From Universal Pictures
Directed by Robert Siodmak
It would have been a lot different seeing this movie in theaters in 1946 because the public didn't know who Burt Lancaster was and only a few more knew of Ava Gardner. She had made 20+ films but the first one that had really registered much for her at all was Whistle Stop, a shabby thing with George Raft, released just earlier this same year. And Lancaster was having his movie debut, starting right at the top in the starring role. Watching this I can certainly see why both became huge stars. Both are so damned good-looking and sex oozes from their pores.
It didn't hurt that they were starring in a work by Ernest Hemingway. He wrote the short story in the 1920s. Only the opening scene, however, is his work; the rest came as a result of Hollywood screenwriters needing more for a film. I've read that this was one of the writer's favorite translations of his work, but I've also read he didn't care for it. He usually was unhappy with what Hollywood did with his works. One might wonder why he kept working with them until one realizes his unhappiness paled in comparison to his being an acclaim junkie and often in need of cash. It is for certain that he disliked the movie versions of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises, both of which starred Gardner. Apparently no one took it personally because the two became pretty good pals. For myself, with the exception of A Farewell to Arms, I liked the movie versions of all his works.
This film became one of the great noirs with its attention to lighting, shadows, dark streets and alleys, a complicated hero, a bad girl, a steely insurance investigator, vicious thugs, mystery, mood and a dash of confusion.
We watch two men walk down the middle of a street in a small Illinois town sometime after dark, heading to a local diner where they sit at the counter. There is one customer, a man named Nick Adams, which is a name that Hemingway was fond of using in a number of his short stories. The two men are obvious thugs, mean-tempered, rude, scary. They upset the man behind the counter and ultimately tie up Nick and a cook. The counter man, eager but careful to know what's going on, is told they're waiting for someone called the Swede.
The thugs intend to kill the Swede as a favor to a friend, they say, and they know the Swede comes to that diner most nights. The clerk nervously tells them that if the Swede hasn't shown up by 6 p.m. he will not be coming and it's after six. Grumbling, they saunter off to a fleabag hotel down the street where their quarry is staying. In the meantime, Nick Adams gets there first and warns the Swede, who is awake on his bed in the dark. In true noir fashion we see him only only when the lights of a marquee flicker through a window.
Nick gets the shock of his life when the Swede thanks him but says he doesn't care. They can kill him if they want. He's worn out and tired of running. He tells Nick that they're coming after him because I once did something wrong. Nick begs him to change his mind and get out of the room but the Swede just lies there as Nick flees.
The camera caresses the Swede's face. He doesn't appear scared, particularly, perhaps anxious. He watches the door with a hall lightly shining around the edges. Soon the light is blocked out as dark figures approach. The door is violently broken down and the two men pump bullets into The Swede. We watch as his hand loses its grip on the bedpost.
A life insurance policy is involved and an investigator with an extra layer of curiosity begins to dive into the death. The story advances through masterfully done flashbacks as the investigator interviews the Swede's friends and associates and even enemies. This form of storytelling has been used over and over, of course, but few have perfected it as well as is done here.
The investigator, after talking first to Nick, knows he needs to find out what it was that the Swede once did that was wrong. We meet the surprised beneficiary of the life policy. We meet a woman who once dated the Swede. We meet a cop the Swede liked. We hear about the love of the Swede's life, Kitty, a beautiful, double-dealing brunette for whom the Swede would do anything.... nothing more importantly than a three-year prison stretch for a crime she committed.
Our intrepid investigator hears about a payroll holdup that apparently the Swede was involved in. Kitty was part of the group, too, in that she was now the girlfriend of the leader. It seems that before the loot could be divided up, the Swede made off with it. Ah, now we might hazard a guess as to why the Swede was killed. But do we know everything? Hey, this is film noir where things are never quite what they seem.
Lancaster was a little calmer than we became used to... that larger-than-life screen presence that became so well-known was not much in evidence here. The Swede was more mild-mannered and even before he became tired of running, he was so besotted with Kitty that all he could manage was a certain muteness as he gazed longingly at her. Lancaster pulled it all off but then I think he always did. Few actors ever understood the people they were playing better than he did. He seemed to know his characters inside and out and always gave them a little extra polish.
There was a great scene involving Albert Dekker as the chief baddie when he comes across the Swede who is hiding away as a gas jockey. The Swede is cleaning the baddie's windshield and the looks the two give one another said all we ever needed to know about either character. The hatred was palpable from the baddie while the same could be said of the Swede's fear.
I had an unintentional laugh (there's little funny about The Killers) during the gas station scene. Apparently cleaning the car windows in those days included the attendant getting in the empty passenger seat and cleaning from the inside. Really? And how much to fill up that tank? $3.83.
Gardner was a reluctant actress for a number of years and her first great turn toward something more began with this film. She liked working with Lancaster and thought they made a great pair. I always thought she was one of the most seductive actresses there ever was and she engaged all her powers to bring to life the duplicitous Kitty. She needed to have something that would make Lancaster go weak at the knees when he saw her. I think she accomplished her task, don't you?
Lancaster and Gardner would be in the same movie twice more. I say it that way because I don't believe they had any scenes together in either one, which is a shame. Their second film was the political thriller, Seven Days in May (1964), and then the runaway train saga, The Cassandra Crossing (1976).
Edmond O'Brien, as the insurance investigator, was always a capable actor, although I understand why he never made it to the top of his craft, instead becoming a lead in B pictures and a supporting player in A films. He may have the most screen time of anyone in this one. He would also appear in Seven Days in May and won a supporting Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa (1954), also with Gardner.
Three character actors, all playing thugs, are worth singling out... although the entire cast is on the mark. One is Jack Lambert, memorable to everyone once one sees his face which is truly menacing. That face kept him forever in villain roles and he made the most of it. As the title stars, gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw and working-on-being-rotund William Conrad certainly got everyone in the right mood with their blistering performances.
Siodmak was an excellent director of film noir. He had a unique understanding of the genre when one considers he also helmed Phantom Lady, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City and Criss Cross, to name a few. He kept the screenplay slow, suspenseful and shadowy while giving full rein to his talented actors. His last American film, in 1952, was The Crimson Pirate with a very different Burt Lancaster.
Anthony Veiller is given sole credit for the screenplay although it's been said famed writer-directors Richard Brooks and John Huston wrote most of it. There must be a juicy story there. Bravo to Arthur Hilton for his splendid editing.
If you're a fan of film noir or want to be and haven't seen this one, try to catch it on the tube... it's on with some regularity and for good reason. It's one of the best of its genre. In 2008 The Killers was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Registry of the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
Here's a peek at the trailer: