The Killers (1946) – Robert Siodmak

Siodmak’s film noir uses Hemingway’s short story as the opening segment of the movie. The dialogue employed is almost word for word the same as in the short story. The remainder of the film is an original creation of uncredited screenwriters John Huston and Richard Brooks. Although Burt Lancaster (in his film debut, as the ex-boxer executed by the killers) and Ava Gardner (as the devious wife of the head of a criminal group who stage a lucrative payroll heist) have top billing, the major acting role is Edmond O’Brien’s, who plays the insurance agent who solves the mystery of the ex-boxer’s death and why his beneficiary is who she is. The killers are adeptly played by William Conrad (also in his first credited role) and Charles McGraw.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad in The Killers

Charles McGraw and William Conrad in The Killers

Siodmak was a Dresden Jew, first forced out as a film maker from Germany by Goebbels in 1933, and later by Hitler in 1939 from Paris, whence he came to Hollywood and made 23 highly popular films, including many regarded as exceptional examples of film noir.

Structurally, several features are of particular interest.

First, the superb visual realization of Hemingway’s text in the introductory section. This runs about 20 minutes.

The beginning of the opening segment of The Killers

The beginning of the opening segment of The Killers

Second, the virtuosity of the original part of the screenplay, which forms the larger part of the film, and relates seamlessly, if with a different tone of dialogue, from the opening section. I myself think that the film improves Hemingway, and that the longer, second section, is not, as it has been criticized for, as lesser in quality than the opening dialogue, but different because the characters are mostly different as well.

Third, the cinematography, which in the opening section concentrates on how light plays in the night, and but in the second section, more with how darkness plays in daylight. This approach also enhances the acute sense of realism many of the settings achieve.

Fourth, the opening section (20 minutes) is in real time, whereas the second section (40 minutes) is in compressed time, hence the effectiveness of the use of flashbacks, as well furnishing a satisfying 1:2 ratio of elapsed viewing time. The narrative use of flashbacks within flashbacks gives one the sensation of falling deeper and deeper into the actuality of things, knowing that the conclusion of the flashback will return one to a later time, with that time then changed and heightened by new information.

Burt Lancaster discovering Ava Gardner, in The Killers

Burt Lancaster discovering Ava Gardner, in The Killers

Fifth, The Killers is one of the first classics of the film noir genre, and it is fascinating to reflect on the influence of German Expressionism, such as is also found in the films of Fritz Lang (e.g., M), John Huston (e.g., The Maltese Falcon), and Michael Curtiz (e.g., Casablanca).

There is a nice touch that is probably accidental rather than deliberate. When Lancaster leaves the dressing room after his fight he passes by a sign in the hallway that reads ‘No Profanity.’ And there is none in the film. Which is the sixth point of interest.

Postscriptum. One cannot help but be struck by the casual presence of guns throughout this film. The opening segment in that sense is fully believable and could easily be contemporary; and the instant availability of weapons to everyone, even, to give one instance, an insurance agent, simply causes one’s notion of safe society to rebel. Think also of Hemingway himself, obsessed with killing. I cannot abide, and have never been able to finish, his 1935 Green Hills of Africa, which is a distorted paean to slaughter of wildlife; and it left my library long ago.

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