A masterful example of the quintessential film noir, The Killers has gone down in history as one of the best works from the immensely popular genre. Based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, this was the film that landed Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner unprecedented fame and success. However, the greatest achievement of The Killers is that it has firmly retained its cinematic magic even after all these years.
Right from the very beginning, The Killers keeps the audience on its toes and confronts them with quasi-surreal imagery. Presented like the contents of a bizarre dream, two professional assassins casually walk into a small-town diner in order to capture and kill a man known as the Swede (Lancaster). Within minutes, the atmospheric silence ignites into a cloud of chaos. A hostage situation arises out of nowhere and is defused just as quickly. The protagonist is brutally gunned down in the first ten minutes. Everything falls apart.
This initial spiral into beautiful absurdism plays a vital role in the momentum of the film’s subsequent discursive pathways. We follow an insurance investigator (played by Edmond O’Brien) who enters a dangerous world of crime and intrigue while trying his best to pick up the fragmented pieces of the narrative. Unlike many other suspense thrillers whose success hinges on the excitement of the final destination, The Killers is all about the journey and what a journey it is indeed!
Throughout his life, Hemingway was a very vocal critic of the Hollywood factory and often criticised films that were based on his works. However, The Killers is a significant exception to Hemingway’s general disdain for the machinations of the film industry. He famously wrote: “It is a good picture and the only good picture ever made of a story of mine.”
The screenplay, although credited to Anthony Veiller, was also co-written by the likes of John Huston and Richard Brooks. A major reason behind the efficiency of The Killers is the slick screenplay which manages to capture the poetry of Hemingway’s art.
Structured through the flashbacks and recollections of various characters, we are given fleeting visions of the past life of our dead protagonist. Director Robert Siodmak arranges these accounts in the form of poignant puzzle pieces which come together to form a mesmerising gestalt instead of a mere summation. Ranging from ex-lovers to prison inmates, The Killers functions like a fictional documentary that attempts to reconstruct the impenetrable mythology of a film noir mystery.
There are philosophical reflections sprinkled in there as well, most evident in the figure of the Swede’s cellmate in prison who spends his time studying constellations which invoke the memory of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The Killers has a little bit of everything – precursors to heist films, tributes to the choreography of silent cinema as well as the ethereal presence of Ava Gardner as the delightfully self-centred femme fatale. It has moments of humour and it has just as tragic sequences which have the power to move audiences.
More importantly, The Killers stays true to the spirit of Hemingway while also fashioning its own identity. Siodmak would reach greater artistic heights with later projects like Criss Cross (1949) but it’s The Killers that will forever be remembered as the “Citizen Kane of film noir.”