Burt Lancaster as Ole “Swede” Anderson, ex-boxer
Philadelphia, Spring 1938
Film: The Killers
Release Date: August 30, 1946
Director: Robert Siodmak
Let’s kick off #NoirVember with a memorable scene featuring birthday boy Burt Lancaster. Born November 2, 1913 in Manhattan, Lancaster remains an icon of American film noir, having made his debut in The Killers, which also marked most of the screen-going world’s introduction to the alluring Ava Gardner.
The Killers‘ straight-outta-Hemingway opening introduces us in finem res to Lancaster as “The Swede”, an ex-boxer with a sketchy past who has been tracked down by the two eponymous killers to a small town in New Jersey. Despite having spent the last six years in hiding, the Swede makes no attempt to flee his assassins, who efficiently complete their gruesome task and leave insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) to reconstruct the decade of mistakes that led from Anderson’s career as a boxer to that of a marked man by the mob.
As with all great film noir, the Swede’s undoing begins with a dame… and not the sweet Lilly (Virginia Christine) that accompanies him to that fateful Philadelphia party in March 1938.
It’s easy to understand the Swede’s immediate limerence with the seductive Kitty Collins, who captivates him from her seat at the piano as soon as he and Lilly enter the party. From that point forward, the entranced Swede is oblivious to all, from poor Lilly to the fact that Kitty harbors an obvious distaste for his occupation:
I hate brutality, Mr. Anderson. The idea of two men beating each other to a pulp makes me ill.
And yet, the Swede seems drawn to Kitty by a magnetic force, only acknowledging his date long enough to describe Kitty’s beauty to her before following Kitty around with the complete lack of subtlety one would expect of an ex-boxer who’s probably absorbed one too many blows to the head.
What’d He Wear?
The Swede arrives at the party in a flannel suit, tailored with the bolder profile and details more consistent with the mid-’40s production period than the late ’30s setting. The suiting is a light shade of flannel, colorized in contemporary lobby art to a taupe brown.
The double-breasted suit jacket has four buttons arranged in a “keystone”-style tapered configuration, with only a single button on the bottom row fastening. As explained by Bond Suits, this 4×1-button “Kent” style had been popularized in the early 1930s by Prince George, the Duke of Kent, who would only fasten the bottom row of his 4×2-button jackets; eventually, George and his older brother, the Duke of Windsor, had jackets specifically made to accommodate this preference by refitting the top row as solely vestigial.
The layout of the Swede’s four buttons, positioned around the waist line with the bottom row spaced apart, still offers a wide wrap. Per prevailing trends of the era, the pick-stitched peak lapels are broad and sharply pointed, each detailed with a buttonhole. The wide, padded shoulders echo the dramatic width of the lapels. The ventless jacket has four-button cuffs, straight jetted hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket with the hint of a white kerchief poking from the top.
The Swede’s light-colored shirt is likely white, detailed with a collar with a spread so wide that I considered that it might be a sports shirt with the loop collar fastened at the top. However, while later scenes depict the Swede occasionally wearing sport shirts under his suits, this shirt with its more structured collar and placket was likely meant to be worn with a suit and tie, and is probably the same one rigged with a breast pocket that we see with his dark single-breasted suit after a rough fight.
Colorized to a complimentary shade of crimson in the lobby art featured above, the Swede’s dark tie boasts a light-shaded sunburst all-over pattern consistent with the “Bold Look” ties of the ’40s, characterized by bright colors, loud patterns, wide blades, and short lengths. He ties it in a Windsor knot that more voluminously fills the tie space allowed by the shirt’s widely spread collar.
The buttoned jacket keeps his waistband covered on screen, but behind-the-scenes photography shows Lancaster’s tie falling to just about an inch above the high-rise waistband of his suit’s trousers.
The fashionably full fit is emphasized by double reverse pleats that add roominess through the trousers’ long rise over the hips, and the Swede holds up the trousers with a very slim dark leather belt that closes through a small buckle, mitred on the two outward-facing corners. The trouser bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs), which break over the tops of his dark calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes.
Consistent with early 20th century decorum, the Swede tends to wear a hat outside, in this case a medium-toned felt fedora with a tonally coordinated grosgrain band.
We can assume the Swede wears one of the same type of white sleeveless undershirts we see when he’s introduced just before his murder in the opening sequence. Jockey had developed the “A-shirt” (for “athletic shirt”) tank top during the mid-1930s, though it would be a decade before it would be bestowed the unfortunate nickname of “wife beater” following the 1947 mugshot of an undershirt-clad man who had been arrested for doing just that.
Similar to those often issued to GIs during World War II, the Swede’s sleeveless undershirts have an irregular ribbing pattern throughout the body of the shirt with the armhole bands and neckhole band meeting to form fused-looking shoulder straps.
A flash of metal from the Swede’s left wrist suggests that he’s also wearing his usual wristwatch, which we see elsewhere fastened to a dark leather strap but never prominently featured enough to determine its make.
What to Imbibe
The Swede orders a “rye and water” highball at Jake’s party, though he’s never able to drink in much more than Ava Gardner’s sublime beauty.
Occasionally used to refer to American and Canadian varieties of whiskey, “rye” typically means a specific American whiskey that the law stipulates must be distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain, while Canadian whisky has no legal requirements to include rye grain.
For centuries, rye had been a prevailing spirit in American culture, from the colonial era through Prohibition. Indeed, it was my home region of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and the greater Pittsburgh area that led most of the nation’s rye production well into the 1800s, even after we famously rebelled against the unpopular “whiskey tax” during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
The Volstead Act curtailed most legal production of alcohol in the United States, dealing a significant blow to the rye industry as bootleggers began importing spirits to meet the needs of a thirsty American public, who developed a taste for Canadian whisky and Scotch during this period. American whiskey production began its post-Prohibition recovery in the 1930s, with just a few surviving rye distilleries like Old Overholt fueling drinkers like the fictional Nick and Nora Charles in 1934’s The Thin Man:
However, the continued popularity of imported whiskies eclipsed the once dominant foothold that American spirits held on the market. Bourbon remained popular, but rye quietly faded into the domain of old-timers and hard-livers with hard livers.
Luckily for today’s drinkers, the 21st century has seen a rye-naissance as many American bourbon distilleries like Bulleit, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve have introduced their own rye varieties in addition to the venerated Old Overholt continuing production and a new breed of distillers like Pittsburgh’s own innovative craft distillery Wigle, named for a central figure during the Whiskey Rebellion.
How to Get the Look
Burt Lancaster was appropriately dressed for his burst to stardom in The Killers, striding into an elegant party clad in fashions portending what Esquire would deem the “Bold Look” later in the decade: a double-breasted suit jacket with double-wide shoulders and lapels and a super-spread shirt collar with plenty of space to be filled by his fat and frivolous tie.
- Light taupe flannel suit:
- Double-breasted 4×1-button jacket with wide, sharp pick-stitched peak lapels (with buttonholes), welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with widely spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Crimson “sunburst”-patterned tie
- Dark calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- White ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt/A-shirt
- Medium felt fedora with grosgrain band
- Wristwatch on dark leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, which Criterion Collection released in a two-pack with the 1964 remake also titled The Killers (as well as the little-seen short adapted in Russia during the 1950s.)
The Astro Zone
Burt Lancaster’s November 2nd birthday may make him a Scorpio—the same as his Scorpio co-star Alain Delon—but the Swede’s birthday of June 24, 1908 establishes him as born under the star sign of Cancer… the same as yours truly.
Cancers have a reputation for moodiness and romantic vulnerability, both ideal for the makings of a doomed noir protagonist who wouldn’t be able or willing to unravel themselves from a toxic relationship with a femme fatale until it’s much too late. At their least evolved, the Cancerian protective instinct can manifest as possessiveness, occasionally to a destructive degree (as perhaps most famously exemplified by the Swede’s fellow Cancer, O.J. Simpson, born July 9, 1947.)