The Killers (1946)

April 6, 2007

Even to a big noir fan like myself, some of the early films of the genre, killers1946dvd.gifeven the very good ones, tend to run together, particularly after you’ve seen as many as I have (it’s not until the 50s, when the plots got quite a bit more quirky and creative, that it gets somewhat easier to keep them all straight). On the surface, the 1946 version of The Killers appears to be one of those films that is destined to blend in with others from the time period. The story is more or less a fairly standard noir-style plot involving a double-cross. The acting is excellent from top to bottom but – other than Burt Lancaster in his breakout role – there’s nothing all that extraordinary about it. One can’t even say this is the most notable film noir involving an insurance investigator, since that “honor” would belong to Double Indemnity, with Edward G. Robinson starring as the insurance investigator par excellence. And yet, The Killers nonetheless does rise to the surface and seem to stand out as a very memorable, top-tier film noir. It’s fairly easy to see why. While it might not be exceptional in any single regard, it is certainly above average in many. It also embodies – and embodies well – many of the narrative and stylistic characteristics we associate with the noir genre. Indeed, if there is some ethereal, Platonic ideal of the classic noir film, The Killers doesn’t deviate far from it.

The film is based on a famous Ernest Hemingway story. Hemingway had a theory on fiction writing that, to be effective, it should be like the tip of the iceburg, presenting very little above the surface and leaving hidden the majority of the underlying bulk and foundation. Thus, his writing typically only hints at the complex motives and background of the characters involved and leaves much up to the imagination of the reader. Such is the case with “The Killers,” a short story that describes two men coming into a diner looking for the Swede – killers.jpgan area man they have been hired to kill. While the story gives clues as to why they wish to kill the Swede, it raises more questions than it answers. The film adaptation rather faithfully covers the narrative of Hemingway’s story in about the first 10 or 15 minutes. The remaining hour and a half tries via flashback to provide the background details missing in Hemingway’s take. This might seem like a rather dramatic departure from the original source material, but Hemingway apparently did not mind. In fact, he even advised John Huston – who drafted the script (uncredited due to his being under contract to another studio at the time) – on a few areas. The two became lifelong friends thereafter (this article had a bit more on their collaboration for the film). The presence of Huston certainly clues one in as to why the script is so good. One of the best with noir scripts, Huston had already written and directed such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and was only a few years away from doing one of my all-time favorite film noirs, The Asphalt Jungle. The fact that many of his noir scripts have a literary bent to them probably helped him in adapting and expanding the Hemingway story.

A good bit has already been written about this film, and I don’t probably have much new to add here. But if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it’s a film noir involving the likes of Lancaster, Hemingway, and Huston (and we haven’t even mentioned the quality job Ava Gardner does as the femme fatale). What isn’t there to like?