Friday, 4 November 2016

Film Friday: "The Killers" (1946)

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
Directed by Robert Siodmak, The Killers (1946) begins as two hitmen, Max (Wiliam Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw), arrive in a small town to kill a man called "the Swede" (Burt Lancaster). His co-worker at a gas station, Nick Adams (Phil Brown), warns him of thedanger, but the Swede makes no attempt to flee and the killers shoot him dead in his room. When it is discovered that the Swede had a small life insurance policy, insurance detective Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned to investigate his murder. Tracking down and interviewing the Swede's associates, including his beneficiary, chambermaid Mary Ellen Doherty (Queenie Smith), and his longtime friend, police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), Reardon starts piecing together the dead man's story.

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
By 1945, three of Hemingway's stories had been adapted into hugely successful motion pictures: A Farewell to Arms (1932), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944). Despite the additional recognition that Hollywood had brought him, Hemingway hated the film industry and initially refused all offers to sell the rights to The Killers. Hellinger, who was an old friend of Hemingway, eventually convinced the writer to hand over the property to him for $36,750 in October 1945. The following month, Universal officially agreed to proceed with the project.

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
When Huston and Veiller handed in their first draft of the script in early February 1946, Hellinger added a few touches of his own. For instance, he eliminated some of the "trick names" of the gangsters an decided that the killers should arrive by automobile and not, as in the original, by train. He then sent the screenplay to the Production Code Administration, Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board, for approval and soon received a letter from Joseph Breen objecting to the "overemphasis on violence and murder," suggestions of illicit sex and excessive amount of drinking. Apparently, Hellinger was not worried about Breen's response; upon reading the letter, he placed it in a file labeled "Fuck You" and carried on with his work, aiming to find a suitable director for The Killers.

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
When time came for casting, Hellinger had no interest for big names, especially because of the film's low budget. He initially wanted Wayne Morris to play the Swede, but Warner Bros., to whom the actor was then under contract would only loan him out for $75,000, a sum Hellinger refused to pay. He then considered Van Heflin, Jon Hall, Sonny Tufts and Edmond O'Brien, but none seemed right. "I was going slightly smorgasbord," he later said. "If somebody had suggested Garbo, I would have tested her too." Eventually, he found the Swede in the form of Burt Lancaster, a former circus acrobat who had been forced to give up the profession in 1939 due to an injury. According to one Hellinger inter-office memo, Lancaster "handles himself well, is free and relaxed and 'gives.' We should have no trouble with him. He sells himself without being a goddamn bore about it."

For the role of Kitty Collins, Audrey Totter and Leslie Brooks were initially considered, but Hellinger and Siodmak came to the conclusion that the "blonde bombshell" type was a cliché. With time running out, Hellinger shared his casting dilemma with fellow producer Walter Wanger, who operated out of the next-door bungalow on the Universal lot. Wanger suggest he consider Ava Gardner, whom he had just seen in Whistle Shop (1946). As soon as he looked at Gardner, Hellinger knew he had found his Kitty and immediately arranged to borrow her from MGM. Before filming began, Siodmak suggested that she wash off the regulation MGM make-up, revealing what some considered the most beautiful face on the Hollywood screen. When Lancaster first kissed Gardner in front of the camera, he was so "deeply stirred" that Siodmak closed down the set except for the two stars, himself and the cameraman.

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).


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SOURCES:
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) |

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