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The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
The title of Robert Sidomak’s The Killers comes from a famed short story written by Ernest Hemingway, and its opening scenes are a direct dramatization of that tale of unspecified regret. In them, Burt Lancaster plays a Swede with an inexplicable death wish. In print, the yarn has a terse, hard-edged quality that’s lyric in its haunting brutality. When readers are left at the end of the story, outside of the Swede’s resignation, they’re left with one of literature’s most chilling unanswered mysteries. This adaptation uses the story’s mystery as a jumping off point, and attempts to provide an adequate solution to a question that was probably better left open-ended. It adopts a story structure similar to Citizen Kane in which a series of flashbacks highlight an intrepid investigator attempts to solve the mystery of the Swede’s regret. As such, it’s an unfaithful, actively harmful adaptation of Hemingway’s story, but it’s also a film that has considerable virtues when one looks at it in a context that’s divorced from the story that serves as its basis.
The flowery Hollywoodized dialog of Siodmak’s film (e.g. “Mister, when it comes to dates, 1492 is the only one that I can remember!”) stands in sharp contrast to the terse, perfunctory nature of Hemingway’s prose, but that’s because The Killers feels less like a literary adaptation than textbook noir. Thematically, it’s similar to just about every classic work of the genre. Through its futile quest, it reminds us that love corrupts, that the pursuit of truth can often be made irrelevant by the world (specifically here by a business strategy that assumes loss due to anticipated dishonesty), and that the suggestion that a new start is possible is frequently an illusion. Its protagonist, a boxer who’s been chewed up and spit out by underworld society, is classic. Visually, the movie inhabits a world where each rare instance of natural light only reinforces the prevailing dark. Its structure, as noted, relies on formula, yet realizes that that formula can be satisfying because its series of mini-monologues lends itself to an endless parade of great performances by character actors.
Siodmak directs skillfully enough that the dialog feels appropriate, though. His handling of the film is solid throughout, and memorable moments are frequent. In one noteworthy shot, he presents Lancaster’s shifting romantic fixation by shifting the framing of three actors. Another skillful sequence shows the action of a heist on screen while a voiceover recounts how the news media described the robbery. That’s not to say that The Killers is Kane’s technical equal, or anything, but that it acquits itself well as a showcase for its director. Trying to make a feature out of Hemingway’s story, which held its brevity and elusiveness as one of its prime assets, is a thankless task, to be certain. Despite the predictability of the story’s eventual solution to Hemingway’s existential dilemma (think tortured romance), The Killers is effective in most of its particulars along the way. In summation, it’s those details of performance, structure, and image, and the convincing world of dread it creates that makes The Killers a movie that works in spite of any betrayal of its source material.