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.
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!
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.
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.