Introduction to The Killers
By Billy Ray
Thank you. And thank you for coming.
“The Killers” has all the hallmarks of a classic film noir. Its photography is shadowy and haunting. It’s got a double-crossing dame, characters with names like Blinky and Dum-Dum and The Swede, a cop who lights matches on the bottom of his shoe... And everyone in it behaves as if in serious need of a Guidance Counselor or Life-Coach.
But it has something else too, something no other movie in the history of movies ever had: it has Burt Lancaster, playing a sap. That was a one-off.
“The Killers” began as a short story written by Ernest Hemingway for Scribners Magazine in 1927. It was one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories – written about an American boy quietly trying to re-build his psyche after the horrors of World War One. Adams, who appears as a character early in the movie, is like the country he is meant to represent: innocent, decent, and unable to prevent an oncoming tragedy.
The first ten minutes or so of the film came from Hemingway’s story. Everything else was completely invented without any source material at all. Not surprisingly, it was the ONLY film ever adapted from Hemingway’s work that he actually liked.
He’d sold its film rights to a producer named Mark Hellinger, who paid 36,500 dollars for it. Hellinger was a former syndicated columnist and war correspondent who had once been kicked out of high school for leading a student strike.
He brought on several writers. One was Richard Brooks. Another was John Huston – whose work had to go uncredited because he was at the time under contract to Warner Brothers.
So we’ve got a producer actually going out of pocket, and a writer not seeking credit – proof that “The Killers” did indeed come from a bygone era.
The credited screenwriter on the movie was Anthony Veiller, who also wrote “The Witching Hour” and “Gunga Din,” among others. Oddly, despite being dead for 45 years, and despite the hoopla surrounding this screening – Veiller has somehow seen his starmeter on IMDB slip by 15% this week.
To direct, Hellinger selected Robert Siodmak, dead now for 37 years, whose starmeter on IMDB has slipped by 18% this week.
Siodmak was born in Dresden, Germany. Like so many of the directors who changed Hollywood, he fled here – managing to get out of Hitler’s Germany in 1939. Just as Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz did, Siodmak arrived with a lot of darkness in his rear-view mirror. It informed his films.
He never actually used the term film noir – none of those film-makers did... but it became their voice, their means of documenting something very troubling in the human experience.
These are movies shot in stunning, stark shadows – the roots of which came from German expressionism. They tell stories that always seem to say, in the words of Dashiell Hammett... that “ours is not a fragrant world.”
In it, guys are always on the take, and dames are always on the make. Burt Lancaster’s Swede is doomed, and he knows it – because he’s greedy, talentless, not quite smart enough... and an utter fool in the presence of the ridiculously beautiful Ava Gardner.
It was, by the way, Lancaster’s first movie role ever. Prior to this he’d worked in a circus, had been with Mark Clark’s Army in Italy in World War II, and had done some theatre – before being discovered by an agent who would later become his partner, Harold Hecht.
Ava Gardner had appeared uncredited in 17 films before “The Killers.” She would never go un-noticed again. Check out her smile in the party scene as she talks about how much she hates fighting. Poor Swede never had a chance.
Guys in this kind of movie never do. It’s why we love them.
In Act One, Swede dies alone – with no one to leave as a beneficiary except a chambermaid he met only once – no one at all to weep for him. The only person trying to find out what happened to Swede is an insurance man named Reardon – and Swede didn’t even have a policy with the guy. It’s an oil company Reardon represents – Swede just happened to die while working in one of their filling stations.
But Reardon becomes determined to find out what happened to him, in the same way Sam Spade had to find out what happened to his dead partner in “The Maltese Falcon,” even though he hated the guy. As Bogie said, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.”
That’s noir too.
“The Killers,” billed on its poster as “The Most Suspenseful Picture of All Time!”, was a commercial and critical success. It was released in 1946, alongside such movies as:
To Each His Own
The Razor’s Edge
The Seventh Veil
It’s a Wonderful Life
...and The Best Years of Our Lives, which swept the Oscars that year.
Apparently, no one had yet gotten the “Drama is Dead” memo currently blowing through Hollywood.
Cinematographer Elwood Bredell was not nominated for his work on the movie, although his Scene One shot of the two killers crossing a street and entering a diner should have done the trick. Bredell made 75 movies in his career – eight of them in a single year, 1938.
Editor Arthur Hilton was nominated for his work on the film. So was Veiller for his screenplay – God bless them both for the number of times “The Killers” call somebody “Bright Boy” in the film’s first scene.
Miklos Rosza was nominated for his score, parts of which were used decades later in the tv series “Dragnet.”
Siodmak was nominated for his direction – the only nomination in a long career that included “Son of Dracula.”
Six days after wrapping “The Killers,” he was drafted by Universal to bail out a troubled production called “Swell Guy.”
And Mark Hellinger, who’d gone out of pocket to get the whole thing rolling, died less than a year after the movie was released, at the age of 43.
May all their STARmeters tick up tonight. Enjoy the movie.
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in “The Killers.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”).
Billy Ray introduces “The Killers.”
Juliet Rózsa, daughter of composer Miklós Rózsa, speaks about “The Killers.”