Created by Ernest Hemingway
Adapted by Anthony Veiller
It feels like some sort of cheat to credit Ernest Hemingway as the “creator” of hard-working tough guy insurance dick JAMES REARDON here, since Papa’s snippet of a short story (originally published in 1927), didn’t even have a detective–by any name–in it. It simply related the tale of two hired guns, Max and Al, who come to the small town of Summit, Illinois, looking for a former prizefighter. They take over an almost deserted local diner in Summit, Illinois, forcing the owner, the cook and the diner’s only customer, young Nick Adams, and tieing them up, threatening them until they find out where their quarry, “a big Swede named Ole Andreson,” lives.
The info is eventually coughed up, and after the killers depart, the trio break free. Nick rushes to the Swede’s boarding house room to warn him. But the Swede’s reaction is not what he expects. With a shrug of fatalism, the palooka sends Nick away. He then sits back on his bed and waits for the killers to arrive.
Max and Al soon show up, climb the stairs to the Swede’s room, open the door and blast away.
Mission accomplished. We never learn why someone wanted him killed.
As it is, it would have made a fantastic film. Only thing is, it would have been about ten minutes long.
The 1946 film version expands the eight-page story considerably, although it starts out as a pretty faithful adaptation.
And that’s where the genius of director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller comes in. They take Hemingway’s sliver of story and spin a complex, haunting tale of guilt, betrayal, redemption and a love so ultimately twisted and perverted it could only end up as noir.
Into the mix they throw cynical, inquisitive Reardon, a seen-it-all insurance investigator nicely played by Edmond O’Brien, channeling his best Bogie, who can’t understand why the Swede (Burt Lancaster in his breakout role) didn’t try to flee. Reardon is the catalyst here; a hard-working dick whose investigation really pulls the film together, but he’s just a cog in the narrative wheel, there to slowly piece the story together with some actual detective work (more rare than you’d think in film noir).
And so follow Reardon working the case, interviewing witnesses, and we’re treated to a series of tough, potent flashbacks liberally laced with tropes from the Noir Store: a carefully planned heist gone wrong, a beautiful but possibly untrustworthy woman (Ava Gardner, in her first major role), a ruthless villain with his own agenda, and enough bad luck, bad choices and backstabbing (including arguably the double-cross of all double-crosses) to paint the entire film black.
All set to Miklos Rozsa’s nobody-gets-out-of-here-alive soundtrack. It would be nice to claim the detective is the star of the show here, but he isn’t. I dig O’Brien’s portrayal of the cocky insurance investigator with an itch to scratch, working the case, following the breadcrumbs, tracking down the pieces and seeing where they fit and all that, but come on! Lancaster? AND Gardner?
As it is, it’s simply one of the all-time great film noirs. That’s all.
* * * * *
So naturally, in 1963 or so somebody at NBC decided The Killers ought to be remade for television. Don Siegel directed it, theoretically based on Hemingway’s original story, but borrowing liberally (and loosely) from Siodmak’s classic. Reardon’s character was written out completely, however, his role replaced by the two killers themselves (played by an ice-cold Lee Marvin and a very twitchy Clu Gulager), who want to find out for themselves why their target (now a former auto racer, played by John Cassavetes) didn’t even try to run. Their motive, though, isn’t curiosity, but greed. They sniff a payoff. And instead of a smouldering Ava Gardner, we get a flinty Angie Dickinson stepping into the femme fatale’s high heels. It was eventually deemed too violent and disturbing for television, and was released theatrically, but it never soars to the heights of either Hemingway’s story or Siodmak’s film. Brassy and brash, Dickinson does absolutely nothing for me, Cassavetes chews his regular dosage of scenery, and even Ronald Reagan (in his last acting role) as the bad guy can’t make this work. Marvin and Gulager steal the show–their weird, off-kilter and troubling chemistry belongs in a much better and darker movie.
Still, a lot of people absolutely worship this thing, and Criterion–not being fools–released the two films together in one deluxe set, filling it with enough bonus features to choke a horse.
Compare, if you dare…
- “The Killers” (1927, Scribner’s) | Read it now!
- THE KILLERS (1946, Universal-International) | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Based on the short story “The Killers” by Ernest HemingwayScreenplay by Anthony Veiller
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Starring Burt Lancaster as The Swede
Ava Gardner as The Girl
And Edmond O’Brien as JAMES REARDON
Also starring William Conrad as Max
and Charles McGraw as Al
Also starring Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Virginia Christine, Jack Lambert, Charles D. Brown, Donald MacBride
THE KILLERS | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray
Based on the short story “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway
Screenplay by Gene L. Coon
Starring Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan, Virginia Christine, Don Haggerty