Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and featured two hitmen sent to kill a man who makes no attempt to run or defend himself. Producer Mark Hellinger bought the screen rights for $36,750 and the screenplay was written by John Huston (uncredited), Anthony Veiller and Richard Brooks. The Killers was released in 1946 and featured Burt Lancaster in his film debut, pairing him up with a young Ava Gardner after five years of minor roles. The end result is a classic film noir featuring a doomed protagonist and an alluring femme fatale intertwined over a large sum of money.
Late one night, two hitmen – Max and Al (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) – arrive in a small New Jersey town looking for a boxer known as Ole “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster). Director Robert Siodmak presents a place enshrouded in shadows with the local diner providing a welcome source of light. The two no-nonsense men enter the eatery and proceed to give the owner a hard time. They exchange some nice hard-boiled dialogue (they repeatedly call the owner “bright boy”) and tell him of their intent to kill Swede.
One of the customers – a man (Phil Brown) who works with Swede – manages to escape and get to his co-worker before the hitmen. He warns Swede who doesn’t seem particularly upset and already resigned to his fate. In fact, when we first see him, Swede is lying in bed, his head obscured in darkness and already looking like a corpse. The two men arrive and shoot Swede to death. Why didn’t he run? Why did he just let these men kill him? Insurance man Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to figure out the answers to these questions and decipher his last words, “Once I did something wrong.” The film proceeds to flashback to Swede’s last days and then further back as Reardon talks to those who knew him.
Burt Lancaster delivers a muscular performance, portraying a man with no desire to live and then, as his past is delved into, anguish over someone that drove him to attempt suicide. Even further back reveals a boxer from Philadelphia who turned to crime thanks to a bum right hand. The actor does a nice job of creating a doomed protagonist. It’s all in Lancaster’s haunted, defeated eyes. When told he can no longer fight because of his permanently damaged hand, Swede looks for a new direction in life. He doesn’t want to be a cop and so he turns to a life of crime.
Ava Gardner creates quite a first impression as Kitty Collins, an alluring woman that meets Swede at a party and immediately catches his attention. They soon become an item and it’s not hard to see how she so easily corrupts him. The actress looks stunning (she sure knows how to wear a sweater!) and Kitty knows exactly the emotional buttons to push in order to get Swede to do what she wants.
The Killers is filled with all kinds of memorable little touches, like Siodmak showing a heist being pulled visually with voiceover narration as if providing a commentary track over what went down instead of going the conventional route by having it play out in typical fashion – something that has been done countless times. There is also stand-out dialogue, like when a doctor says about one of Swede’s criminal associates, now on his deathbed, “He’s dead now except he’s breathing.”
For a film noir, The Killers spends a lot of time exploring the Swede’s motivations and examining why he was so willing to die. At the end, he had no reason to live. He drove away the people he loved, betrayed by the woman he loved, and was unable to continue as a boxer – his real passion. Swede’s fatal flaw is that he’s loyal to a fault, willing to go to the mat for Kitty, blinded by love to her conniving, manipulative ways. Like most noirs, the prime motivation for Swede is money and a dame – both of which prove to be his downfall.
Prior to The Killers, Ernest Hemingway had refused Hollywood’s advances to adapt his work but producer Mark Hellinger was an “old friend,” and he agreed to sign over the film rights to him. The first few minutes of the film are quite faithful to the source material but deviate significantly afterwards. Don Siegel was originally considered to direct but Hellinger went with Robert Siodmak. Siegel ended up making his own adaptation in 1964 with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan in a rare bad guy role.
Burt Lancaster was only 23-years-old when he made The Killers and was paid $20,000 for his work on it. Ava Gardner has been under contract with MGM since 1941 but had only appeared in minor, forgettable roles. Hellinger was impressed with her work in Whistle Stop (1946) and wanted her to play Kitty Collins. MGM agreed to loan her out to Universal.
The Killers was a box office hit, playing around-the-clock at New York’s Winter Garden theater, which had more than 120,000 moviegoers see it in the first two weeks. The film was well-received by critics, but more importantly Gardner, who became friends with Hemingway, said that the writer, “always considered The Killers the best of all the many films his work inspired.”
A man’s life is made up of many parts, much like a puzzle as Reardon finds out during the course of his investigation. He only gets the entire scope of Swede’s life by talking to several people in his life. Together, their testimonies provide a better understanding for why he did what he did and why it led to his sorry fate. It’s what makes The Killers a tragic tale.
Frankel, Mark. “The Killers (1946).” Turner Classic Movies.