An adaptation after a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak, is one of the definitive films noir, one with a cruel and twisted plot, in which a young, but broken-down prize-fighter, Burt Lancaster, in his debut role, takes a perilous path to ruin. It was in fact only the first twenty minutes of the movie based on Hemingway’s words, which reportedly made him fall asleep after the first real when he would show the film to his guests at his house in Cuba. But I think Anthony Veiller (and John Huston and Richard Brooks, who were both uncredited) did a very good job with the rest of the script, and I, for one, regard The Killers higher than Double Indemnity (1944).
Burt Lancaster became a star overnight, but Ava Gardner also had her breakthrough performance as beautiful, sultry, double-crossing Kitty Collins. The ultimate femme fatale role was made for Ava Gardner. “A lot of people have told me through the years that it was The Killers that set me on the road to stardom, that defined my image as the slinky sexpot in the low cut dress, leaning against a piano and setting the world on fire,” Ava wrote in her biography. She said Siodmak coached her to create her seductive character with cat-like movements and expression.
Ava Gardner’s wardrobe was designed by Vera West, the head costume designer at Universal from 1928 to 1947. The signature one-strap gown in black satin Ava is wearing mimics the dark nature of the film itself and it reminds me of another famous black satin gown, Jean Louis’ design for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, also released in 1946. To it, Kitty is wearing a pair of black silk velvet sandals made for her by Salvatore Ferragamo. Swede, Burt Lancaster’s character, is transfixed by her beauty when he first sees her in the black dress, leaning against a piano to sing.
In the scene at the Green Cat café, Ava Gardner wears a sweetheart neckline dress with structured shoulders, a “pancake hat” with a net-like band tied around the neck and a stolen spider emblem brooch – a reference to the femme fatale and the web she weaves to trap her prey.
The rolled-up sleeved shirts, sweaters and knee-length skirts Kitty is wearing are not the usual costume of a femme fatale. But Ava was nonetheless attractive in them. Her sultry look and magnetism were enough to make you not want to take your eyes off the screen. Ava was one of the “the sweater girls” of the 40′s and 50′s, a term that described Hollywood actresses like her, Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, who adopted the fashion of wearing sweaters two sizes too small to emphasize their busts and enhance their sex appeal. In the fabric rationed 1940s, function played a bigger role than fashion, which ultimately brought simple shirts like the ones Kitty dons into fashion. Ava also wore almost no make-up at all in the film. When she came on the set with her face covered in regulation MGM make-up (she had a contract with MGM and she was borrowed by the Universal studio for The Killers), Robert Siodmak ordered her to wash it off. She wore no make-up, except for Vaseline on her skin to create a soft sheen, and probably lipstick.
The film has beautiful cinematography – the director and the cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, are both to be praised for the expressionist lighting they used which accounts for the deep visual impact of the film, including what is considered to be one of the greatest opening sequences in movie history, and including Ava’s image as well. The natural lighting used created shadows on the characters’ faces and gave Kitty “a soft glow, making her appear even more sensuous”. Ava Gardner’s biographer, Lee Server, wrote that “the smooth ivory tone of her skin produced such a pure white image that Bredell based his whole lighting treatment around it”.
And there is the trench coat, an item almost indispensable in film noir. As bad weather was often used in the films of the genre to foreshadow mysterious, dark and dangerous situations, and these movies visually depended so much on shadows and silhouettes, it’s no surprise that the trench became a timeless image of the film noir and reached iconic status on the silver screen, mainly through the male characters, but women’s, too. Ava’s has structured shoulders and is worn with gloves and hat, all details in the style of the ’40s.
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