Come: McGraw and Conrad.

Hired guns Charles McGraw and William Conrad menace lunch counter man Harry Hayden.

Hired guns McGraw and Conrad menace counterman Harry Hayden.

Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” is scarcely a dozen pages long and consists almost entirely of dialogue. The first reel of the picture (i.e., the first twelve minutes) is a reasonably strict adaptation of the story, minus the racist epithets. Charles McGraw and William Conrad are such implacable, terrifying bad guys, they don’t need to sound like Klansman to add force to their brutality. They show up at a diner in a suburban New Jersey town (Brentwood in the picture; Summit in Hemingway’s story), throw their weight around, then announce they’ve come to kill a man known as the Swede; when the Swede doesn’t show up by 6:00, they go to his boarding house and gun him down in his bed. The Swede is warned before they arrive, but he has given up. When they come, there is no struggle — just explosive gunfire. (The passivity of Conrad’s and McGraw’s faces as they fire again and again is scary as hell.)

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

That’s it. It’s extremely taut and tense. At first, the set-up made me so jumpy, it took several viewings before I could enjoy the style of the cinematography and the efficiency of the story-telling, which I now admire tremendously. I also admire Harry Hayden’s completely realistic performance as the nervous counterman, George. Hayden had a long and mostly uncredited career; he rarely got the chance to do much, but every now and again, he landed a nice little part that let him show his skill. I think he’s perfect in “The Killers.” (He’s also very nice in a small part in “The Rains Came.”)

Mark Hellinger, who produced the picture, fancied himself Hemingway’s great pal. Pal or not, Hemingway demanded fifty thousand smackers for his twelve-page story and got thirty-eight, making it the highest price ever paid for movie rights to a short story. Hellinger promised Hemingway he’d tell the press he paid the original asking price. In the end, he advertised that he paid seventy-five Gs for the story. To write the screenplay, Hellinger first approached John Huston, but since Huston was still in uniform and had outstanding contractual commitments to Jack Warner, he recommended his writing partner, Anthony Veiller (son of Margaret Wycherley — who later played Cagney’s cagey old mother in “White Heat”). Veiller agreed and got full credit, but he split the pay fifty-fifty with Huston, who was heavily involved in the writing, which took two months. Most of it was written at Huston’s rooms at the Weylin Hotel on 54th and Madison and at Wycherley’s flat at 10 Perry Street in the West Village — and, since Huston was involved, at many saloons in between. Their approach centered on a single question: “What could bring a man so low that he would surrender himself to violent death?” What they ended up with is a lot of fun, but I think it’s going much too far to say that it’s a great script. Frankly, I don’t think their script does a great job of answering their own question.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as bad, dangerous Kitty Collins.

The structure of “The Killers” mimics the multiple narrator idea that Herman Mankiewicz used so effectively in “Citizen Kane,” but it’s not as cleverly constructed. In “The Killers,” the mystery to be solved is why anyone would want to kill the Swede (Burt Lancaster); we find out through a series of dovetailing flashbacks.

The Swede's funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Edmond O'Brien, Sam Levene and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

The Swede’s funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Sam Levene, Edmond O’Brien and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

Individually, each scene works well enough and there’s plenty of snappy patter; taken as a whole, however, the story feels attenuated, even somewhat preposterous. Moreover, unlike “Citizen Kane,” all of the various narrations are in complete agreement with the others. Everyone in the picture — the dim-witted chambermaid, the jilted girlfriend, the cop, the small-time crook, the gunsel, even the hophead on his deathbed — has a perfect recollection of events that took place six years earlier, before World War II interrupted their lives. They all remember accurately, and they all tell the truth. This is quite a problem in a picture that’s supposed to be about moral ambiguity. That’s why I think the best idea is to accept the picture as flashy, trashy entertainment and not as anything so earnest as social criticism. There’s plenty to like without taking it seriously.

Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

The Swede, moments before his murder: Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

This is the picture that introduced Burt Lancaster to movie audiences and finally gave Ava Gardner something to do with herself. That’s enough for me. The two stars got along well together. Ava genuinely liked him; years later, a French interviewer asked Lancaster how it felt to kiss Ava Gardner for the first time. Lancaster replied, “I got an erection!” His bulge was so noticeable, in fact, that the entire crew, including Ava, cracked up at the sight of it.

Here’s the scene where Burt Lancaster first meets Ava Gardner. (I apologize in advance for the commercial that precedes it.) Ava does her own singing. She’s way better than any of the voices Metro hired to dub her. Speaking of commercials, if you can tear your eyes away from Ava, the woman who arrives with Lancaster is Virginia Christine. She’s best known as Mrs Olson on the Folgers Coffee commercials, a gig that began in the mid-60s and lasted for 21 years. It only seemed longer. (Sorry:  this clip appears to be incompatible with the iPad.)

A few words about the music. It’s one of Miklós Rózsa better efforts. I can almost always identify a score by Rózsa: it’s the one that sounds like a bummer — especially the stuff he wrote for biblical epics. This one’s certainly not breezy, but for once it’s more dramatic than it is sullen. It also features a very famous musical phrase that Walter Schumann used for “Dragnet”: DUM duh-dum DUM! When that theme became a hit on the pop charts, Rózsa’s music publishers filed suit, claiming that Schumann had been at the session the day Rózsa recorded the theme. The case was settled out of court: both composers and their publishers shared the music royalties every time “Dragnet” aired.

‘Executive Suite’: Life and Death at the Top

Executive Suite Poster:  Funny, but completely misleading.  That chick with Bill Holden is supposed to be June Allyson -- she looks more like va-va-voom Elaine Stewart from 'The Bad and the Beautiful.'

Executive Suite Poster: Funny, but misleading. That chick with Bill Holden on the upper left is supposed to be June Allyson — she looks more like va-va-va-voom Elaine Stewart from ‘The Bad and the Beautiful.’

Metro’s classy 1954 boardroom drama, “Executive Suite,” never gets the respect it deserves. The picture is engrossing from the first moment till the last shot.  It opens with sounds of traffic and pedestrians over which veteran television anchorman, Chet Huntley, announces:

It is always up there, close to the clouds, on the topmost floors of the sky-reaching towers of big business. And because it is high in the sky, you may think that those who work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say . . . that it isn’t so.

Executive Suite Titles


Immediately after, you hear a great bell in a clock tower roll out a big, sonorous D:  BONNG!  EXECUTIVE SUITE

Then another BONNG!  WILLIAM HOLDEN; BONNG! JUNE ALLYSON; BONNG!  BARBARA STANWYCK BONNG!. . . and so on through the all-star cast.  It’s incredibly portentous, and even a little bit silly, in a nice way.

The director, Robert Wise, stages the opening scene in an unusually imaginative way for a big studio picture:  the POV puts us in the shoes of Avery Bullard, dynamic president of the Tredway Corporation (a furniture manufacturing concern).  He has just finished a meeting on Wall Street and is now on his way back to his headquarters in Pennsylvania.  First, he stops in at the Western Union office in the lobby.  We see only his hands as he writes out the following:

Avery Bullard sends his final wire.

Avery Bullard sends his final wire.

He hands it to the telegrapher.  We hear him say “Straight wire.”  He pays, we go out onto the street with him (we’re still in his shoes), he hails a taxi . . . then the son of a bitch drops dead of a stroke in the midday sun.  His wallet flies out of his hand as he falls; a passerby scoops it up, pockets the cash and throws his billfold away in a wire trash basket.  From this opening sequence till the last frame, it’s a non-stop joy ride, skillfully directed and acted, cleverly plotted and scripted.

Fredric March, William Holden, Walter Pidgeon:  Contenders three:  conniving bean-counter, crusading hero, weak sister.

Fredric March, William Holden, Walter Pidgeon — Contenders three: conniving bean-counter, crusading hero, weak sister.

The sudden death of Bullard leaves the top position at Tredway open for five ambitious veeps to snarl over, which makes up the balance of the picture.  Along with all the corporate jiggery-pokery and hanky-panky, it also offers a prescient commentary about the wrong path down which American business was heading in the post-War boom years, and (ahem) still is. The depiction of how businessmen work their swindles and advance their careers is necessarily simplified and steamed-up — but the central argument of the picture is sound.  It’s one of the most enjoyable movies I know.  I liked it the first time I saw it, but repeated viewings have made me like it more and more. Most unusually, the movie has no score other than the loud tolling of the clock that is housed in Tredway Corp.’s gothic deco headquarters (known as “The Tower”).  The movie’s climax is a board meeting at 6:00 p.m. the following day, so throughout the movie, dramatic scenes are punctuated by the tolling of this clock, which lets us know how near we are to the dramatic conclusion.  It’s an all star cast headed by William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Louis Calhern, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters and several others, and they really know how to slice the bologna thin.  As the late Bullard’s secretary, Nina Foch, in the smallest of the starring roles, gives the busiest performance.  She’s quietly, desperately in love with the man she worked for.  Apparently, he never knew.  Foch makes sure as hell we do . . .

Foch -- rhymes with bosh:  Miss Foch's hands work busily a day . . .

Foch — rhymes with bosh: Miss Foch’s hands work busily a day . . .

She was the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar, of course.  She lost.  (At the time, she was married to that puling ghoul from the Actors Studio, James Lipton.  Strike two . . . )

The script is by Ernest Lehman (who also wrote “North by Northwest” and “Sweet Smell of Success”), so it’s full of hard-boiled dialogue that’s a pleasure to listen to for its own sake.  Lehman didn’t get a nomination, unfortunately.  That year George Seaton’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl” (also starring William Holden) won best adapted screenplay.  Another Holden picture was also nominated, “Sabrina.”  “Executive Suite” was robbed.

The picture is full of great star turns.  Shelley Winters is more controlled than usual and is quite touching as the lovelorn secretary of her married boss, Paul Douglas, who always looks like an ad for Alka-Seltzer.

Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters:  'Honey, it'll be all right.'  Oh, no it won't.

Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters: ‘Honey, it’ll be all right.’ Oh, no it won’t.

I could watch Louis Calhern in anything — he’s one of Peter Arno’s beefy businessmen, half-mast eyes on a martini & palm on a blonde’s caboose. Here’s a test:  look at the four images below and see if you can tell which one is the real Louis Calhern.  I chose these pictures, and even I have trouble picking him out of the lineup.

Number One:

'Fill 'er up.'

‘Fill ‘er up.’

Number Two:

Sizzling Platter

Sizzling Platter

Number Three:

'Look, I told you I was busy.  Wait for me at the bar . . . at the bar!'

‘Look, I told you I was busy. Wait for me at the bar . . . at the bar!’

Number Four:

Makes you kind of pleased to be an American, doesn't it?

‘Makes you kind of pleased to be an American, doesn’t it?’

If you guessed Number Three, congratulations.  If you were here right now, I’d shake you a nice, bone-dry martini.  I’ll have much more to say about Louis Calhern at another time, in another post.  For now, have a look at this clip.  He always earned his salary fair and square.

William Holden is the hero of this picture, an idealistic industrial designer named Don Walling.  Near the end of the picture, he delivers a long speech before the board of directors in which he lays out the wrong direction American business is heading.  Holden handles the material masterfully.  This may be the first picture in which Holden really came into his own as an authoritative voice of reason.  After this picture, at any rate, Holden was never again a boy — even when a script required him to be.  He gives a fine performance in “Picnic,” which came out a year later — in that one, he looks great, sounds great, is great, but he’s also at least fifteen years too old for the role:  he’s a man, not a callow youth.  Holden is such a likable, attractive presence, one is willing to overlook the miscasting, but the story hardly makes sense with a man in a part written for a boy.  But the role of Don Walling is tailor-made for him . . . and incidentally, no actor ever wore a business suit better than Bill Holden.

Jiggery pokery at the top of The Tower.

Jiggery pokery at the top of The Tower.

But the performance I especially love is Fredric March’s.  As Loren Shaw, Tredway’s comptroller, March is the embodiment of sweating duplicity — a man who lives for his charts and matrices:  a skulking, heartless spinner of webs and counter of beans; the only evidence of his humanity is his visible discomfort whenever he’s in the presence of the people over whom his ambition hopes to vault.  Every time his integrity or honesty is challenged, he breaks out in a sweat as he parries the thrusts, and he habitually strokes the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other as he speaks.  He’s Uriah Heep and Richard Nixon stuffed into one gray flannel suit.  He follows every confrontation with his colleagues (which is to say whenever he comes into contact with them) with the same ritual:  he wipes his palms with his handkerchief, then dabs his lips with it, before he returns it to his pocket.  After one such collision, he disposes of the handkerchief after soiling it and retrieves a new one from his desk drawer:  his drawer is full of them.  But he’s really at his funniest when he has to express sympathy or compassion — his bloodless insincerity is a marvel to behold.

March as Loren Shaw: 'That's priced merchandise - it serves a definite purpose in the profit structure of this company. We're not cheating anyone.'

March as Loren Phineas Shaw: ‘That’s priced merchandise — it serves a definite purpose in the profit structure of this company. We’re not cheating anyone.’