Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Killers (1946)
Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story The Killers is a cynical prelude to an unavoidable murder and has inspired two feature films since its first publication. The 1946 old ass version was directed by Robert Siodmak in typical film-noir style and was Burt Lancaster’s film debut.
What happens in the first twelve minutes of The Killers is, minus some details here and there and the ending dialogue, the whole Hemingway story. It’s a cold winter evening in a small town and two men (William Conrad & Charles McGraw) wearing hats and overcoats walk through the central street, pass the gas station and in the lunch counter. There they bully the waiter, the cook and a young customer named Nick Adams. After they make sure that the place will be in their full disposal one of them reveals that they’re waiting for a man nicknamed the “Swede” (Burt Lancaster), who, as they already know, comes in every night for his dinner. They’ve been hired to kill him but they don’t know why and they’ve never met him before. Some time later and after a couple of customers are turned away by the waiter, they realize that the Swede isn’t coming so it’s time for them to pay him a visit. They leave their temporary hostages scared but unharmed and go about their job. Nick Adams rushes out from the back and beats them to the Swede’s house where we see him leaning over a man whose face is covered in darkness. Nick pleads him to leave or let him call the police but the man calmly answers that there’s nothing anyone can do. He seems to have already accepted his fate. Nick leaves, the Swede’s face is revealed and the killers arrive…
At this point in the short story, instead of watching the killers, we shift back at the lunch counter where Nick tells the waiter about his conversation with the Swede. “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.”, he says and the old man responds, “Well, you better not think about it.” The script (to which John Huston also contributed only uncredited) doesn’t turn its head away from the Swede like Hemingway’s small timers. Who were these men, why did they kill the Swede and why did the latter choose to wait so stoically for his ending?
These are the questions that come naturally to the audience and consequently move this story forward beyond the killing. The character that the writers choose to bring as the spectator’s extension is insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’ Brien) who has to check upon the dead guy’s death-benefit claim and the fact that it has to be payed to a woman the Swede hardly knew. Reardon has absolutely no personal gain from this situation, especially after his boss cynically explains to him the nature of the insurance business and how the yearly loss is compensated by next year’s raised rates. That’s what makes him as impartial as we are and driven by the same curiosity and love of the detective game.
As the hunt for the truth begins, Reardon meets a series of characters who knew the Swede aka Ole Anderson aka Pete Lund. A police officer and childhood pal of Anderson’s (Sam Levene) who was partly responsible for his arrest becomes Reardon’s aid in this quest. Through well narrated flashbacks we learn that Anderson was a boxer who became close with crime figures after he couldn’t fight anymore and fell for a pretty but dangerous dame named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). He got in the pen taking a fall for her and when he came out they reunited as parts of a big payroll heist. At that point the interrogations give way to an incident that serves as a turning point. One of the gang members is found shot and during his deathbed delirium he blurbs some new info about the payroll job aftermath. That’s when Reardon and Lt. Lubinsky decide to get more aggressive to find out the truth behind the Swede’s uncontested murder and maybe even his murderers…
Robert Siodmak was a German born director, one of the many that came to Hollywood after the rise of the Nazis in their homeland. He worked during the peak of German expressionism which made him the right man for directing a film-noir, using the light and shade in the best possible manner. The way he controls the narration and the continuity between flashbacks, a viewer never gets tired or loses interest in the story. Of course he has some great characters to work with and a bunch of very well casted actors. Edmond O’ Brien may not be intriguing or someone to identify with but he looks like an everyday guy doing his everyday job, getting naturally excited the minute he steps on a real mystery waiting to be solved. Burt Lancaster, looking bulky and large, makes a great debut. He’s the one we can really like, a strong Scandinavian fighter, looking for love and acceptance among the wrong crowd. He falls like a brick for the femme-fatale, the ravishing Ava Gardner, whose seductive Kitty Collins gets her share of admiration in the beginning and humiliation in the end. The rest of the cast is great, especially William Conrad and Charles McGraw. They are totally believable and enjoyable as the stone cold hitmen with the smart-ass punchlines.
The Killers is a film that expands greatly on an already good story, without spoiling its original dialogue and general feeling of futility. The short story’s ending gets a more humorous version as Reardon’s boss intervenes again from his corporate tower after the riddle’s been solved and the company has made $2500. “Owing to your splendid efforts”, he tells the worn-out yawning investigator, “the basic rate of the Atlantic casualty company as of 1947, will probably drop 1/10 of a cent.” Well, it might be futile, but it was certainly exciting.