Robert Siodmak’s The Killers is notable for a number of reasons. For one, it’s based on the short story of the same name by Ernest Hemingway. For another, it features the screen debut of Burt Lancaster. The 1946 film noir weaves its web in flashback format, too, which means the audience is aware of the outcome immediately and subsequently spends 103 minutes determining why it happened.
Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell present a convincing aesthetic, especially in the more theatrical opening scenes. They contend with the shadows of Brentwood, New Jersey, and sift through the sinister goings-on from the diner to the murky room of Lancaster’s character. Things branch out from there and become more conventional, but Siodmak never forgets where he began.
The Killers commences with two hitmen (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) as they arrive in a small town diner and start throwing their weight around. It soon becomes apparent they’re there to kill the Swede (Lancaster). They find him in his room and plug him full of holes. He puts up no resistance. Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned the case.
Reardon is also designated to pay the beneficiary of the Swede’s policy, an older woman who doesn’t know him very well but once saved him from committing suicide. Reardon’s investigation leads to certain revelations about the Swede, like the details of his boxing career and his relationship with the criminal element. And naturally, it all comes down to a dame. In this case, it’s Kitty (Ava Gardner).
The first 13 minutes of The Killers are taken directly from the Hemingway story and the rest of the picture is the invention of screenwriter Anthony Veiller, with the uncredited work of John Huston and Richard Brooks comprising a great deal of the finished product. It is the Hemingway portion that crackles most, but Siodmak finds a way to branch the tale in captivating fashion.
Lancaster emerges as a formidable star right out of the box, which is part of what makes The Killers so fascinating. He inhabits the Swede as a kind of lug, a man who’s taken a lot of punches in life and doesn’t have a lot to show for it. When his executioners come, he’s thrown in the towel. He tells Nick (Phil Brown) that he’s “through with all that runnin’ around.”
The Swede has done a lot of running since his boxing career fell apart. Things looked different then, as Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) details. The Swede broke his hand and took a big loss in the ring, then he ran into Kitty at a party with his then-girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine). True to noir form, that crucial meeting strikes the match of temptation.
Siodmak shows the audience what might’ve been. Lilly and Sam are together, fragments of the Swede’s last chance, and their domestic arrangement is romanticized when she brings lemonade out on the pretty patio. The ever-smiling Reardon, there to interview Sam, must be aware of the irony. He must be aware of a lot of things.
O’Brien plays it relatively straight as Reardon. There are no signs of temptation. He’s not led astray by the details of the case and he aims to figure it out, even as his boss (Donald MacBride) hassles him over the futility of such a thing. While most noir protagonists find themselves at least somewhat enticed by obscurity, O’Brien’s character whistles while he works.
This is an essential detail because Reardon is the moral centre. Other characters revolve through the progression of crime and punishment, with Charleston (Vince Barnett) the clearest example of a man driven wrong by lawless pull. He meets the Swede in the pen, peers at the stars through the bars, wishes for another world of possibility that’s long since passed him by.
From Collins’ temptations to the Swede’s dumb resolve, The Killers is awash in lives gone wrong. Everyone’s pushing an angle, everyone has a story. Reardon plies the world with drink and questions, hoping to carve his way through the details to find the truth. Whether the truth still matters by the time of its revelation is another matter altogether.