The Killers: Chasing the Swede

ONE MOMENT WITH HER… AND HE GAMBLED HIS LUCK… LOVE… AND HIS LIFE!

In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway spent some time in Chicago. This was the time and place when the boxer Andre Anderson met his destiny. He was shot to death by the Chicago mob in 1926, likely for refusing bribes. Hemingway was reportedly inspired by this news story when he wrote a novella called ”The Killers”, which featured a former boxer with Swedish roots who is hunted down by a pair of contract killers. The story is so minimalistic that you couldn’t make a whole feature film out of it, but writers Anthony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks (the last two uncredited) took on the challenge of developing a whole screenplay. Hemingway’s story pretty much ends after ten minutes in the movie. Still, it’s been said that the author was pleased with this version.

Two hitmen (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) arrive in a small town and goes to a diner to find out where a man called the Swede (Burt Lancaster) might be hiding. He’s warned by one of the locals but doesn’t make any attempt to escape. The hit men find him and complete their mission. Shortly afterwards, it turns out that the Swede had a life insurance policy and investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) is sent to locate the beneficiary. As he begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, he becomes increasingly intrigued by the Swede’s past. It turns out that he once was a professional boxer who had to give up his dreams because of a bad right hand. The Swede slowly drifted into a world of crime and that’s where he met a woman, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), who brought him under her spell…

Many, long flashbacks
The Killers
draws you into its shady world like a good novel and expertly uses its many, long flashbacks to create a rich background for the mysterious Swede. If you know your film noir, it comes as no surprise that he’s enchanted by a dangerous woman and that nothing good can come of it. At the same time, the filmmakers maintain a lot of tension (and entertainment) in the present as well; O’Brien is engaging as the insurance investigator and he makes a good couple with an ex-cop (Sam Levene) who once put the Swede in prison and is now married to the boxer’s former girlfriend, the one he abandoned for the alluring Kitty. What a film debut for Lancaster; he dominates those flashbacks together with Gardner who had previously only done smaller parts in movies. This became a huge breakthrough for them as the troubled lovers. Part of the fun here is trying to figure out what motivates their characters and the two actors keep us perpetually intrigued; Gardner also has one of the film’s most memorable scenes near the very end when she’s desperately looking for salvation. The cinematography is terrific; Woody Bredell creates a haunting atmosphere that fits the hard-boiled story well. Light and darkness is used to great effect to create uneasiness, effectively varied with explosive shootouts. The music score has become one of Miklos Rozsa’s most famous; part of it later served as the basis for the classic theme from the TV show Dragnet (1951-1959).

Director Robert Siodmak had one hell of a year in 1946. The Killers became his most famous film, but this was also the year when he released The Spiral Staircase, a Hitchcock-inspired thriller. You’d be forgiven for thinking that after 1946, Siodmak would become the master of Hollywood thrills. That didn’t quite happen, even if he did have an interesting career, returning to his native Europe after the fall of the Third Reich. Returning to the source of film noir after mastering the genre in Hollywood seemed natural.

The Killers 1946-U.S. 105 min. B/W. Produced by Mark Hellinger. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Screenplay: Anthony Veiller. Story: Ernest Hemingway. Cinematography: Woody Bredell. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Cast: Burt Lancaster (Pete Lund/Ole ”Swede” Andreson), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Reardon), Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Virginia Christine… William Conrad.

Trivia: Remade as The Killers (1964).

Last word: “[Hemingway] always considered ‘The Killers’ the best of all the many films his work inspired, and after Mark Hellinger, the producer, gave him a print of his own, he’d invariably pull out a projector and show it to guests at Finca Vigia, his place in Cuba. Of course, he’d usually fall asleep after the first reel, which made sense, because the first reel was the only part of the movie that was really taken from what he wrote.” (Gardner, TCM)

 

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