By Mark Frankel

As numerous critics have pointed out, film noir is the slipperiest of all film genres. Unlike, the Western or the gangster film, film noir was not a term or category recognized by the industry itself. Invented by French critics, the term has spawned endless debates on what actually constitutes a film noir. Must the film take the criminal's point of view? Must it have a femme fatale? Need there be excessive violence? Expressionist photography? A convoluted plot? Desperate characters? A voice-over? Clearly, this is a genre with more exceptions to the rule than there are rules. While some critics cite John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the first noir, others go back to Joseph von Sternberg's Underworld(1927). And yet, despite all these disagreements, there are a few films that every critic and film buff agree are classics in every sense of the word. The Killers (1946) is one of these.

Directed by Robert Siodmak, The Killers boasts a script by an uncredited John Huston and a great score by Miklos Rozsa (later mined for the theme for Dragnet). A box-office smash, the film played round-the-clock at New York's Winter Garden theater, where over 120,000 patrons saw the film in the first two weeks. While Siodmak was widely praised for his economical direction, most of the press and public focused their attention on the two new newcomers: Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.

Lancaster, a former circus acrobat, was 23 when the picture was made, but his youthful face allowed him to play a younger and more easily duped man. Paid $20,000 for his work on The Killers, Lancaster was an overnight star. As the double-crossing and triple-crossed Swede, Lancaster's film debut drew immediate notice. Critic Manny Farber called him "a fascinating, unstereotyped movie tough" with "a dreamy, peaceful, introspective air that dissociates him from everything earthly." Farber accurately captures what is so unique about Lancaster: the combination of American boyishness with an icy, otherworldy presence. He was the perfect choice to play a man calmly waiting for his own death. Siodmak was so taken with Lancaster that he cast him in two subsequent films: the convoluted noir, Criss Cross (1949), thought by many to be Siodmak's best film, and the swashbuckling epic, The Crimson Pirate (1952).

Ava Gardner had been under contract with MGM since 1941, and though she had been married to Mickey Rooney, one of the studio's biggest stars (1942-1943), she had yet to appear in any memorable roles. But independent producer Mark Hellinger had been impressed by Gardner's performance in Whistle Stop (1946) and wanted her to play the voluptuous and deceitful Kitty Collins. After some delays, MGM agreed to loan Gardner (married now to bandleader Artie Shaw) out to Universal and Gardner always cited Hellinger's interest in her as a turning point in her career: "Mark saw me as an actress, not as a sexpot. . . . he gave me a feeling of responsibility about being a movie star that I'd never for a moment felt before." As with Lancaster, Gardner's performance was widely acclaimed and she won Look magazine's award for the best newcomer of the year.

The Killers was loosely based on Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story of the same name. In the story, neither the killing nor the motives behind it are explained. The story ends with the Swede stoically waiting for the killers to find him, and the narrator, Nick Adams (played by Phil Brown), being admonished that it was "better not to think about it." According to Hemingway, "The story was about coming back from the war, but there was no mention of the war in it." Hemingway had refused all of Hollywood's earlier offers to secure the rights to his work, but because Hellinger was what Hemingway described as an "old friend," the deal was done, though Hemingway evidently signed on without knowledge of how drastically his story would be changed. While the script opens with a faithful rendition of Hemingway's story, it proceeds to "think about it" for another 90 minutes, even adding two new major characters: the insurance investigator Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) and the crime boss Colfax (Albert Dekker).

Hemingway actually offered some script advice to Huston and the two hunters became life-long friends. The writer was also taken with Ava Gardner and they too remained close throughout their lives. Gardner went on to appear in two other Hemingway adaptations: The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Sun Also Rises (1957). According to Gardner, Hemingway "always considered The Killers the best of all the many films his work inspired, and 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 the first reel was the only part of the movie that was really taken from what he wrote."

The film also established Siodmak as an A-list director, a reputation which was confirmed by his next two pictures: The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Dark Mirror (1946). Born in the U.S. while his German parents were here for a visit, Siodmak was raised in Germany and found work at the renowned UFA studios, alongside Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger. Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and brought to his pictures the expressionist techniques he had learned at UFA. He so well translated these techniques to the American pictures that critic Andrew Sarris once noted that Siodmak's Hollywood films are "more Germanic than his German ones." The Killers is a classic example of Siodmak's preference for expressionist lighting and deep-focus photography.

Interestingly, Don Siegel was originally considered to direct the picture, and while Hellinger went with Siodmak, Siegel did get his chance, though not until 1964 when he made a version for television starring Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan in a villainous role. Even acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted the Hemingway short story into a short movie he made during his film school days.

SOURCE: Turner Classic Movies