The picture opens in the lunch wagon where Nick Adams is eating his supper. The two men in the overly tight black overcoats come in looking for the Swede. From then on, for the next five or six minutes it is straight Hemingway. Except for editing out a reference to the cook as "nigger," Director Robert Siodmak plays Hemingway's tough, tight little story straight and to the letter.
The old vaudeville phrase, "hard to follow," meaning that it is difficult to please the audience when your act follows the star attraction, can be applied to Hollywood's expansion of the story. Hemingway is very "hard to follow." That Producer Mark Hellinger and Siodmak manage to do as well as they have is sufficient tribute to their skill. Employing no big name actors, they spin out a tautly wound picture which is very tough without the meaningless piling up of horror on horror that has plagued such productions as "The Big Sleep." Starting with the fact of the Swede's murder, the picture by a series of flashbacks tells the story of how he was once a prize fighter and in love with a nice girl and what went wrong. Burt Lancaster, as the Swede, underplays his part right down to the danger point, but he never slips, never makes a mistake. In his hands the Swede becomes the moody, unpredictable, slow-thinking guy who finally can lie on his bed in his room and wait for the killers.
The best of the numerous small touches in the film which jog the memory with their sharp exactness are contributed by Sam Levene, in the role of a police lieutenant, and by Siodmak. Although his previous efforts--"The Spiral Staircase," among others--have been outstanding. Siodmak has never been more successful in evoking the atmosphere and "feel" of a particular place, be it the unending bleakness of West Philadelphia, or the strident shrillness of a chromium-and-glass bar. His only mistake is unbelievably bad. In the otherwise excellent payroll robbery scene, the presence of palm trees in the background make the fact that it ostensibly occurs in Hackensack, N. J., a little tough to take.
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