I fell in love with The Killers somewhere around the midway point, when the film delivers one of its most indelible shots. On the far right side of the screen, you have the sultry, dark-haired Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, The Barefoot Contessa) singing a languorous siren song. In the center of the screen, we have doomed protagonist Ole “Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry), seeing Kitty for the first time and gazing at her with dumbstruck desire. On the left, we see Swede's loyal girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), sadly observing her spellbound beau with wounded jealousy. Finally, on the far left, we have a sympathetic waiter offering the soon-to-be-jilted Lilly a much-needed drink. It's a perfect noir tableau; arguably as rich and evocative as Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks,” the famous painting inspired by the film's source material.
The Killers is an adaptation of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, though it would be more accurate to say that the first ten minutes are an adaptation and the rest is an expansion. The short story presents a tense scenario in which two professional killers (played in the film by William Conrad, Gunsmoke and Charles McGraw, Spartacus) visit a small-town diner in search of the elusive Swede. One of the diner's employees knows that Swede is staying a local hotel, and goes there to warn him. Swede accepts the news with weary resignation, saying that he did something wrong once and that there's nothing he can do to avoid his fate. That's where the short story ends, but the film is just getting started.
Admirably, director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with some uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks) refuse to free Swede from the fate he resigned himself to in the Hemingway tale. Swede allows himself to be killed without putting up a fight, and the remainder of the movie finds an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien, The Wild Bunch) attempting to figure out who Swede was and why he was killed. It's an almost entirely original film, taking the Hemingway tale as a first reel and then finding its own way forward.
The Killers largely plays out as a series of flashbacks, as the investigator meets a host of different people from Swede's past and listens to their stories. Though these stories have overlapping characters and build a single narrative, they also play like self-contained short films highlighting certain angles of Swede's life. We meet his lovers, friends, enemies and business associates, all of whom have seen a different side of him and have different feelings about him. In each sequence, Lancaster does a fine job of maintaining a consistent through line while exploring the different versions of Swede various people knew. It's not as dynamic as the actor's signature performances, but it's certainly easy to see why his career took off in a heartbeat.
Almost all of the key performances have something of value to offer. Most of the supporting players have only a handful of scenes to work with, but they find such interesting notes to play. I love Vince Barnett's turn as Swede's prison cellmate Charleston, who offers fond memories of stargazing from the confines of a jail cell and less fond memories of watching Swede drawn into illicit dealings with a shady crowd. Albert Dekker does good work as “Big Jim” Kolfax, the sort of bad guy who keeps his villainy tucked behind a veneer of calm professionalism. The finest supporting turn comes from Gardner, serving up a memorably poisonous femme fatale who belongs on all sorts of “noir's greatest hits” lists. She owns every scene she appears in, from her sly entry to her desperate exit.
Admittedly, the movie loses something when it loses Hemingway's guidance. The first scene is a masterpiece of suspense, offering a level of sweat-inducing tension that isn't matched by anything else in the film (though it was later matched by a strikingly similar homage in David Cronenberg's masterful A History of Violence). Thankfully, the movie never loses its keen sense of atmosphere: the crisp black-and-white cinematography makes terrific use of shadows, the editing boasts a near-poetic elegance and Miklos Rozsa's moody score (complete with a motif for the eponymous killers that would later be transformed into the iconic Dragnet theme) offers a compelling reminder that the composer was capable of so much more than grandiose themes for biblical/historical epics.
There's no question that The Killers is a noir staple, but it falls just short of being a masterpiece. That's mostly due to Veiller's screenplay, which struggles to make the film's investigation-themed framing device interesting and which is only intermittently successful in its attempts to serve up Chandler-esque hard-boiled dialogue (“He's dead now – except he's breathing!”). The scenes between O'Brien and his boss (Donald MacBride, The Seven Year Itch) are merely uneventful for most of the film's running time (almost all of them focus on O'Brien pleading for more time to finish the investigation), but their last scene concludes the film in a frustratingly off-key manner. It's a jubilant, jokey finish that celebrates the triumph of O'Brien's investigation rather than mourning the tragedy of Swede's life, as if the filmmakers suddenly forgot what their movie was all about. Still, this misstep isn't enough to erase (or even significantly dampen) the power of the film's best moments.
At its finest, The Killers is a battered, melancholy tale of a life slowly spiraling down the drain: a series of betrayals, failures, missed opportunities and careless slip-ups leading to one final, crippling mistake. Why doesn't Swede try to run when he learns that the killers are after him? Because the rest of his life has made one thing clear: no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he cannot escape his fate.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 1946