The Greatest films of all time: 42. The Killers (1946)(USA)


The first film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story of the same name, written for the screen by John Huston, Richard Brooks, and Anthony Veiller and directed by Robert Siodmak creates an iconic of multi-genres in cinema. The film with the team collaboration of “Burt Lancaster” as the “Swede” in his first cinematic role and “Ava Gardner” as “Kitty” in her first major role, and with the amazing cinematography of “Woody Bredell” and the perfect music score of the Hungarian-American composer “Miklos Rozsa” has made a rare cinematic creation and one of the most unaccredited great films of all time.


While the short story of Ernest Hemingway was very simple, minimalistic and with not much of a plot, and less than 3,000 words, in deliberation of the great American novelist, the film was written and screened with multi-levels plots, and ongoing back and forth the best flashbacks, becomes a rare classic of film noir and beyond. The film is a prototype of many gangster, detective, murder and thriller films of the later years, including “Touch of Evil”, and many Martin Scorsese’s films such as “Good Fellas”.


The film is also the first one to have the protagonist being killed right from the beginning, where Hemingway left off the story, then through repeated back and forth flashback telling how the story ended to his murder. The film is not just a prototype of suspense murder and film noir genre, but an original of boxing film mixed in the murder gangster story like “Raging Bull”. It is also original in being a murder mystery solving by extensive detective search. The film is also original to include a femme fatal, “Ava Gardner” opposite the protagonist, in a love triangle with “Lilly” played by Virigina Christine as Swede’s former girlfriend.

A Classic Masterpiece:

The film opens with a great opening scene of two hitmen, Max and Al enter the small town of Brentwood at night to kill the “Swede”, a former boxer. The opening scene with its shadowy lighting cinematography is a reminder of the later years films such as Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and “The Third Man” of Carol Reed, both starring “Orson Welles”. The killing of the Swede or “Ole Anderson” after being warned by his co-worker, by the hitmen right at the start of the film was a novelty and surprise in filmmaking at the time.


Then the film through ongoing back and forth flashbacks through interviews, reveals the life story of Swede and how he ended being killed. The plot is from the beginning to almost the end is a mystery and detective problem solving played well by “Edmond O’Brien”, a life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (for Swedd’s life insurance policy) and the detective Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) in the murder of Swede, a nice guy a liked boxer and a lover with no apparent motifs for his killing. This main line of the film story, all added to the film that not existed in Hemingway’s story, with its repeated flashbacks is a reminder of the search in the meaning of “Rose Bud” in “Citizen Kane”, but crafted more perfectly and beautifully.


Dropping off his boxing career immaturely due to a right hand injury, Swede attracted to the femme fatale “Kitty” (Ava Gardner) and leaving his girlfriend Lily (Virginia Christine), he gets muddled in the bad guys and mobs gang, stealing jewelries for Kitty, that ends in his arrest and three years in jail. After his release, he continues hanging out with the mobs and associates in a major robbery, stealing a quarter of millions. When he finds out that he has been double crossed by the mobs and not being shared in the money, he steals the whole sum form them at the gun point and flees. When meeting again in Atlantic City, Kitty who’s in fact the girlfriend of the mastermind of the robbery, Big Jim Colefax (Albert Dekker) takes all the money and disappears, creating a second double cross and more twists and thrills in the film.    


The film is innovating and surprising all the way with its plot of every members of the gang at the end being killed by each other, and the hitmen by the police, leaving at he end Kitty to beg Colefax in his deathbed, for saying she has been innocence. The last scene played superbly by Ava Gardner, crying for pardon ends the film in a Shakespearian guilt washing off strive. The film was the only one Ernest Hemingway liked of all his novels film adaptations, as added more sophisticated plot, from the killing of Swede on forward, where Hemingway left off, perhaps for the readers to add the rest to the story themselves.  

Despite several direct adaptations under the same title of “The Killers” by the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky in 1956, a TV film in 1959, a film by the Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, and a few short films by Todd Huskisson in 1998, Jae Yu in 2001 and a most recent by Russell and Murphy in 2008, the film is one of the most unrecognized great films of all time. Unlike the future similar gangster films, the protagonist is not a gangster or a killer, but a likable and quiet man, after failing as a boxer, attempting suicide, but rescued by a maid, to whom he leaves his life insurance money to. In brief, The Kilers” is one of the most survived films of all time that has never lost any of its livelihood and freshness.



In closing remarks “The Kilers” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “The Killers” is original in many aspects of plot writing with many twists and thrills, puzzle solving through repeated flashbacks. The film is multi-genre of gang or mob film, robbery heist, murders and killings, detective, murder mystery, melodrama, femme fetal, suspense and thriller.  
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Killers” is also multi-level and in its screenplay that though adapted from Hemingway’s work, but with the added most of the story makes it an original script. The superb acts, cinematography, direction and above all the musical score of Miklos Rozsa, makes it a perfect film to watch even today.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “The Killers” has been on several of its direct adaptations, and indirect influence that the film had in later years on other films and filmmakers, sadly without much being accredited.
  4. Survival: “The Killers” has survived well to this very day not only through its impact, but to be watched even in its black and white original and being enjoyed, thrilled and surprised.


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