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The Killers: Death and the Search for Life

Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) takes 20 minutes to use up the plot from Ernest Hemingway’s famous 1927 short story of the same name. The rest is original material from screenwriter Anthony Veiller and his uncredited co-writers John Huston and Richard Brooks. What makes this film adaption work over others utilizing short material is that the three screenwriters stay true to and expand on the tone and themes of Hemingway’s story.

Two hitmen arrive in a small New Jersey town looking for Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster in his film debut). A friend warns Pete, better known as The Swede, that the two killers are after him, but laying in his dark bedroom, Swede is resigned to his fate. The hitmen (played by Charles McGraw and William Conrad) enter Swede’s apartment and murder him. Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) investigates Swede’s death, and by interviewing old friends and old flames, he uncovers Swede’s tortured past: a failed boxing career, lying, crime, a failed suicide attempt, and a troublesome “dame,” Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Reardon’s investigation leads him into many flashbacks and some life-threatening danger, as he isn’t the only one looking into Swede’s death.

Two hitmen sit at a diner counter, looking to their right offscreen
The hitmen of the title sit in a small-town diner, waiting for Swede to stop by so they can kill him.

Treating an insurance investigator like he’s a hard-boiled detective or cop is laughable in its ignorance of the real world. I wonder why the screenwriters didn’t make him a detective. It would’ve worked better, even if it would’ve been less unique. Unique or not, though, I can’t help but shake my head and laugh at certain scenes. At one point, Reardon and a policeman set up a trap for a possible suspect who they think will visit Swede’s apartment to look for something. Reardon waits for the man in the apartment next door and catches and questions the intruder at gunpoint instead of, you know, letting the police handle it!

Reardon points his gun at the back of Dum-Dum, disarming him as he turns halfway to look at him.
Reardon catches “Dum-Dum” Clarke (Jack Lambert) snooping around Swede’s apartment. He acts like a tough guy instead of remembering he works for an insurance company and calling the cops.

If you ignore this ridiculousness, The Killers is an intriguing why-done-it film noir that keeps its audience guessing until the final scene. It includes everything you’d want and more from a noir: the aforementioned mystery; a tortured past; a hard-edged investigator; atmospheric cinematography by director of photography Woody Bredell, who evokes the story’s tone of doomed melancholy; a femme fatale; criminals; a heist that doesn’t go as planned; and boxing.

What I love most about the inclusion of these elements isn’t their presence in and of themselves, but rather the way they are used. Siodmak cuts through the noir tropes and always brings the story back to the human elements of the script. He takes the standard cliches and uses them as the building blocks for a story of immense human pain and sadness. The femme fatale, the lying, the troublesome crime career, and the failed boxing tenure are all used to tell a tale we see all too often in everyday life. It’s a narrative with sometimes fewer sensational details, but it’s almost always a relatable one of a life filled with constant missteps on the road to purpose and happiness.

This movie constantly tells or shows us the bad cards the Swede’s been dealt time and time again. His life starts off with tragedy, as his mother and father die when he’s young, his promising boxing career is cut dramatically short due to injury, and almost every career path and person he pursues leaves him in despair and ruin. He never really discovers life. Instead, he slowly dies as everyone else around him lives. When we first meet him in a middle-of-nowhere small town, he’s dead in all but body. All that’s left is for the two killers to come and finish him off.

Swede looks at Kitty, who embraces him from behind.
In this promotional image, Kitty, an old flame, embraces The Swede. Despite taking different life paths, Swede is never happy, even when he’s with Kitty.

For all its mystery and twists and turns, The Killers is a sympathetic story about a man whose search for life is nothing but a slow death. It’s far from uplifting (so little of film noir is), but its compassion for the tragic little guys is notable and makes this classic still worthy of a watch today.

The Killers is available through The Criterion Collection and The Criterion Channel.

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Written by Tim Rosenberger

Tim Rosenberger is a Midwest journalist with a passion for film, a Star Trek phaser in the bathroom, and a last name that’s always spelled wrong. He’s a lover of all film genres and time periods but does lean towards pre-1960s movies, with a particular love for the ‘30s and ‘40s. A film blogger, video reviewer and podcaster in his spare time, he lives with his wife, a cat who hates him, and his adorable and way cuter than your child daughter.

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