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Review: The Killers (1946)

Written in the 1920s, when mobsters were a constant scourge to America’s society, “The Killers,” though containing no more than 3,000 words, reflects palpably the spine-chilling horror and relentless hostility that accompany such organised crime. The novella bears testament to Ernest Hemingway’s unparalleled genius, in that the author’s penchant for laconicness creates the most timeless of beauty. It is a bracing thriller that comprises barely any descriptions of the incident but short, impetuous, unnervingly comical conversations between the characters. Hemingway’s purposely-designed ending- the built-up towards the final climax is perfectly dismantled by a wanting of dénouement- is the prime example of a great suspense.

In a 1947 film directed by Robert Siodmak, Hemingway’s story becomes a point of departure whereon screenwriter Anthony Veiller appropriates the authorial voice and fills the audience in of the reason an ex-boxer, an outstanding debut from Burt Lancaster, is targeted by two hit-men, played with due eeriness by Charles McGraw and William Conrad. Hemingway’s creation is still preserved in its entirety in the first 20 minutes of the film, with the actors carrying out the hard-edgedness of the original with much brilliance and adroitness.

The remainder revolves around the unravelling of the mystery. Edmond O’ Brien is fitting for the role of a calm and calculated life insurance investigator, who searches high and low in his dogged pursuit of solving the puzzle. Through flashback the ex-boxer is revealed as a ruined man doomed the moment he claps eyes on a femme fatale named Kitty Collins, the first breakout role for Ava Gardner. He takes to bad courses, joins a mob, confronts the mobsters and flees with the booty when he realises he is double-crossed; only to be double-crossed again later by, unsurprisingly, his beloved Kitty. It is slightly disappointing of how Veiller recklessly bastardised Hemingway’s masterpiece by conceiving the backstory of the ex-boxer with stock materials that were particularly favoured by 1940s’ film noir.

Hackneyed though it seems the picture still has its sterling moments, and is effusively praised by Hemingway. Indebting to Siodmak’s dexterity, the film retains much of the suspenseful elements that Hemingway would’ve approved of if he were having in mind a more detailed version of the novella. The mystery is pared down layer by layer, which increases greatly the entertainment and excitement that are otherwise worn off if the tempo is unwisely hastened. Exceptional performance by the leading cast- Lancaster is smouldering, wistful, tragic-heroic; Gardner never disappoints with her seamless shifting between the sultry and the duplicitous- also helps exalting the status of the film to that of the classic. The score is composed by the prolific Miklos Rozsa.

Those who maintain the conviction of always giving the adaptations a wide berth are still encouraged to experience the first 20 minutes of the film after they read the novella. The thrilling sensation of seeing the immortalised words of Hemingway being so gruffly bandied about is simply ineffable. Avid readers of Hemingway are bound to be delighted.


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