Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien
Director: Richard Siodmak
Based on an extremely short, gnomic tale by Hemingway about a man who waits passively to be murdered by hired hitmen, Richard Siodmak’s 1946 noir exhausts the source material in the first 12 minutes or so. But what a 12 minutes it is, as a pair of well-dressed, dead-eyed goons descend on a small town and terrorize a diner with their repartee while waiting for their target, the Swede (Lancaster). From there, the film (scripted by an uncredited John Huston) turns into a combination of caper movie and Citizen Cane-style post mortem as Reardon (O’Brien), an inquisitive insurance agent tries to get to the bottom of the hit and the dead man’s last cryptic statement – “Once I did something wrong.” This turns out to be an understatement as we learn how Lancaster’s broken down prize fighter was forced to leave the ring, only to fall in with a gang of thieves and be KO’d by bewitching but inconstant ganger’s moll, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).
The puzzle structure of the film, pieced together from various flashbacks, feels a bit fussy and overworked – it comes off much better in Don Siegel’s later colour version – and you have to swallow hard if you’re accept Edmund O’Brien’s gun-toting insurance agent as a benign agent of justice. But the movie’s noir visuals and mood of poetic fatalism both exert a strong allure, and it’s quite something to see two of Hollywood’s finest physical specimens pitted against each other. Lancaster and Gardner both excel in their roles – the one as the dumb sap blundering to his doom, strangely noble in his ruin, the other as the gold-digger with a face like an angel and a mind like a steel trap.
Free of grain and dirt, this sharp HD transfer captures the full force of Siodmak’s expressionist mise-en-scene. In the opening, the shift from the shadowy street to the bright lights of the diner makes you blink, and you’re aware of the wide-angled lens drawing the walls and ceiling in on you. The scenes of the Swede in the ring, taking a relentless pounding and unable to fight back, have a stark high key power. And in the later sequence in the Green Cat, you can see the fine grain of Ava Gardner’s irises in extraordinary detail in the close-ups, making it feel as though she’s sitting right across from you.
Turning to the extras, there’s a very detailed 54-minute intro by film noir expert Frank Krutnik – part talking head piece about the making of the film, part commentary on some of the key scenes. There’s also a very scholarly 32-minute video essay looking at three different versions of Hemingway’s story – this one, a short by Tarkovsky, and Siegel’s loose adaptation (with some nice clips of the latter). In addition, there are a trio of radio plays that demonstrate the influence of the film on subsequent hardboiled dramas.