POSTMODERN FILM APPROACH
THE KILLERS (Part 1)
Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, William Conrad
Robert Siodmak, Mark Hellinger, John Huston, Ernest Hemingway
According to Lee Server's biography of Ava Gardner, Broadway sharpie turned Hollywood hotshot Mark Hellinger well understood the commercial possibilities of Hemingway's twelve page short story The Killers. His judgment proved correct – in reflection it's easy to ask, Why would anyone doubt the assessment of a writer who died at forty four and yet somehow managed to get a major Broadway theater named after himself? (Nowadays the building that was once The Mark Hellinger Theater is The Times Square Church. (Mark Hellinger sounds like a truly fascinating personality; the book that seems to be a principal source of information about him, by Jim Bishop, isn't easy to find and, when you can find one on, say, eBay, the prices are preposterous.)) Server quotes Hellinger: "The exploitation values are gigantic."
What he meant was that from a marketing perspective the picture would have to piggyback along on Hemingway's name. Screenplay adaptation duties were shared by Tony Veiller, an old Hollywood pro, and John Huston, who had to be anonymous and appear on no paperwork because he was still serving in the army at the time.
Veiller and Huston produced a hell of a script, a real humdinger of a noir with a double and triple cross for the ages. Director Robert Siodmak, being talked about in some quarters as the next Hitchcock around that time, is in peak form here. This man knows how to make a movie – in particular, he knows how to pull performances out of his cast. This film has numerous supporting parts and bit parts and every actor is spot on in almost every case. Virtually nobody is miscast. (Insofar as it is possible for acting to contribute to the worth of a film, it's the supporting parts and bit parts that make it happen, not the starring roles.)
But I'm not the sort of film goer who judges performances. I'd like to be one of the critics Kolker had in mind when he wrote, in A Cinema of Loneliness, that "The serious critic may talk about the director, but the reviewer and the publicist still sell the picture by the star." Fortunately Siodmak is strong in every aspect of directing. This film contains one of the great tracking shots in cinematic history, in my opinion – the robbery of the hat company, which we see on the screen while we hear, on the soundtrack, the insurance company executive reading an old newspaper account of it!
That's not all. Siodmak employs a kind of Ophuls lite style at several points in the picture. One example is the way the camera observes Nick Adams running through backyards and hopping fences from the Swede's rented room, then retreats back into the room itself to observe the Swede in bed. This same strategy is in force when Riordan the insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien, who is actually the main star of the film despite third billing) seeks out the hotel maid the Swede has designated as his beneficiary and she tells him the story of the night she encountered the Swede in his room.
Still more – Siodmak has a flair for atmosphere and environment. Witness the statue in the lobby of the Atlantic Casualty Company, or that of the green cat in The Green Cat. Impressive indeed!
There's a major problem here of another kind, however, which is this: The Killers is one of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. It is meant to be a chapter in the overall development of young Nick Adams – universally understood to be Hemingway's alter ego – into a mature adult. In the film it is impossible to get any sense of this at all. This movie doesn't give a hoot about Nick Adams. Nick Adams is a minor, minor character in the drama- he's there, he serves a Hollywood screenplay checklist function (he runs to the Swede to warn him about the killers, thus giving us the opportunity to see the depth of the Swede's apathy), but then he disappears .. The screenwriters are therefore forced to take the picture into areas that Hemingway never had any desire to investigate.
At the risk of repeating myself please allow me to quote Gary Fishgall's biography of Burt Lancaster: "Screenwriter Anthony Veiller and his unbilled collaborator, director-screenwriter John Huston (who was still in the Army and technically unable to take film assignments), effectively turned The Killers into the basis for a film noir classic. " Hemingway is one of the few authors who has ever had movie star type name recognition – everyone else connected with the picture, as I already observed, was essentially a no name with the general movie going public from Lancaster to Gardner to Siodmak to Hellinger. Thus, while it was absolutely necessary to have the Hemingway name there in a big way, the final product really doesn't have much to do with Hemingway's story thematically. The story, in reality, is a macguffin, a pretext used to kick off the picture.