‘That guy, what’s his name, the Swede, never had a chance, did he?’
The first twelve minutes of The Killers (1946) is a faithful (almost word for word) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s much-anthologised short story. Two hit men enter a diner (shot to look like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks – itself apparently inspired by Hemingway’s story), intimidating the owner, the cook and its one customer with a cruel vaudeville routine while they wait for their intended victim, ‘the Swede’. When he fails to show, the two thugs leave and Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams (the customer) runs to warn him. But the Swede refuses to flee, instead waiting passively – ‘There isn’t anything I can do about it’ – with typical Hemingway heroic fatalism. In the story he offers a simple explanation: ‘I got in wrong'; his resigned stoicism remains unexplained, his story untold. In the film (updated from 20s Chicago to New Jersey in the 40s) he claims, ‘I did something wrong… Once’. This ‘once’ (misread by Nick to mean it was something a while ago) leads to the second part of the film in which Reardon, an insurance investigator, gets witnesses to tell the story through seven flashbacks. However, in contrast with that other multiple flashback film, Citizen Kane, it is not a key to the character’s psychological make-up that he hopes to discover but the single mistake that sealed the Swede’s fate and led him along the series of events that ended with a visit from the hit men. Instead of a favourite childhood toy the clue is a green handkerchief embroidered with pictures of harps – the key to the mystery. As in Sunset Boulevard the opening murder gives the rest of the film a strong sense of fatalism – there can be only one ending for the Swede.
The Killers was directed by noir maestro Robert Siodmak back to back with The Spiral Staircase, which is often considered his masterpiece. Along with former colleagues Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer (as well as his hero Fritz Lang) Siodmak was a refugee from Nazi Germany with a prolific career already behind him. However, unlike Lang, his reputation amongst auteurist critics was somewhat diminished by the fact that he seemed only able to make great films in one genre. It was when mixing European and American sensibilities that he was at his best. The influence of German Expressionism, especially strong in The Spiral Staircase, is also evident in The Killers where it meshes perfectly with American hard-boiled existentialism. Elwood (Woody) Bredell’s chiaroscuro cinematography is excellent and here almost rivals the great John Alton’s work on The Big Combo. It is a directing tour de force full of breathtaking shots, from the simple pan capturing the contrast between a panicking Nick and the stoic Swede at the start of the film to the virtuoso two-minute crane shot of the heist.
Siodmak was certainly aided by a first-rate cast and crew. Anthony Veiller gets the writing credit but was helped by Richard Brooks and John Huston. The final draft, Siodmak claims, was written solely by Huston (who had wanted to direct as well), but he remained uncredited as he was under contract at Warner Bros. The plot has one of the greatest twisty-turny double-crossings in film noir and the complex story is enlivened by the sparkling hard-bitten dialogue – ‘Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell’, Kitty is told – as well as a perfect ending that puts it all neatly into perspective.
The Killers is also notable for giving a first starring role to that former circus acrobat Burt Lancaster, who dominates the screen with a typically individual and naturalistic performance. Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins gives a near-iconic performance creating a noir femme fatale to rival Mary Astor and Barbara Stanwyck. At 24 she was already divorced from Mickey Rooney and set for superstardom but she was never better than here. Stealing the film from the (future) big stars is the excellent Edmond O’Brien (star of classic noirs DOA and The Hitchhiker) whose everyman appeal as the insurance investigator grounds the film and gives it its heart. While Reardon’s aim is ostensibly to recover the stolen money, the film leaves us in no doubt that what really drives him is a combination of sympathy for the Swede, a need to solve a mystery and also, crucially, to understand why a man would simply submit to his own murder.
Hemingway has gone on record to say that The Killers was his favourite of all the films based on his work and I wouldn’t disagree. There are many great film noirs and The Killers has all the necessary components to be a textbook example but beyond that it is simply an exceptional film.