The Killers (1946) Directed by Robert Siodmak. Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien (105 minutes) (DCP)

The Killers is an essential film noir, merging expressive cinematography, a churning score and complex flashbacks in gripping style to solve a murder. A dogged insurance investigator excavates the rubble of a heist gone wrong, which entangled a washed-up boxer (one’s of noir’s classic existential heroes) and a sultry nightclub singer. “Lancaster is dreamy, dense and doomed. Ava Gardner, in her first major movie, doesn’t do much more than exist. She hardly needs to…it’s clear from Lancaster’s dumbstruck gaze that he has met his Circe.”  New restoration from Universal Pictures and the Film Foundation.  Pop-up exhibit from the Ava Gardner Museum.

We’re so lucky to be able to present in partnership with the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, NC.

Ava (her real name, by the way) was the youngest daughter of seven children born to a poor share cropping farmer and his wife, from Grabtown, NC.  Her mother ran a boarding house for teachers during much of Ava’s childhood.  Her oldest sister, Beatrice, nicknamed Bappie, lived in New York with Larry Tarr, a professional photographer. A portrait he did of his wife’s little sister caught the eye of a passing clerk who worked at the parent company of MGM, Loew’s, headquartered in New York City.  The Tarrs sent her photo to the office, and a silent screen test was filmed, as her Carolina country accent was considered to be unintelligible.  In 1941 she left her secretarial studies at Atlantic Christian College to move with Bappie to Hollywood.

She posed for photographs, endlessly, and occasional had a bit part, silent or with a line or two (the MGM vocal coaches were working on that accent).  At nineteen, she was so beautiful that men looked at her, desired her, but had little interest in who she was as a human being.  The first one was Mickey Rooney, the top box office star at the time.  She met him when she visited him while he was filming (in drag as Carmen Miranda) Babes on Broadway.  He was smitten instantly.  Known for his wholesome screen image, in reality Rooney was as experienced as Ava was innocent.  He drank, he gambled, he had been a notorious womanizer since his mid-teens.  He chastely courted Ava, but the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer forbid him to marry her.  Rooney would not take no for an answer, “This was Ava’s allure at nineteen:  the biggest movie star in the world was ready to risk professional annihilation rather than give up the girl he had known for fifteen or sixteen weeks, and now…nothing, not even the great and powerful Mayer—was going to stop him for getting what he wanted to have” (Server 70).

Ava had wanted a dream wedding, but the studio wanted something more discreet.  They were married, and after the honeymoon Rooney quickly resumed his previous habits.  They fought about his gambling and his infidelities and divorced after about a year.  Her next husband, musician and bandleader Artie Shaw was also dazzled by her beauty and endeavored to mold her into a suitable spouse (he tried and failed to do this with eight wives).  Ava had always loved his music and idolized him, but their union also soured within a year or so, but not before he composed an appreciation of their personal life called “The Grabtown Grapple”

She’d been in Hollywood five years and had only a failed marriage and a few bit parts to show for it.  MGM seemed uninterested in promoting her career. But then, Universal, and Mark Hellinger called.  Hellinger had been a celebrated reporter and storyteller in New York during the Roaring Twenties, his work focused on the periphery of gangland big shots.  His newspaper column gave 22 million readers “short, swift, sobby little tales” of old Broadway (Buford 65).  But when the Depression hit, he migrated to Hollywood, where his inside track on urban low lives and hangers on secured him a place at Warner Brothers as an associate producer on films like The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night and High Sierra.  After returning from WW II, he formed his own production company at Universal.  His first picture there would have to be a smash.

He had been thinking about Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” since before the war.  Hemingway was considered by many at the time to be America’s greatest writer. “Hellinger’s experience and strength had always been in tough-guy melodrama and Hemingway’s famous story was one of the touchstones in the history of hard-boiled literature” (Server 114).  Hemingway was not interested in selling screen rights, but since the author was an old buddy, he’d agree to $50,000 for his twelve-page story, most of it dialogue.  That was a lot of money, but the publicity value of being the most expensive sale in Hollywood history was worth something.

This is the section of the film that was taken almost verbatim from Hemingway’s story.

The film would start with Hemingway’s prose, but then, in order to make a feature film, something else would have to happen.  Writer Richard Books tracked the author down to ask about the rest of the story, and Hemingway supposedly replied, “How the hell do I know?” (Server 115).  Hellinger was inspired by a Brooklyn robbery from his newspaper days, in which the gang had escaped with the loot, but then things went wrong.  He added the deathbed ravings of noted gangster Dutch Schultz to Blinky, one of the gang members, played by Jeff Corey.  The script would eventually be credited to Anthony Veiller, but his uncredited collaborator was John Huston, still under contract to Warner Brothers.  The film would open with Hemingway’s complete short story, and then open out the story with a series of eleven flashbacks, told by six different characters.  Siodmak liked flashbacks in his films, “suggesting both the complexity of the past and the function of memory” (Alpi 160).  The film is suffused with an oppressive fatalism, one of the hallmarks of the film noir genre. “What would bring a man so low that he would surrender himself to violent death?” (Server 117).  The answer was an otherworldly beautiful woman, Kitty Collins.

When the script was submitted to the Hays Office for comments on what was permissible on screen, they had a lot of suggestions.  Too much violence, and too much “how-to” as far as the payroll robbery was concerned.   Hellinger put their notes in a folder marked “F*** you” and continued as planned (Server 118).  Director Robert Siodmak was under contract at Universal, he was considered second only to Alfred Hitchcock in the making of suspenseful films.  A Jewish refugee from the Nazis, he brought his Expressionist eye to Hollywood. He took Universal’s tight budget, and strode into deep chiaroscuro, “Even still, it was virtually impossible not to appreciate Siodmak’s visual flair, and it went remarked upon by many. This unspoken language, leaning back into German Expressionism and the symbolism of silent cinema, would be a vital maker of meaning in Siodmak’s most famous film noirs. The way he lit amoral gangsters’ molls could turn them into avenging angels; his use of deep focus could reveal fractures in the psyche of sympathetic local street cops; de rigeur heist scenes were ghostly and surreal” (

Hellinger wanted strong casting, and some fresh faces.  He didn’t want anyone already associated with crime films, like Humphrey Bogart.  Those who came back hardened from their war experience were preferred.  He rejected Wayne Morris, a boring B-picture actor under contract to Warner Brothers, and instead chose Burt Lancaster, in his first film, as the Swede.  Lancaster grew up in East Harlem, New York, where he discovered acting at the Union Street Settlement House.  He met Nick Cravat, and they formed an acrobatic act, which eventually played the Ringling Brothers Circus.  He joined the Federal Theater Project during the Depression.  After he returned from WW II, he was cast as the lead in a Broadway play, and talent scouts brought him to Hollywood.  Hellinger saw the screen test he did for a film called Desert Fury, and arranged a meeting.  He was startled by Lancaster’s intense physical presence.  He told him, “The Killers is the best script I’ve ever had.  It will make you a star” (Alpi 156).  The fact that the Swede is so handsome, so powerful looking makes his acceptance of his fate even more affecting.  He gets an amazing introduction in the film, the camera lingers on his face, so we can drink it all in.  When the reviews came out, Lancaster was called “the brawny Apollo” and “the brute with the eyes of an angel” (Buford 69).

Hellinger and Siodmak agreed that a blonde bombshell would be a cliché, that they wanted a dark-haired temptress, and Mark Hellinger had just seen a film called Whistle Stop, which featured Ava Gardner.  She met with Hellinger, and he immediately felt she had what it took to make a man die for her.  “Siodmak helped Ava to create a coherent characterization and a haunting erotic presence out of such things as the shift of her eyes, the turn of her lips, and the feline sprawl of her exquisite body.  He wanted her to act not more, but less.  She would say a line or give an expression and Sidomak would tell her to do it again, but ‘half as much.’” (Server 125).  His key to her character was a simple “Smiling—but not smiling” (Alpi 158). At the end, he would have to badger her into an explosive outburst, but it was really the first time anyone had taken a real interest in her acting ability.  And Helllinger was confident he could make her a star; unlike the years she had spent treading water at MGM.  She has relatively little screen time, but she haunts the film as its “black heart” (Server 128) “Like so many femme fatales, Gardner undergoes ritual punishment by the conclusion. But it’s her defiance that’s most memorable: her attitude and appearance fly in the face of domesticated mid-century femininity, and it’s largely down to how Siodmak frames and films her” (

Lancaster and Ava decamped to Malibu for some swimsuit publicity photos in which he showed off some of his acrobatic skills with her. Composer Miklos Rosza and lyricist Jack Brooks wrote a song, “The More I Know of Love” which is supposed to enthrall the Swede and put the spiral of the script in motion.  Even though Ava hesitated, she did record the song, and the voice you hear on screen is hers.

Ava said in her autobiography, “I liked Mark Hellinger at once, because I could tell he saw me as an actress, not a sexpot.  He trusted me from the beginning, and I trusted him.  He even talked me into relaxing enough so I could sing that sensual song in my own voice.  And he gave me a feeling of responsibility about being a movie star that I’d never for a moment felt before.  Until I played Kitty Collins, I’d never worked very hard in pictures, never taken my career very seriously.  I felt no burning ambition to become a real actress.  I was just a girl who was lucky enough to have a job in pictures.  Playing Kitty changed that, showed me what it meant to try to act, and made me feel that I might have a little talent in that area after all (Gardner 86).

The cinematographer, Woody Bredell, wanted to use available light to create a realistic look to the film, even though today we consider this film noir technique to be highly stylized.  Bredell talked Ava out of her heavy, glamour girl makeup, just a little Vaseline rubbed into her skin for shimmer under the soft glow of the table lamps, and of course, lipstick.  The payroll heist was shot in a single take with 18 camera stops and more than 60 focus changes.  “Everything was very confused with people not knowing where they ought to be, a car backed up wrong and left in the middle of the road…but curiously enough the result turned out to give just the right effect.”  Hellinger arranged a secret screening for some of his underworld buddies, and they gave the robbery a thumbs up. (Ballinger and Graydon 103).  Sadly, Hellinger died of a heart attack the following year, at the age of 44.

Ava, too, got a breathtaking entrance in a sinuous draped black satin dress.  A portrait of her as Kitty Collins in it is on the front jacket of her autobiography.  The costumes were by Vera West, a Universal contract designer, usually assigned to the B picture unit of thrillers and Westerns.  She did supervise all the costumes of the great 1930s Universal monster movies, designing for Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride.  She usually didn’t get the choicest assignments, whenever a star became famous, they often chose to use another designer, with the exception of Deanna Durbin.  West left Universal in 1947 with over 400 film credits and shortly afterwards either committed suicide, or was murdered, found floating face down in her swimming pool like William Holden in Sunset Blvd.

The film was also an enormous influence on Rob Reiner’s homage to film noir starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.  In fact, Martin’s character is named Rigby Reardon, specifically so Ava Gardner can speak to “Mr. Reardon” (played in the film by Edmund O’Brien) with a reverse shot of Martin, as if they are having a conversation.

The Killers was a huge hit and remains a quintessential film noir.  Hemingway considered it the best of all the adaptations of his work.  Later in life Ava became a friend, and in her autobiography said, “…after Mark Hellinger, the producer, gave him a print of his own, he’d invariably pull out a projector and show it to guests at Finca Vigia, his place in Cuba.  Of course, he’d usually fall asleep after the first reel, which made sense, because that first reel was the only part of the movie that was really taken from what he wrote” (Gardner 84).  The director, screenplay and editor were all nominated for Oscars (The Best Years of Our Lives was the big winner that year).   Hellinger had an eight-story sign installed on Broadway in New York, three stories was Ava in her slick black satin dress “lured the customers to the ticket vendor just as irresistibly as she did Burt Lancaster to his doom” (Server 130).

*, Ava Gardner:  Love is Nothing by Lee Server, Robert Siodmak by Deborah Lazaroff Alpi, 100 Film Noirs, by Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips, Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinder and Danny Graydon, Ava:  My Story by Ava Gardner , Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, Creating the Illusion by Jay Jorgenson and Donald L. Scoggins,  ,