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It stars Burt Lancaster in his film debut, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, and Sam Levene. The film also features William Conrad in his first credited role, as one of the titular killers. A uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks co-wrote the screenplay, which was credited to Anthony Veiller.
The first 20 minutes of the film, showing the arrival of the two contract killers, and the murder of “Swede” Andreson, is a close adaptation of Hemingway’s short story. The rest of the film, showing Reardon’s investigation of the murder, is wholly original. According to Hemingway‘s biographer, Carlos Baker, The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.”
Producer Mark Hellinger paid $36,750 for the screen rights to Hemingway’s story, his first independent production. The screenplay was written by John Huston (uncredited because of his contract with Warner Bros.) and Richard Brooks.
Lancaster was not his first pick for the part of “the Swede”, but Warner Brothers wouldn’t lend out actor Wayne Morris for the film. Other actors considered for the part include Van Heflin, Jon Hall, Sonny Tufts, and Edmond O’Brien who was instead cast in the role of the insurance investigator. In the role of the femme fatale, Kitty Collins, Hellinger cast Gardner, who had up to then appeared virtually unnoticed in a string of minor films.
The Killers is used as an example of film noir cinematography in the documentary Visions of Light (1992).
The film’s appeal derives from breaking the traditional narrative structure by using a number of flashbacks.
When the film was first released, Bosley Crowther gave it a positive review and lauded the acting. He wrote, “With Robert Siodmak‘s restrained direction, a new actor,Burt Lancaster, gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who’s wooed to his ruin. And Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him up. Edmond O’Brien plays the shrewd investigator in the usual and clipped detective style, Sam Levene is very good as a policeman and Albert Dekker makes a thoroughly nasty thug. … The tempo is slow and metronomic, which makes for less excitement than suspense.”
In a review of the DVD release, Scott Tobias, while critical of the screenplay, described the drama’s noir style, writing,
“Lifted note-for-note from the Hemingway story, the classic opening scene of Siodmak’s film sings with the high tension, sharp dialogue, and grim humor that’s conspicuously absent from the rest of Anthony Veiller’s mediocre screenplay. … A lean block of muscles and little else, Burt Lancaster stars as the hapless victim, an ex-boxer who was unwittingly roped into the criminal underworld and the even more dangerous gaze of Ava Gardner, a memorably sultry and duplicitous femme fatale. … [Siodmak] sustains a fatalistic tone with the atmospheric touches that define noir, favoring stark lighting effects that throw his post-war world into shadow.”
Nominations – Academy Awards
- Best Director: Robert Siodmak.
- Best Film Editing: Arthur Hilton.
- Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture: Miklós Rózsa
- Best Adapted Screenplay: Anthony Veiller.
- Edgar Award: Edgar; from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture, Anthony Veiller (writer), Mark Hellinger (producer), and Robert Siodmak (director); 1947.
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills – Nominated
- AFI’s 10 Top 10 – Nominated
Two hitmen, Max and Al (William Conrad and Charles McGraw), come to a small town to kill Pete Lund, known as “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster). The Swede’s coworker at a gas station warns him but, strangely, he makes no attempt to flee, and they kill him in his hotel room. (“The Swede” is soon revealed to be Ole Andreson.)
Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned to find and pay the beneficiary of his policy. Tracking down and interviewing the dead man’s friends and associates, Reardon doggedly pieces together his story. Police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a close, longtime friend of the Swede, is particularly helpful.
Through flashbacks, it is revealed that the Swede was a professional boxer whose career was cut short by an injury to his right hand. Rejecting Lubinsky’s suggestion to join the police force, the Swede gets mixed up with a bad crowd, including “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker). He drops his girlfriend Lily (Virginia Christine) for the more glamorous Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). When Lubinsky catches Kitty wearing stolen jewelry, the Swede “confesses” to the crime and serves three years in prison.
When the Swede gets out, he, “Dum Dum” Clarke (Jack Lambert), and “Blinky” Franklin (Jeff Corey) are recruited for a payroll robbery masterminded by Big Jim. Complicating matters is the fact that Kitty is now Big Jim’s girl. The robbery nets the gang $250,000. When their rendezvous place (supposedly) burns down, all of the gang members but the Swede are notified of where to meet. Kitty then informs him that he is being double-crossed. The Swede takes all of the money at gunpoint and flees. Kitty meets him later in Atlantic City, then disappears with the money.
Back in the present, Reardon watches the boarding house where Ole lived. Sure enough, Dum Dum shows up, searching for a clue as to the whereabouts of the loot. Reardon gets some information from the robber, but Dum Dum gets away before the police can arrest him.
When Reardon gets confirmation of one particular detail, he is certain he knows what happened. He goes to see Big Jim, now a very successful building contractor. Reardon lies, telling Big Jim that he has enough evidence to convict Kitty. He suggests that Kitty contact him. She agrees to meet him, and they go to a nightclub at her suggestion. However, after she goes to the ladies’ room, Max and Al show up and try to kill Reardon. Fortunately, he and Lubinsky are ready for them, and the two hitmen are slain instead.
Reardon and Lubinsky head to Big Jim’s mansion, but are too late to stop Dum Dum and Big Jim from killing each other. Reardon explains that when he discovered that the fire that destroyed the rendezvous point had been set hours after Kitty was sent to notify everyone where the new meeting place will be, he realized that Kitty and Big Jim, her husband, had been setting up the Swede. Dum Dum finally figured out the truth as well. When Lubinsky asks the dying Big Jim why he had the Swede killed, Big Jim tells him he could not take the chance that another member of the gang might find the Swede, as he had. Kitty begs her husband to exonerate her in a deathbed confession, but he dies first.
The pacing and photography and the dark feeling presented of the film set the stage for all future film noirs. Lancaster is perfect in the part of The Swede, and Ava has you hoping until the end that she is good and not the cold-hearted vamp.
The opening chords of Miklós Rózsa‘s theme music became iconic, and I admit kind of “kitshe.” To our ears today, it sounds a bit cheesy as it was later reused and heard repeatedly for the Dragnet television series. I’ve heard it so much that I grew very bored with it. However, when heard for the first time in this film it adds a lot to the dramatic and dark nature but still making me wish, I had seen the film, as most 1946 audiences had before ever seeing the TV show, Dragnet.
Listen to it below, you will undoubtedly recognize this iconic music.
Nonetheless, I immediately noticed the importance of The Killers. Still, as a viewer looking at it for the first time (believe it or not) in 2017 and accustomed to plot twists at the end of any such story, I was a bit surprised when I learned the obvious truth in the end. When watching such mysteries today, I always seek out the least likely culprit first, so while viewing “The Killers”, I honed in on the Policeman. I sort of knew that Ava’s character was up to no good, but nonetheless, I was surprised that it was she along with the most likely suspect, her husband Reardon who did the deed of killing the Swede. In today’s world this ending is not so shocking. Still, when I do my best to take myself back in time to look at this film and what it’s impact was like for 1946 audiences, I recognize that it is was truly groundbreaking. Also, the cast couldn’t have been better picked for their respective roles and Ava Gardner as Kitty was at her most beautiful and I’m sure viewers couldn’t take their eyes off of her in every scene.
Our resident writer, Julie reviewed this film two years ago, see what she had to say about it by clicking here: Julie’s Review of “The Killers”.
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”