With the benefit of hindsight, how could we possibly go wrong with the combination of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Siodmak, Ava Gardner, and Burt Lancaster?
Hemingway went on to become a landmark American author, and the others became bright stars in the Hollywood firmament.
Yet, at the time, the film was a gamble. Based on a fragment of a story by a young Hemingway, first published in 1927, screenwriter Anthony Veiller, with assistance from the un-credited Richard Brooks and John Huston, turned it into a Chandleresque plot of double and triple crosses, relying on two almost unknown actors. Gardner had a few minor film credits to her name, but was yet to earn the kudos she won with her performance in Whistle Stop (1946), released only months before The Killers. Lancaster was an ex-circus acrobat turned Broadway novice when he was offered the Swede rôle, often credited as his film debut, though he had already finished a performance in Desert Fury (1947), which was not released until after The Killers.
Rumour has it that Huston recommended Gardner to producer Mark Hellinger, and Sam Levene, who played police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky, did the same for Lancaster, with whom he had worked on the Broadway production of ‘A Sound of Hunting’ in 1945. Hellinger tells a different story about Lancaster in the March 1947 edition of Photoplay, where he says the recommendation came from an assistant to Warner Bros studio boss Hal B Wallis.
The film opens with a title sequence calling it Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, and focusing on the fragmentary Hemingway story: two killers come to a small New Jersey town, Brentwood, to find and kill ‘the Swede’ (Burt Lancaster as Ole ‘Swede’ Anderson/Pete Lund). The dialogue in the town’s diner is all Hemingway, but everything else to come is the screenwriters’ confection of a backstory, about a gun-toting, swaggering insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), who looks into his company’s $2500 life insurance policy on the Swede, and becomes personally interested in a green handkerchief with an Irish harp and clover motif among the dead man’s belongings.
From these two clues Reardon unravels the entire mystery. Siodmak uses a series of eye-witness account flash-backs to reveal the Swede’s past. It is the story of a boxer forced to retire because of a badly broken right hand. He 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 gaol time.
When the Swede gets out, ‘Big Jim’ Colfax (Albert Dekker), 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, 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.
Lancaster’s Swede is a sympathetic character, even in crime, and more pitiable than nefarious, being led on by his inamorata. Coming to the film with an already fleshed out perception of Burt Lancaster, his sometimes clumsy handling of his lines and on-screen presence can be easily overlooked. Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins is not quite yet the height of the actor’s powers. David Denby wrote for the New Yorker that:
It’s not a major role, but Gardner, crooning at a piano in a black gown that displays her famous shoulders, is so devastating that you understand immediately why Burt Lancaster’s vulnerable, defeated boxer, from the moment he looks at her, doesn’t stand a chance. Despair and death follow.
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 Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart opposite Lauren Bacall opened in cinemas one week earlier than The Killers.
The most accomplished support performance came from Jack Lambert as ‘Dum-Dum’ Clarke, one of the heist gang, who projects just the right amounts of simple-minded self-interest and toughness to be convincing as a born gangster.
As it turned out, Siodmak’s film was a box office and critically acclaimed success, attracting award nominations and making bankable stars of all who sailed in her.
Maybe part of the success of the film is that Siodmak almost invented the formula for contemporary police procedural television serials, exposing method and process. The choice of an insurance investigator as the linchpin to resolving a mystery allows Reardon’s boss to explain how insurance premiums are set, with every crime affecting a far wider group of people than those who steal the money and those who are robbed of it. Hence the need for tough, armed insurance investigators. It seems like an identity for a hardboiled detective the ex-Pinkerton Dashiell Hammett might have turned to for a new detective fable.
With Siodmak’s German Expressionist influence, Elwood Bredell’s photography and lighting made effective use of stark lighting, exaggerated shadows, and distorted perspectives, creating tension, suspense, and even fear. The harsh lighting of a car’s headlights piercing the night during the opening scenes is quite memorable, as was the impossible angle of the Swede climbing through the roof of a barn, camera at his back, as he menaces Colfax’s gang from his high perch.
Altogether, The Killers was well-paced, with satisfying performances and a neat denouement. It was recognized as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ in 2008, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Universal, 1946, 103 minutes, black and white.
Directed by Robert Siodmak. Produced by Mark Hellinger. Written by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston, based on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. 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 Barnett as Charleston, Virginia Christine as Lilly Harmon-Lubinsky, Charles D Brown as ‘Packy’ Robinson, Jack Lambert as ‘Dum Dum’ Clarke.