There are two versions of The Killers. The first utilises the short story by Ernest Hemingway for a never to be forgotten opening scene. The 1964 Don Siegel version abandoned Hemingway and used the remainder of the first movie as the basis for an alternative and reworked story. Both movies are great and have qualities that the other lacks. The second version has a brutal edge, Lee Marvin terrifying just about everyone, a fabulous climax and a convincing relationship between the male victim and the femme fatale. The 1946 version has the directorial style of noir master Robert Siodmak, dazzling black and white photography, the complicated eleven-part flashback structure, a unique payroll robbery shot in one take and with an overhead camera, that marvellous opening scene, and, of course Ava Gardner.
There is no doubt that Gardner was beautiful. The evidence consists of a trail of broken men that straddles continents. In the end, bored with crushing male hearts, she settled for the company of the domestic cat. Actresses have testified that no one arrived on set in the early hours of the morning looking more glamorous than Gardner. And yet in The Killers that beauty only convinces briefly, in her first scene when we see her through the eyes of the girlfriend of Lancaster and at the end of the film when the callousness and treachery of Kitty Collins is revealed. One of the great mysteries of The Killers occurs in the scene when Kitty tells insurance investigator Jim Reardon about what happened after the robbery. Reardon has a work ethic, integrity and heroic status but for a moment we wonder if he might crumble and fall into the arms of Kitty. He tells her how he would have liked to have known the old Kitty Collins, and they make arrangements for the two of them to visit a hotel. This may be innocent. Reardon thinks he is helping Kitty to go into hiding. But there is a curious look on the face of Reardon, and we wonder. In that moment Ava Gardner looks like a woman who can conquer all.
The puzzle is why the beauty of Gardner is less impressive in the other scenes. The wardrobe may be a factor. After the party scene and until Collins meets Reardon the clothes that Gardner wears are not flattering. In her meeting with Reardon it is different. Collins wears an elegant trilby that is intended to make her appear respectable. The brim of the hat looks desperate to touch her eyes. More important than previous wardrobe errors may be the presence of Burt Lancaster. He was as handsome as Gardner was beautiful. His athletic frame was packed with charisma and physical strength. We can believe in the more ordinary looking Reardon making a Faustian pact with Kitty. Lancaster looks like the kind of man who would dictate his terms. Something odd happens in their encounters because Gardner should be the centre of her scenes with Lancaster, and she is not.
All this, though, is an aside. The Killers is a masterpiece. It makes the occasional stumble, and not all the cameos are flawless, but the movie is a product of the combined efforts of some fabulous talents. Anthony Veiller is the name mentioned in the credits but Richard Brooks and John Huston wrote the sharp script. They even managed to keep the tone of the short story by Hemingway. The Killers was the only movie adapted from his work that the author liked. Papa, though, would have been aware of its flaws. As an insurance investigator, Reardon has duties well beyond his pay grade. He integrates himself into the police force, gives orders to bureaucrats who should tell him to go away, and has shootouts with gangsters. The weakest scene in the movie involves hiding stolen jewellery in a bowl of soup. The idea that Kitty Collins could be arrested for wearing a brooch that happens to be stolen is nonsense. The policeman rinses the soup stained brooch in a cup of black coffee. Somehow that moment sums up the movie. If there are weak moments, artistic redemption is only ever a few minutes away.
The glories can be cherished. We watch a flashback of the payroll robbery as the boss of Reardon reads a newspaper account of what happened. The single high overhead shot shows men going into work, the actual robbery and the escape into waiting cars when a policeman is killed. The smooth and remote role of the camera is not just impressive but important. The episode or event exists now as an isolated memory. The notion that the past is fractured and unreliable is emphasised by the eleven-part flashback structure. Some characters even have more than one flashback, and the revelations are often given by unreliable narrators. Blinkie tells his tale when he is close to death and rambling. Charleston is drunk and sentimental when he remembers his friendship with the Swede. Their accounts are not barriers to the truth. The camera of Siodmak exists as an independent force and it both edits and amplifies what the characters say.
Nothing in The Killers is as good as the opening scene. The wide-angle deep focus shot of the gangster behind the diner window is almost as great as the dialogue of Hemingway. The payroll robbery, though, comes close. The voice over makes it clear that what happens is beyond the imaginations of the insurance men. The final shootout between the gangsters and police is not as good but the music makes it memorable. We hear a frantic and strange jazz piano. Reardon escapes death but he has witnessed chaos rather than defeated villains. The music, like the short pre-credits sequence, was in 1946 revolutionary. Siodmak was a jazz fan, and in the earlier film noir Phantom Lady he created one of the best jazz musical sequences in cinema. The Killers also has a great hard-hitting theme tune that must have inspired Elmer Bernstein and others.
And if that is not enough, there is gang member Dum Dum Clarke. Jack Lambert is the actor who plays Dum Dum. There is a physical resemblance between Lambert and popular Liverpool comedian John Bishop. The two men have a similar manner and way of talking. They both have the confidence of outsiders, those men and women who know that their presence puts others on edge. When Lambert and Bishop talk it as if they are waiting for the words to roll off the edges of their tongues. They act like men whose next step will even be a surprise for them. While all that happens they give you a condescending look. Lambert is perfect as the damaged, wary but still superior Dum Dum. He is so good that George Kennedy impersonated Lambert in the 1960 movie Charade.
The Killers is designed to entertain and it succeeds but there is a cynicism that suggests more than mere fatalism about human nature. Money is important in the world of The Killers. The Swede is a boxer but breaks his hand. The reaction of his fight manager is that the accident will cost him $10,000. The fight manager consoles himself with the idea that he will find another fighter who will earn him his lost income. The policeman who is a friend of the Swede suggests a job in the police. He quotes the salary and pension rights. The robbers view the other gang members as people who will earn them money. The boss of Reardon explains how the insurance business operates. The explanation is meant as a motivational message but at the end of the film we discover that the success of insurance investigator Reardon will have no impact on the fortune of the company and its customers.
People are there to be used. In the final scene Collins pleads to her husband not to die and ‘come back’. Her desire is that she will be able to use him to fake her innocence. When the Swede walks home after his boxing defeat, he walks into a tunnel of light where he disappears. The camera shot is marvellous and it indicates the kind of moment that Proust described as a small death. In The Killers death and rebirth are defined as those moments when we change how we earn money. Reardon, of course, is dedicated to his job, which is to collect money for the insurance company. Kitty uses various lies to persuade the Swede to betray the gang but her offer consists of money and her. This is a romance that consists of two people who can be bought and who set out to buy each other. When Kitty sings a song about love, she forgets the words in the verses and hums the tune. Her mystery is rooted in ice-cold avarice.
The Killers is now over 70 years old. Since then we have had books about how first the market became monetised, how only profit could determine business decisions, and later how society itself was being shaped by monetary decisions. All decisions including how we treat people had to be determined by profit and the return from capital. Think of it that way, and it becomes obvious why in the USA the subprime crisis was allowed to happen and why financial executives ignored toxic debt. In the UK we have a Government that believes the NHS should exist as a business that will yield profits and income streams to their plutocratic friends rather than provide care for the sick. Not everyone who watches The Killers will think the long-standing corruption in human behaviour is sourced by a twisted relationship with cash. But if what happens in the film is nothing more than a consequence of flawed human nature, our reliance on money to make moral decisions is only making a bad situation worse.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.