In honor of Burt Lancaster's 103th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the film that introduced me to the wonderful "Mr. Muscles and Teeth," which was also the film that introduced him to the world all those years ago. Since this is a film noir, it comes at a perfect time for Noirvember.
|Original release poster|
Through flasbacks, it is revealed that the Swede's real name was Ole Andreson and that he was a prizefighter whose career was cut short by a broken hand. Rejecting Lubinsky's suggestion to join the police force, the Swede gets mixed up with a bad crowd, including mobster "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker). He also drops his girlfriend Lily Harmon (Virginia Christine) for Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), glamorous a nightclub singer. When Lubinsky catches Kitty wearing stolen jewelry, the Swede claims responsibility for the robbery and serves three years in prison. Upon his release, the Swede, "Dum Dum" Clarke (Jack Lambert) and "Blinky" Franklin (Jeff Corey) are recruited for a payroll heist masterminded by Big Jim. After the group is forced to change their meeting place, the Swede accuses Big Jim of trying to cheat him, takes all the money at gunpoint and flees. Back in the present, Reardon is sure that the robbery is connected with the Swede's murder and that Kitty, who is now Big Jim's wife, is somehow involved. He arranges a meeting with her, but she escapes before revealing the whole truth. Reardon and Lubinsky then head to Big Jim's house and find him shot by Dum Dum, who also guessed the truth. Big Jim admits to having the Swede killed, in fear that the other gang members would find him and realize that he and Kitty had double-crossed them and kept all the money. Kitty pleads for Big Jim to declared her innocent, but he dies first.
Lieutenant Sam Lubinski: Don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City, Mark Hellinger started out as a reporter for the New York Daily News, penning "wry and sentimental columns and shorts stories about the Manhattan demimonde." At the onset of the Great Depression, he decided to move to Hollywood to try his luck at writing for the screen. He was soon hired as a writer and producer by Warner Bros., where he oversaw such hits as The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941). When the United States entered World War II, Hellinger sent himself to the Pacific as a war correspondent. Back in Hollywood in 1945, he chose to end his contract with Warners and form his own company in a production and distribution alliance with the newly-merged Universal-International. Hellinger gave Universal a few ideas for his first independent project, but the studio was ready to move ahead with a screen version of Gilbert Emery's play The Hero, which was released under the title Swell Guy (1946), starring Sonny Tufts and Ann Blyth.
After Swell Guy became a critical and commercial failure, Hellinger turned back to an idea he had been nursing since before he left Warner Bros.: an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story The Killers. Written during Prohibition, when organized crime in American was at its peak, The Killers was originally published in Scribner's Magazine in March 1927. Hemingway initially named the story "The Matadors," which in Spanish means "The Killers," but later changed his mind, perhaps because the former title suggested confusing associations with bullfights. The lead character, Ole "the Swede" Andreson, was inspired by a popular boxer at the time, Andre Anderson, who famously knocked down the World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey in a 1916 match that ended in a draw. A native of Chicago, Illinois, the home of notorious gangster Al Capone, Anderson allegedly accepted money from organized crime gamblers to purposedly lose fights. In 1926, when Anderson refused to take part in further bribes, Chicago mobsters shot him dead.
|Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in a|
publicity still for The Killers
In late 1945, Hellinger's story ideas were passed on to Richard Brooks, writer of Swell Guy, and then to John Huston, co-author of High Sierra, to draft into a script. In two months in the winter of 1945-1946, Huston penned screenplay for The Killers in collaboration with Anthony Veiller, with whom he had worked on a Why We Fight propaganda film for Frank Capra's unit during World War II. Because at the time Huston was still technically under contract to Warner Bros. and could not therefore be officially credited with a screenplay for Universal, Veiller received sole screen credit for writing The Killers.
Hemingway's original story comprised only eleven pages, depicting the murder of a broken-down prizefighter who inexplicably acquiesces to his dispatch by two professional killers. Huston and Veiller used Hemingway's conception as a prologue to their screenplay and then added the mystery behind the slaying through a series of interlocking flashbacks. In doing so, they created the other four major characters in the film: Jim Reardon, the tenacious insurance investigator who makes an official inquiry into the Swede's death; Sam Lubinsky, the dead man's childhood friend and arresting officer; "Big Jim" Colfax, the mobster who orders the killing; and Kitty Collins, the woman who double-crosses the Swede. After a week of working on the script with Huston in New York, Veiller wrote a note to Hellinger: "Mark, I cannot impress upon you too strongly how enthused both John and I are about the theory we have evolved for telling the story. We're sure you will see the tremendous possibilities for something really off the beaten track that it affords." Hellinger immediately replied, saying that the was "waiting so anxiously. Please phone if there's anything I can do."
|Burt Lancaster, Mark Hellinger (in sunglasses) and|
Robert Siodmak discussing a fight scene
Hellinger initially considered assigning The Killers to newcomer Don Siegel, who had recently won two Academy Awards for his shorts Star in the Night (1945) and Hitler Lives (1945). However, he eventually accepted Universal's suggestion that he hire Robert Siodmak, who had been building a reputation as a director of thrillers and films noir for the past two years. Born in Germany, Siodmak began his filmmaking career in Berlin in the mid-1920s, working as a title writer and cuter for silent pictures. He made his directorial debut with Menschen am Sonntag [People on Sunday] (1930), the last German silent, which he he co-wrote with Billy Wilder and his brother, Curt Siodmak. With the rise of the Nazi Regime, Siodmak — a Jew — fled to Paris and then to Hollywood, making his American debut at Paramount with West Point Widow (1941). Meanwhile, his brother had established himself as a specialist in horror at Universal and got Siodmak to direct his screenplay for Son of Dracula (1943). The studio was so impressed by his handling of the material that they immediately put Siodmak under long-term contract, which resulted in such successful pictures as Christmas Holiday (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946), the latter made on loan-out to RKO. When Hellinger offered him The Killers, Siodmak jumped at the opportunity; "Scripts of the caliber of The Killers do not come along every day," he said.
|Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster during filming|
The Killers was released on August 28, 1946 to positive reviews from critics. Life magazine in particular lauded the film and its cast: "There is not a dull moment in The Killers, not a corny line nor a contrived character - nothing but menacing action managed with supreme competence. There is not even a 'name' player in the film, but the standard of performance is worthy of a cast of Academy Award winners." No one in the cast was nominated for an Academy Award, but Siodmak received a nomination for Best Director, Anthony Veiller for Best Adapted Screenplay and Miklós Rózsa for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score. They lost respectively to William Wyler, Robert E. Sherwood and Hugo Friedhofer, all for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing" by Lee Server (2007) | Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford (2013) | Burt Lancaster: A Filmography and Biography by Ed Andreychuck (2005) | Charles MacGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy by Alan K. Rode () | Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips (2012) | Student Companion to Ernest Hemingway by Lisa Tyler (2001) |