Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene
Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Robert Siodmak), Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Miklos Rozsa), Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony Veiller)
SUMMARY: Two strange men show up in a small town, asking for Pete Lund, also known as “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster). Pete tells a coworker at the gas station where he is employed that the men are after him because he did something wrong a long time ago. He also tells the coworker that he is tired of running, and has no intention of trying to get away. That night, Pete is in his room when the two men burst in and kill him. After his death, it is discovered that Pete had a life insurance policy; the insurance company assigns Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) to investigate the man’s death, and find the beneficiary. Reardon is able to find the beneficiary, a cleaning lady at a boarding house where Pete stayed once, fairly easily, but becomes intrigued by Pete’s past. He continues his investigation in an attempt to learn why Pete was murdered. To do this, Reardon tracks down a number of old friends and acquaintances of the Swede. He learns that Pete Lund is not really his name: it is Ole Andreson, and he used to be a professional boxer. After injuring his hand so badly that he couldn’t fight anymore, the Swede fell in with a bad group of people. These included “Big Jim” Colfax, a known criminal, and Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). One evening, the Swede’s old friend Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a police detective, finds the two men and Kitty having dinner. He realizes that Kitty is wearing stolen jewelry, and prepares to arrest her. To keep Kitty from going to jail, the Swede confesses to the crime, and is sentenced to three years in prison.
When Ole gets out of prison, he reunites with two other members of Big Jim’s crew that have been recruited to stage a robbery. Big Jim has planned the robbery, but is not actively involved. The initial stage of the robbery is a success: the men make off with $250,000. However, their original rendezvous point burned down the night before the robbery; every gang member except the Swede was notified of this, and told of a new meeting place. Kitty tells the Swede that he was not told about this because he is being double-crossed, so the Swede takes all the money from the other men at gunpoint, then runs away. He reunites with Kitty in Atlantic City, but after several days Kitty leaves, taking the money with her. The other men do not know this, and believe that Ole still has the money. When a death notice is published in the newspaper, Reardon begins to watch his old room. His suspicions are confirmed when a former gang member shows up one night and ransacks the Swede’s room, clearly looking for the missing money. Reardon catches him in the act, but the man gets away without being arrested. After this, Reardon believes he knows what happened with the robbery. He confronts Big Jim, who has gone straight and is now a successful businessman – and married to Kitty. Reardon tells Big Jim that he knows everything, and has enough evidence to convict Kitty. He asks to talk to Kitty, and she agrees to meet him later. However, at the meeting the two men who killed the Swede show up and try to kill Reardon; he and Lubinsky are expecting them, and are able to escape. Both men then go to Big Jim’s house, where they find that Big Jim and a former gang member (the one that Reardon nearly captured) have killed each other. The gang member had realized the same thing that Reardon had: that Big Jim and Kitty had worked together to set up the Swede, taking all the money from the robbery while pinning the blame on him. Big Jim had the Swede killed because he did not want any of the other robbers to figure things out. As he lays dying, Kitty pleads with Big Jim to clear her name, but he dies before he can do so.
MY TAKE: This was the first big role for both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner – obviously, it worked out well for both of them. As for the plot, I think it’s made to seem more confusing than it really is. Part of this is the disjointed way it’s told, since you put together the pieces at the same time as Reardon. I was actually quite proud of myself for catching on to the big clue, though I wasn’t really sure of what it meant. Basically, I realized that based on the timing of the fire that burned down the original meeting point, something hinky was going on. Basically, this is what happens: the Swede meets and becomes infatuated with Kitty Collins, who is a femme fatale in every sense of the word. He takes a fall for her (and Big Jim), proving his devotion. When he gets out, Big Jim uses this devotion in order to get hold of a large amount of money: he sets the Swede up with several other men, but pits them against each other with the help of Kitty. The Swede believes the others are trying to double-cross him, so he takes the money and runs; it is eventually taken by Kitty, but the Swede never reveals this. The other robbers believe that the Swede took all the money for himself, and hold a lifelong grudge against him. All the while, Big Jim has the money, while the robbers are too busy either trying to hide from or find each other. Big Jim uses the money to go straight, but when the Swede turns up, he knows that the other robbers will eventually find him, too. He kills the Swede to keep the others from realizing that he (the Swede) doesn’t have the money. This seems to work, as at least one of the robbers seems to believe that the Swede must have hidden it somewhere; however, he also ultimately realizes that Big Jim must have the money. You have to wonder if Big Jim might not have been better off just letting the Swede live, since killing him caused exactly what Big Jim wanted to avoid.
RATING: Not bad – standard film noir.