Thursday, February 25, 2010

Young Burt Lancaster

Or, at least as young as you're going to get him. TCM is showing Burt Lancaster's first movie, The Killers, tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It made Lancaster a star, and rightfully so.

Lancaster plays "Swede", and at the beginning of the movie we find him in a dirty rooming house in a small town in New Jersey. There are two people looking for him, having stopped off at the local diner to find out where Swede is staying, and when they find out, they go up to his room... to kill him! More surpisingly, Swede is not only expecting these two men to come for him, he seems comfortable with their coming and resigned to the fact that he was going to die. All this happens in the first five or ten minutes of the movie, and if that's all there was, it wouldn't be much of a story.

So, we quickly find out that the deceased Swede had taken out a life insurance policy. Word of Swede's death reaches the home office of the insurance company, who have to pay out, which presents a bit of a problem. Nobody's really quite sure where to find the beneficiary, or the exact circumstances of Swede's murder. So, it's up to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) to get the answers.

It's here that the story really picks up. As Reardon investigates, he meets people who had known Swede, and we learn about Swede's life in a series of flashbacks. It turns out that Swede started out as a boxer, but things didn't go so well for him, so he ended up getting involved with a bunch of criminals. As we've seen in movies like The Asphalt Jungle, this is bound to go wrong, and eventually, the members of the gang turn on one another, with Swede coming to the small town where he'd get murdered to try to get away from the gang.

Lancaster is quite good in his first movie, but he's not the only good one. In fact, the entire ensemble cast is pretty darn good. In addition to Lancaster and the already mentioned O'Brien, there's Ava Gardner as the femme fatale; veteran character actors such as Sam Levene and Albert Dekker (as a cop and the gang capo, respectively) and, as the hired killers at the beginning of the movie, Charles McGraw (whom you might recall from The Narrow Margin) and future TV star William Conrad.

The Killers has been released to DVD, but it's part of the Criterion Collection, which means it's a bit pricey.