The first thing to know about “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (Universal, 1946) is that it looks great. Ironically, director Robert Siodmak and his cinematographer, Woody Bredell, created one of the best looking film noirs by insisting that absolutely nothing should be shot for beauty or glamour. As much as possible, scenes were shot with natural light — eyes are often hidden in shadows because no fills were used to make the actors more photogenic. On her first day of shooting, Ava Gardner appeared on the set in full Metro-style glamorous makeup. Siodmak told her to go scrub it all off: “Please, you are going and washing off and bringing back face alone!” For years afterwards, Woody Bredell praised Ava Gardner as the first adult actress he’d ever photographed without makeup. “All we did was rub a little Vaseline into her skin for a sheen effect.” “The Killers” has the deepest blacks and intensest whites and as few halftones as possible — it’s as close to true black and white as Hollywood ever managed. From the first shot to the last, it’s a pleasure to look at. The opening titles are over a car racing down a suburban New Jersey road at night. At the end of the titles, the opening shots look like this:
Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” is scarcely a dozen pages long and consists almost entirely of dialogue. The first reel of the picture (i.e., the first twelve minutes) is a reasonably strict adaptation of the story, minus the racist epithets. Charles McGraw and William Conrad are such implacable, terrifying bad guys, they don’t need to sound like Klansman to add force to their brutality. They show up at a diner in a suburban New Jersey town (Brentwood in the picture; Summit in Hemingway’s story), throw their weight around, then announce they’ve come to kill a man known as the Swede; when the Swede doesn’t show up by 6:00, they go to his boarding house and gun him down in his bed. The Swede is warned before they arrive, but he has given up. When they come, there is no struggle — just explosive gunfire. (The passivity of Conrad’s and McGraw’s faces as they fire again and again is scary as hell.)
That’s it. It’s extremely taut and tense. At first, the set-up made me so jumpy, it took several viewings before I could enjoy the style of the cinematography and the efficiency of the story-telling, which I now admire tremendously. I also admire Harry Hayden’s completely realistic performance as the nervous counterman, George. Hayden had a long and mostly uncredited career; he rarely got the chance to do much, but every now and again, he landed a nice little part that let him show his skill. I think he’s perfect in “The Killers.” (He’s also very nice in a small part in “The Rains Came.”)
Mark Hellinger, who produced the picture, fancied himself Hemingway’s great pal. Pal or not, Hemingway demanded fifty thousand smackers for his twelve-page story and got thirty-eight, making it the highest price ever paid for movie rights to a short story. Hellinger promised Hemingway he’d tell the press he paid the original asking price. In the end, he advertised that he paid seventy-five Gs for the story. To write the screenplay, Hellinger first approached John Huston, but since Huston was still in uniform and had outstanding contractual commitments to Jack Warner, he recommended his writing partner, Anthony Veiller (son of Margaret Wycherley — who later played Cagney’s cagey old mother in “White Heat”). Veiller agreed and got full credit, but he split the pay fifty-fifty with Huston, who was heavily involved in the writing, which took two months. Most of it was written at Huston’s rooms at the Weylin Hotel on 54th and Madison and at Wycherley’s flat at 10 Perry Street in the West Village — and, since Huston was involved, at many saloons in between. Their approach centered on a single question: “What could bring a man so low that he would surrender himself to violent death?” What they ended up with is a lot of fun, but I think it’s going much too far to say that it’s a great script. Frankly, I don’t think their script does a great job of answering their own question.
The structure of “The Killers” mimics the multiple narrator idea that Herman Mankiewicz used so effectively in “Citizen Kane,” but it’s not as cleverly constructed. In “The Killers,” the mystery to be solved is why anyone would want to kill the Swede (Burt Lancaster); we find out through a series of dovetailing flashbacks.
Individually, each scene works well enough and there’s plenty of snappy patter; taken as a whole, however, the story feels attenuated, even somewhat preposterous. Moreover, unlike “Citizen Kane,” all of the various narrations are in complete agreement with the others. Everyone in the picture — the dim-witted chambermaid, the jilted girlfriend, the cop, the small-time crook, the gunsel, even the hophead on his deathbed — has a perfect recollection of events that took place six years earlier, before World War II interrupted their lives. They all remember accurately, and they all tell the truth. This is quite a problem in a picture that’s supposed to be about moral ambiguity. That’s why I think the best idea is to accept the picture as flashy, trashy entertainment and not as anything so earnest as social criticism. There’s plenty to like without taking it seriously.
This is the picture that introduced Burt Lancaster to movie audiences and finally gave Ava Gardner something to do with herself. That’s enough for me. The two stars got along well together. Ava genuinely liked him; years later, a French interviewer asked Lancaster how it felt to kiss Ava Gardner for the first time. Lancaster replied, “I got an erection!” His bulge was so noticeable, in fact, that the entire crew, including Ava, cracked up at the sight of it.
Here’s the scene where Burt Lancaster first meets Ava Gardner. (I apologize in advance for the commercial that precedes it.) Ava does her own singing. She’s way better than any of the voices Metro hired to dub her. Speaking of commercials, if you can tear your eyes away from Ava, the woman who arrives with Lancaster is Virginia Christine. She’s best known as Mrs Olson on the Folgers Coffee commercials, a gig that began in the mid-60s and lasted for 21 years. It only seemed longer. (Sorry: this clip appears to be incompatible with the iPad.)
A few words about the music. It’s one of Miklós Rózsa better efforts. I can almost always identify a score by Rózsa: it’s the one that sounds like a bummer — especially the stuff he wrote for biblical epics. This one’s certainly not breezy, but for once it’s more dramatic than it is sullen. It also features a very famous musical phrase that Walter Schumann used for “Dragnet”: DUM duh-dum DUM! When that theme became a hit on the pop charts, Rózsa’s music publishers filed suit, claiming that Schumann had been at the session the day Rózsa recorded the theme. The case was settled out of court: both composers and their publishers shared the music royalties every time “Dragnet” aired.