“The Killers” is a hard-boiled film noir that starred an unknown 32-year actor making his film debut and a contract player from MGM, of limited talent, with little in her filmography at that point in time, to prove she would amount to anything. “The Killers” is intricate and visually stunning with its black blacks and pure white whites. Just take a look at the opening scene when the two killers arrive in town, the film is a dark fatalistic work of photographic beauty, a visual feast of light, darkness and shadows. Credit goes to director Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood “Woody” Bredell. The opening is also enhanced by Miklos Rozsa’s music, which may sound familiar to some who remember the theme from the old TV police show “Dragnet.”
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers”, written in a hotel room in Madrid sometime in 1926, first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in March 1927. The story is characteristic of themes that would continue to emerge in Hemingway’s work, the inescapability of death and the emptiness of life. Producer, newspaper columnist and theater critic, Mark Hellinger purchased the film rights for $36,750. Hemingway’s story is about two killers who come to the small town of Summit, Ill. (changed to Brentwood, New Jersey in the movie), looking for a man known as The Swede. Why is never said. Most of the short story takes place in Henry’s Diner where The Swede is known to come for dinner most nights. Hemingway’s story ends after Nick Adams, Hemingway perennial character, and a customer in the diner at the same time the two killers show up and announce they are going to kill The Swede, sneaks out to warn him of the two men out to kill him. The Swedes’ fatalistic resolve that there is nowhere left to run, to just remain where he is, accepting the consequences is where the short story ends. It leaves open a multitude of questions. What did The Swede do that these two guys want to kill him. Who hired them? Why has The Swede given up running readily accepting his doomed fate?
Hellinger, working with Richard Brooks, developed the story line beyond Hemingway’s original piece. Brooks came up with the ideal of centering the story on a determined insurance investigator checking into The Swede’s death. According to Lee Server in his biography “Ava Gardner Love is Nothing“ Brooks tracked down Hemingway and asked what happened afterward, Hemingway responded, “how the hell do I know.” The screenplay was written by John Huston and Anthony Veiller, though Veiller received, sole credit due to Huston’s being under contract with Warner Brothers. Reading the short story is like reading the first ten to fifteen minutes of the script except for a few minor changes. Wisely, the screenwriters kept most of Hemingway’s hard-boiled, wise-ass dialogue in tact.
After the murder of The Swede, we meet the character who could be considered the real lead of the movie, insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). It is Reardon who puts together all the pieces of a convoluted puzzle, a story of cross and double cross, and in the middle of it all is a dame.
Burton Lancaster made his Broadway debut (it was his first and last Broadway appearance) as Sgt. Joe Mooney in a little known play called “A Sound of Hunting” which closed after only 23 performances. Also in the cast was Sam Levene who would play Lt. Sam Lubinsky in “The Killers.” Hollywood agents, always checking out plays for new talent, were in the audience and the buzz was a new star was in the making. Enter agent Harold Hecht who was in the audience one night and came back again and again. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last for years (Lancaster and Hecht along with James Hill would later on form one of the earliest independent producing teams responsible for works that include “Apache”, “Vera Cruz”, “Marty” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”).
Mark Hellinger meanwhile was looking at actor Wayne Morris for the role of Ole “The Swede” Anderson. Morris, best remembered these days as the naive boxer in Warner Brothers “Kid Galahad” aka “The Battling Bellhop.” Morris’ career lasted until his death in 1959, was under contract to Warner Brothers who were willing to loan him to Hellinger, though for a price higher than he was willing to pay. Waiting in the dugout was newcomer Lancaster, who physically fit the role of the former boxer and Hellinger could pay a cheap salary. Suddenly, Burt Lancaster was in his very first movie and had top billing!
At this point in her career, Ava Gardner had mostly small and uncredited roles in her résumé. She recently completed a lead role in a low budget potboiler called “Whistle Stop” with George Raft when MGM loaned her out to Universal for the role of the treacherous Kitty Collins. Gardner was not just gorgeous but managed to project a wicked lethal dose of seductive ruthlessness. The first time we see her, she is dressed in a slinky black gown standing by a piano singing. When The Swede enters the nightclub and spots her, as we do, for the first time he is captivated. Everyone else in the room, including the girl (Virginia Christine) he came with, is obliterated from his vision. It is an audience seducing moment. A weak man, falling under the spell of a duplicitous woman, and with Ava Gardner as the woman, you believed it. The role of Kitty Collins is not very large though it is central to the entire tale being told, and Lancaster and Gardner sizzle in their scenes together. When Ava Gardner went back to MGM, she went back a star.
Edmond O’Brien who would become a staple in crime movies, appearing in “711 Ocean Drive”, “Brute Force”, “The Hitchhiker” and “D.O.A.,” played the determined insurance investigator, a character reminiscent, and mentioned by many others, of Barton Keyes, Edward G. Robinson’s character in Billy Wilder’s exemplary “Double Indemnity.” It is O’Brien’s character that links the multiple flashback sequences together, yet it is Lancaster’s Swede and Gardner’s Kitty Collins that are the guts of the film.
The cast also included Sam Levene, Albert Dekker and Jeff Corey with Charles McGraw and William Conrad as the two cold-blooded killers. For Mark Hellinger, along with a great script, his choice of director and cinematographer were key to the look and success of “The Killers.” Robert Siodmak was born in Germany and came to America following his younger brother Curt. A student of German Expressionism, Siodmak fit right in with other German exiles helping create and develop the film noir style. One of his earlier films in America was “Son of Dracula” based on a screenplay by his brother, Curt. He would quickly establish himself as a master of suspense in stylish films like “The Spiral Staircase,” “Criss Cross,” “Christmas Holiday,” “The Suspect,” “Cry of the City” and “Phantom Lady.” Under contract to Universal, Hellinger wisely selected the talented Siodmak.
When the film opened in August 1946, it was an immediate hit praised by critics and public alike. The film was so popular when it first opened in New York City; the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway ran the film twenty-four hours a day straight.
In 1964, Universal updated and remade “The Killers.” Directed by B-film action director, Don Siegel, who was once considered to direct the original. The remake is not nearly on the same level as the original though it is still a decent film. There are a couple of reasons thatmake this film worth a look. First, this is the only film where Ronald Reagan for the first and only time in his acting career played a slimy bad dude. According Kirk Douglas in his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son”, Reagan did not like doing this film because he had to slap femme fatale Angie Dickinson around in one scene. Dickinson, by the way, mentions in the DVD commentary that while making this film, word came about her friend, and rumored lover, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Additionally, when this film was made it was initially planned to be the first original two hour made for TV movie, However, the final product was considered too violent at the time, and subsequently Universal released it instead in theaters. Finally, there is Lee Marvin, as one of the two killers (Clu Gallaghar was the other), who is the glue that holds and drives this film. The plot for this version is simplified compared to the 1946 original and less faithful to both the original film and the short story. In this version, Marvin’s character is one who is curious to know why their target (John Cassavetes) did not run, so readily accepting his doomed faith while other marks always ran. Marvin is a tough SOB. Toward the end, Angie Dickinson’s character pleads for her life. Hitman Marvin coolly aims his gun saying, ‘Lady, I don’t have the time,” killing her with one shot.Like the original, much of the story is told in flashback.
Sources: Burt Lancaster: An American Life – Kate Buford
The Ragman’s Son – Kirk Douglas
Ava Gardner Love is Nothing – Lee Server
Don Siegel: A Siegel Film - Don Siegel