Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. It’s written in his typical style; simple, blunt, direct, free of glossy words and phrases. Hollywood released two film adaptations based on it. Both turn this bare bones story into a fully formed narrative with distinct characters.
Two men walk into a diner and casually discuss their plan to kill a man named Ole Anderson. A boy in the diner hurries to Ole’s place to warn him, but he’s mournfully resigned to his fate. He expects them. He doesn’t attempt to escape and he doesn’t explain why they’re after him.
The first film version was released by Universal in 1946 and directed by Robert Siodmak. The second directed by Don Siegel was released in 1964.
This is the moody and mysterious guy at school that everyone has a crush on. It epitomizes the look of 40s noir.
Ole Anderson or “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster in his Hollywood debut) continues to lay in bed after receiving the warning. He runs his hands over his face where beads of sweat have started to pool. The killers arrive and he bolts upright, waiting for them. The air is tense and soon they’re right outside the door. They lose no time in executing him. That’s what Ole’s murder is – an execution. He’s defenseless in bed before a firing squad of two. Once the ear splitting gunfire ceases, his arm, hanging limply to the bed post, falls.
Ole’s story unfolds in flashbacks, pieced together by Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an insurance agent investigating the case. Edmond O’Brien is the glue that holds this film together, just as he did in later supporting roles. His career had stalled when he returned from WWII, but Ann Sheridan (my queen) told him to get in touch with Mark Hellinger, the producer on The Killers, and that’s how he landed the role of Reardon. He’s so invested in Ole and by extension, so is the audience.
Ole was a boxer who quit after a hand injury. He had a girlfriend named Lily (Virginia Christine) and a good friend on the police force, Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene).
There’s a melancholy air hovering over Ole even before the murder or his involvement with shady characters. It’s almost as if he’s gotten hit just as much out of the ring as in. Burt Lancaster resisted typecasting as a swaggering swashbuckler, but most of his roles were atypical. Particularly in noirs he was the vulnerable man undone by his foolhardy devotion to a woman. It’s that imposing physique of his that makes his vulnerability even more potent.
One night Ole and Lily attend a party and he meets Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner in her breakout role). Well, they don’t “meet”; Ole gets knocked over just by sight. She’s got this otherworldly beauty and Lily doesn’t even register in Ole’s vision anymore. Ole’s eyes are fiercely emotive; he’s yearning for Kitty so badly but she doesn’t even acknowledge him.
Ava Gardner had the kind of beauty that made you gasp. Naturally her talent was underestimated as a result. But there’s also that sly, smoky voice of hers. One of my favorite stories is about Ava’s screen test with MGM, when Louis B. Mayer famously quipped: “She can’t act. She can’t sing. She can’t talk. She’s terrific!” When she first came out west, Ava had a thick North Carolina accent and no one could understand anything she said. Lessons improved her voice and it became one of the finest speaking voices I’ve ever heard. There’s a giggle in Ava’s voice even when she’s not laughing. So I think it’s Kitty’s face and voice that are siren songs to poor Ole.
As the femme fatale of the piece, Kitty is destructive but coy. She enchants and deceives all the men in her orbit. She’s the most intelligent person because she uses her feminine gifts to get ahead. It’s just too bad for any poor slobs who stray across her path. However, she doesn’t actually win in the end. It’s obvious how Ava’s fame skyrocketed after this, and unfortunately tagged her as a femme fatale off screen too. Kitty has warmth, but she’s cold and heartless too.
Ole ends up serving jail time for Kitty, and when he gets out, he’s recruited for a heist by Big Jim (Albert Dekker). Kitty reappears too, as Jim’s girl. Ole unfortunately but not surprisingly gets duped and attempts to double cross the double crossers. But he’s sealed his doom.
This is the story of a man who got taken in by criminals and in the end, didn’t run. Hemingway’s story may be sparse, but the question is just too tantalizing. Why did he let them kill him?
This is the rebellious cool guy at school who always has a cigarette dangling from his insolent mouth. It’s emblematic of neo noir in color.
This film still wants to answer that question, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the killers themselves.
Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) arrive at a school for the blind and inquire about a teacher there. They terrorize the receptionist (Virginia Christine as Lily in the 1946 film). Like the killers in the original film, these guys are dressed in neat suits. They’re professional hitmen after all. While they’re more outwardly violent, this doesn’t make the other killers any more tame or less menacing in comparison. Because these are the main characters, they’re more firmly established.
This is the picture that emerges of these two: Charlie is someone you wouldn’t want to be around even when he’s not hunting someone down. Lee Marvin had this quality of immediately connecting to audiences despite, or maybe because of his brash displays of violence. It’s repulsive that he attacks a helpless blind woman.
Lee is younger and laid back, but there’s a tension in his humor. He’s slightly off kilter and that makes him dangerous. He’s sneakier.
The two kill their target Johnny North (John Cassavetes) with no preamble. They shoot Johnny in his classroom where a dozen blind men are still struggling to leave. Charlie and Lee just do not care. Everyone is expendable. This scene along with the preceding one very clearly distinguishes this film from its predecessor. And this time, Johnny also doesn’t flee.
Charlie is suspicious. How can a man allow himself to be killed without making a desperate getaway? Why does he expect them? He and Lee embark on an investigation. The trail leads them to myriad faces before they reach the mastermind: Ronald Reagan!
This was Reagan’s final film before he entered politics. Fun fact: Lee Marvin hated him. No one is entirely sure why. Reportedly this hatred surfaced in the 1950s when they appeared on a television program. According to Lee, Reagan “couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.” Were his politics any better? You decide!
Of course, there was also a woman. Sheila (Angie Dickinson) put on a good show of being in love with Johnny, but like most illusions, it was shattered. She betrayed him for the loot. She betrayed him for the future president!
This cast is just as memorable as the original film’s. I love Clu Gulager and this is still the only film of his that I’ve seen.
Reagan is a little stiff but ultimately convincing.
John Cassavetes is morose but somehow appealingly so. Maybe it’s because the glamorous and adrenaline punching world of race car driving takes center stage. Johnny North is fatalistic even before his body is riddled with bullets.
Angie Dickinson is gorgeous and so chilly as Sheila. She’s constantly grasping for chances to save her own neck even if it means trading Jack’s (Reagan) life for hers or lying through her teeth to Charlie. I mean, she actually thinks she can appeal to his sympathies.
Lee Marvin is the undisputed star of this film. You’re transfixed from the moment he first makes his entrance. Charlie Strom is one of those enigmatic figures who comes alive and joins the gallery of uniquely sadistic Marvin bad guys/anti-heroes. He hadn’t yet attained stardom at this point, but it was waiting for him following this film.
“Lady, I don’t have the time.”
Nothing phases this guy. Not even a gunshot wound.
I can’t decide which is better because both films have their unique assets. They can’t resist answering the question, and they do it with style and substance.
I wrote this post for the Film Noir blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Click on the banner for more great posts!