“Stop listening to those golden harps, Swede”
“The Killers” is a dialogue-driven short story by Ernest Hemingway that describes the melancholic criminal comeuppance of a man long-removed from the deeds that signed his death warrant. It reads like a fast-paced and stripped-down script whose intrigue is built out of that which we’ll never know. Context provides motivations rather than meaning, the underlying sorrow ingrained within its matter-of-fact, gangster machinations conjuring existential empathy rather than good versus evil justice. The men tasked with killing a Brentwood resident they’ve never met aren’t emotionally invested, the hostages taken to facilitate the deed don’t cause trouble to increase tension. It’s business, not pleasure. They’ll eventually find ‘Swede’ since he’s resigned to his inevitable fate, but his unwritten demise proves secondary to the unwritten life that made it necessary.
Director Robert Siodmak and most especially screenwriter Anthony Veiller use this brief scenario as a jumping off point for their adaptation The Killers. The first ten to twenty minutes of the film is ostensibly Hemingway’s words verbatim: Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) enter Henry’s luncheon and move the manager (Harry Hayden‘s George), cook (Bill Walker‘s Sam), and single customer (Phil Brown‘s Nick Adams) into place as they anticipate the entrance of Ole ‘Swede’ Anderson, aka Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster). To their chagrin, ‘Swede’ doesn’t show. But before these gangsters can learn his address, Nick runs to tell him what happened. Rather than gather his things and leave, however, ‘Swede’ simply thanks Nick and quietly relays how he’s done running. It’s time to face the music.
Veiller therefore begins his expansion by explicitly writing the murder Hemingway never did. Al and Max climb the halfway house’s stairs, bust open the door, and start shooting. Then—taking a page out of Orson Welles‘ book five years after Citizen Kane hit theaters—he introduces a new character in insurance claim officer Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Since the cops don’t care about a case of retribution between an ex-con and whomever he double-crossed to earn a bullet, Reardon is alone in finding the truth. At first it’s his job to confirm cause of death and pass the spoils of ‘Swede’s’ policy onto his beneficiary. When the latter duty takes him to Atlantic City and a woman the deceased barely knew, Reardon can’t help wanting to learn more.
Armed with curiosity and a green handkerchief adorned by shamrocks and harps, Reardon plays detective to uncover what made a man—who by all accounts was good—surrender to his demons without so much as a fight. He leverages his importance at his firm for a few more days than his boss wants to allow and starts following breadcrumbs that lead from unassuming gas station attendant in Brentwood to a boxer-turned-mobster in the city. With the help of ‘Swede’s’ old lieutenant friend (Sam Levene‘s Lunbinsky) and the cobbled together details of acquaintances shown via flashback, Reardon finds reason to believe the ex-boxer’s demise stemmed from a caper long-since forgotten by anyone who wasn’t involved. By unearthing their whereabouts, he could smoke out the murderers and a quarter-million dollars.
This means there isn’t a “rosebud” harkening back to youthful innocence as much as a missing fortune multiple parties are willing to kill for despite no one actually knowing who has it. We meet supposed mob boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), two-bit thieves in Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey) and ‘Dum-Dum’ Clarke (Jack Lambert), aging ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett), and the femme fatale at the center of everything and always on ‘Swede’s’ mind Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Some know a lot and others know a little, the double-cross that connects them never far from their memory when the man who performed it returns to the game board. And while Reardon isn’t necessarily trained to put the pieces together, his tenacity makes up for any shortcomings that inexperience provides.
It still gets silly when Reardon goes headfirst into danger without a safety net, but this seems intentional considering how much charm Siodmak showcases in the aftermath. Whether Reardon’s success empowers him to keep going or his failures leave war wounds that Lieutenant Lubinsky can grin his “atta boy” grin at, this insurance agent is having the time of his life. And he’s doing so without a love interest—something that’s rare in the few film noirs I’ve seen. Reardon isn’t being seduced by anything but the mystery so we’re able to treat Kitty as “one of the guys” whose only means of duplicity lie with her fellow suspects. This adds a nice level of intrigue since everyone’s role remains shrouded in darkness until their stories come together.
Beyond the many twists and turns—the order of Reardon’s interrogations cause intentional false starts to distract from the whole truth—The Killers is also a very attractive entry to a genre steeped in high contrast shadows. The opening scenes lifted from Hemingway’s story are the best examples with hard-boiled dialogue and methodical pacing. Angles and blocking exist for aesthetic purposes rather than to hide facts due to Veiller’s script proving airtight in its secrets. We never need to be shielded from the identity of characters because they all possess a more complex role in the plot than surface appearances dictate. Knowing Al and Max’s faces don’t tell us who pulls their strings. Knowing what ‘Swede’ did and to who doesn’t mean retribution wasn’t taken before his death.
And despite the title card calling it “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” any success must be attributed to Veiller and Siodmak. They took a short story that excelled in its complicated questions asked and sought to answer each one. They interpreted Hemingway’s words and created a movie of those interpretations, translating it from one medium to another with everything cinematic language has to offer. As such I wouldn’t feel hyperbolic saying that this piece should be held as one of the best adaptations of all-time. So often filmmakers feel themselves beholden to the text in a way that renders it exacting yet flat onscreen. The best utilize the text for inspiration, knowing that staying true to its essence is what matters. Veiller and Siodmak set that bar extremely high.
Watched in conjunction with Season One of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills.