Officially titled Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, the film is nevertheless more the invention of its script writers than that of the author, whose original short story, first published in 1927, does no more than suggest a killing, sketching a single scene with a couple of thugs coming to a small-town diner looking for Ole ‘Swede’ Anderson to kill ‘him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend.’
Hemingway was not yet a celebrated Nobel laureate when the film was released, but he was already known for his reportage of the Spanish Civil War and his rumoured exploits during the liberation of France. Invoking his name in the film’s title brought with it a certain cachet.
Hemingway’s story leaves the suggestion of murder hanging, offering no motives or conclusions, and not even confirming whether the killers executed the Swede as intended. He did, however, offer a compelling clue on interpreting his story when one of his thugs tells one of the story’s characters that he ‘ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.” To see a newsreel, perhaps, or a silver screen gangster story about events just like the one about to take place in the sleepy little town?
At around the time of the story’s publication, the now legendary Chicago gangster Al Capone was waging a ferocious war with opposition gangs in Chicago and the slightly less urban town of Cicero in Illinois during which a staggering 200 people met violent ends. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Hemingway’s audience might have interpreted his story to concern itself with a killing just like those in Capone’s war. The intriguing question for the innocent public might very well have been what the reasons could have been for an assassination of this kind.
Whatever the case may have been, script writers Veiller, Brooks, and Huston invented the actual killing itself, the motivations for it, and the entire history of the Swede, offering a tried and tested motivation for the killing: the biblical sin of avarice, and the noir staple of betrayal and double-cross.
To unravel the story, the writers chose to invent a curiously gun-toting, swaggering insurance investigator, Jim Reardon, played rather well by the pug-ugly Edmond O’Brien, who becomes involved in the story by way of a life insurance policy made out by his company, and a green handkerchief with an Irish harp motif among the dead man’s belongings that intrigues him personally. From these two clues Reardon unravels the entire mystery.
It is told in flash-back through what must have seemed a novel technique of a series of eye-witness accounts of the Swede’s past, elicited by Reardon’s dogged pursuit of the clues.
It is the story of a boxer, the Swede (Lancaster), who can’t box anymore after he badly breaks his right hand and falls in with a shady crowd, including Kitty Collins (Gardner), whom he courts although she’s another man’s girl, and for whom he ends up doing a prison stretch.
When the Swede gets out, Big Jim Colfax, Collins’ man, plans a heist and offers the Swede a part in it. Collins then tells the Swede that Colfax and his gang intend to double-cross him, so he double-crosses them instead and runs away with Collins and the money, only to have her run out on him with the loot.
Hiding away in the provincial backwater where he is found by the killers in the opening scenes, the Swede knows that sooner or later his past will catch up with him, and when Colfax drives through one day he decides not to run, resigned to a certain fate as if acknowledging his guilt and accepting the punishment coming to him.
Reardon’s final clues lead him to Kitty Collins and Colfax himself, uncovering the unholy truth that they had planned to set up the Swede all along to avoid sharing the heist money with the others, making the Swede the fall guy for the money’s disappearance.
The ending is unrelentingly grim, with every member of the heist gang getting ultimate just desserts, and a rather smug Reardon seeming pretty pleased with the outcome.
The choice of an insurance investigator as the agent of resolving the mystery is a bit of a teaser in its own right. People like Reardon are about as popular and well respected as drug dealers, politicians and lawyers. The way Reardon’s boss explains how insurance premiums are set almost suggests that this was some kind of justification for the way insurers extract money from people. Perhaps, though, it was meant to illustrate that for every crime there are consequences that affect a far wider group of people than those who steal the money and those who are robbed of it.
Unusual for this kind of mystery, Reardon’s investigative methodology is directly referenced, showing him sift through the Swede’s belongings, following up clues through direct interviews and even library research. The technique extends to fabricating enough bait to entrap the perpetrators of a long-past crime into self-betrayal. Reardon’s investigation even involves a little bit of gunplay, an activity I would have thought most insurance investigators would avoid like the plague.
Overall the cinematography sticks to a kind of clean, conventionally lit style that passes as realistic, but Elwood Bredell does make use occasionally of exaggerated shadows, harsh lighting and oblique camera angles to accentuate episodes in this story of broken dreams, betrayal and greed. A particular favourite of mine was the sequence of shots showing the Swede climb through the roof of a barn, camera at his back as he menaces Colfax’s gang from his high perch, like a hunter trapping his quarry.
What the film lacks in authentic hard-boiled characters it makes up for in pessimistic outlook, right down to the depressingly prissy message that the sheer stubbornness of bureaucrats will prevail over the most conniving of gangsters, even years after the fact.
O’Brien came across as something of a try-hard with his raw, pudgy yokel’s physiognomy and his affected, swaggering mannerisms. Having a secretary at the insurance company refer to him as ‘dream boy’ took that affectation just a little too far, though. O’Brien’s Reardon was no match for Bogart’s Sam Spade or Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe.
Lancaster as the stolid Swede was almost wooden, but not entirely out of place as the hulking, somewhat simple-minded boxer, managing just enough emotion behind the Lancaster square-jawed resoluteness to portray the angst of a crushing awareness of his sins, punishing himself for them to the point of awaiting his death with a somber resignation.
Gardner does not yet seem at her peak in this rôle. She’s no femme fatale as Collins, still lacking something of her later sensuousness and worldly-wise sharpness, but coming across every but as conniving and duplicitous as the best of the type.
Perhaps the most convincing performance was turned in by Jack Lambert as “Dum-Dum” Clarke, one of the heist gang, who captures just the right amounts of menace, toughness and transparent self-interest to balance his intellectual shortcomings and still come across as a believable hoodlum.
Hemingway’s name on the credits, and the imputed reputation of ‘film noir classic’ on the DVD jacket, presumably as a product differentiation angle to ‘sell’ a black and white oldie on DVD, commended the film to me. I would not have picked it as film noir in any sense other than the pessimistic perspective on people and their fates, and, perhaps, a few of the cinematic tricks used to enhance dramatic tension in a handful of scenes.
Overall, though, there is something a little too naïve about the story and its characters to have the realistic rough edges that epitomise noir. I would think that even in its day it was the B-feature in a matinée double bill, maybe with the likes of The Big Sleep as the main attraction.
- The full text of Hemingway’s piece, and an interesting perspective on the backstory.
- The Killers theatrical trailer at YouTube.
- Wikipedia entry on Burt Lancaster.
- Wikipedia entry on Ava Gardner.
1946, 103 minutes, Universal, black and white.
Directed by Robert Siodmak; Produced by Mark Hellinger; Written by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks and John Huston (who could not be credited because he was under contract to Warner Bros at the time); cinematography by Elwood Bredell; music by Miklós Rózsa.
With Burt Lancaster as Ole ‘Swede’ Anderson, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins, Edmond O’Brien as Jim Reardon, Albert Dekker as Big Jim Colfax, Sam Levene as Lt. Sam Lubinsky, Vince Barnettas Charleston, Virginia Christine as Lilly Harmon-Lubinsky, Charles D Brown as ‘Packy’ Robinson, Jack Lambert as ‘Dum-Dum’ Clarke.