Ernest Hemingway hated Hollywood. Or, more to the point, the great American author hated Hollywood’s treatment of his literary works. So it’s a bit surprising that Papa’s favorite adaptation of his writing is The Killers, a noir gangster film that takes tremendous liberties with his original short story.
Hemingway wrote The Killers in 1927 as a 3,000-word yarn. It’s largely set in a diner that two out-of-town hoods walk into one night, seeking to kill a guy who had done their boss wrong years before. Their target, a one-time prizefighter known as Swede, passively accepts his fate as he waits for the assassins to find him. Readers never even learn about his transgression.
And that’s Hemingway’s entire short story. Not really enough on which to base a full-length movie. But it served as a fine pretext for this 1946 film, which took his setup and added a hard-boiled back story full of greed, desire and double-crosses.
The screenplay (written by Anthony Veiller and an uncredited John Huston) fleshes out Hemingway’s one-day narrative by creating a drama that covers six years. Swede, the ex-boxer is there, played by Burt Lancaster in his movie debut. The Killers, by the way, made Lancaster an instant star.
The filmmakers added new characters to the story. There’s the femme fatale (a steamy Ava Gardner) to bring the boxer to his ruin. There’s the big-city mobster (Albert Dekker) to scheme up a quarter-million-dollar heist that leads to Swede’s eventual murder. And there’s the dogged insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) to pursue the hows and whys of it all.
After the movie was wrapped, Universal Pictures’ publicity chief traveled to Idaho to give Hemingway a private sneak preview. Expecting to dislike the adaptation, Hemingway watched The Killers with a full bottle of gin in front of him. When the movie ended, he smiled, held up the still-sealed bottle and said to the PR man, “Didn’t need it.”
Hey, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.
The opening scene of The Killers will remind you of A History of Violence. That menacing duo of out-of-towners shows up at a small-town diner late one afternoon looking for Swede. They terrorize the owner, the cook and the lone patron while waiting for their target to arrive for his usual 6 p.m. dinner special.
When Swede doesn’t show, the gangsters go to search for him. The customer (named Nick Adams, in honor of Hemingway’s literary alter ego) rushes to Swede’s boardinghouse room to warn him. Swede is there in bed, submissively waiting for his hunters. The ex-boxer is drained of any intent to fight back.
“I did something wrong . . . once,” Swede sighs. That’s all the explanation he gives. Soon enough, eight bullets tear through his body.
Over the next 90 minutes, a complex series of interlocking flashbacks reveal how things got to that point. We see how Swede’s boxing career ends and how he falls into crime. We meet his mob boss, his partners and the siren who leads him astray. You will certainly notice Ava Gardner as sex bomb Kitty Collins. Gardner was 23 when The Killers came out and this was a star-making vehicle for her as well as for Lancaster.
Pulling it all together is Edmund O’Brien as Jim Reardon, the insurance man investigating Swede’s murder. The narrative moves through Reardon’s interviews with friends and enemies from the dead man’s past. Time shifts backward and forward in a way that would do Quentin Tarantino proud.
The highlight of the film—and the turning point of the story—is a caper to rob a New Jersey manufacturing company of its $250,000 monthly payroll. It’s planned by the crew’s boss, Big Jim Colfax (Dekker), and designed to make all four of its participants wealthy—at least by the standards of 1940, when it takes place in the film.
The crime, filmed from high overhead in one continuous shot, goes off without a hitch. It’s after the getaway that things go awry. In this business, it’s best to trust no one.
HIT: If you want a primer in 1940s noir style, The Killers is a great place to start. The mood and the lighting are equally dark in scenes set in pool halls and corner taprooms. The women smolder and the dialogue snaps. And there are several terrific background characters who may or may not be there to send you off in the wrong direction. Watch especially for hopped-up hood Blinky (Jeff Corey) and Swede’s astronomy-loving ex-cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett).
MISS: One inherent flaw in The Killers is that we’re never really told why a sleuthing insurance adjuster is so obsessed with the case. The local cops don’t care about Swede’s murder and Reardon’s boss wants him to focus on bigger matters. Swede’s death benefit is a paltry $2,500. So why is our hero so fixated on this one? Beats us.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “. . . it certainly does not enhance the literary distinction of Hemingway’s classic bit. But, as mere movie melodrama, pieced out as a mystery which is patiently unfolded by a sleuthing insurance man, it makes a diverting picture—diverting, that is, if you enjoy the unraveling of crime enigmas involving pernicious folks.”—Bosley Crowther, New York Times
GOOF: The narration during the big robbery says that the factory guard was shot in the groin. But even as those words are spoken, a gun fires and the guard grabs his shoulder. Let’s be honest, we’d all rather be shot in the shoulder than the groin.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Shortly after one final knockout ends his boxing career, Swede attends a cocktail party with Lilly, his good-girl sweetheart (she even orders a soda pop). As they engage in small talk, the glamorous moll Kitty slinks into the room.
Swede becomes fixated the moment he sees Kitty, ignoring his girlfriend. Kitty, aware of his attention, walks over to the piano and starts singing a sultry tune. The sexual tension is palpable.
At that moment, Swede abandons both his woman and the straight life. It’s all downhill from there.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Hemingway was paid $36,700 for the rights to his short story.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The burly hit man in the opening scene is William Conrad, who was 25 when this was filmed. Fans of television detective shows will remember Conrad as the star of Cannon in the 1970s and Jake and the Fatman in the 1980s.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low. But the tough talk is high.
BEST LINE: Kitty, the ultimate bad girl, is asked by a devastated Swede why she has abandoned him for the despicable Big Jim Colfax.
“Maybe it’s because I hate him,” she says. “I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everyone around me. I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I’d do to them. But I don’t care harming him.”
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Lancaster’s skill in the ring during the flashback to his boxing days. The 32-year-old actor trained for two months with a former prizefighter. Those punches and knockdowns in the scene are genuine, not staged.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: The Killers shows up about once a year on Turner Classic Movies. It’s worth checking out annually.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The 1964 version of the same story, directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan (!) as the evil crime boss. The project was originally commissioned by NBC as a made-for-TV movie, but was kept off the air due to its sexuality and violence. It later had a limited run in theaters.
BODY COUNT: Five.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]