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Tag Archives: Harry Hayden

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

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They Made Me a Killer (May 3, 1946)

Incompetent director William C. Thomas’s They Made Me a Killer is based on a screenplay by competent writer Daniel Mainwaring, who was working under the name “Geoffrey Homes.” Mainwaring was a prolific screenwriter whose most famous contribution to film noir is his script for Out of the Past (1947), which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High (both were written under his Homes pseudonym).

The script for They Made Me a Killer isn’t the problem. In the hands of a talented director and a better cast of actors, it could have been a crisp little thriller. There’s a decent amount of complexity in its familiar tale of an innocent man on the run, and the dialogue is snappy. Unfortunately it’s all handled so poorly that the protagonist’s flexible ethics end up seeming more like sloppy storytelling than anything else, and all the clever lines are delivered in too ham-handed a fashion to make much of an impact.

Produced by William H. Pine, They Made Me a Killer was released by Pine-Thomas Productions, the B unit of Paramount Pictures. It’s normal for low-budget productions to cut corners, but this picture has some of the most egregious examples of cost-cutting I’ve ever seen. Thomas employs rear projection frequently, and not just for scenes shot in cars, which is when the technique was most commonly used. There are numerous shots in They Made Me a Killer of people standing on a street corner in which everything behind them is clearly rear projected. In one scene, two actors stand in front of a rear-projected house, then one of them turns to walk toward it. The scene immediately cuts to a shot of her ringing the doorbell, standing in front of a door that doesn’t look as though it matches the house we saw in the establishing shot. There are certainly less noticeable and more artful ways to keep a picture under budget.

When They Made Me a Killer begins, Tom Durling (Robert Lowery) is leaving Chicago. His brother was killed there, and he has no desire to stay. He’s leaving his job as an auto mechanic, and heading for San Francisco. Once in California, he stops at an intersection. San Francisco is 248 miles away, and Santa Marta, “The Pearl of the Valley,” is just five miles away. He heads for Santa Marta, hoping to sell his souped-up jalopy, which he has modified to achieve speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

He’s approached by a potential buyer named Betty Ford (Lola Lane), who tells Durling that she wants her boyfriend to buy the car for her for her birthday. Agreeing to meet her boyfriend the next day to close the deal, he ends up parked outside the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank the next morning with Betty exhorting him not to move, even to drive around the block to avoid a parking ticket, while Jack Conley (Edmund MacDonald) and Frank Conley (James Bush) are inside, making a very large withdrawal.

When he had initially shown her what his blocky hot rod could do, Durling had told Betty, “All I wanna do in this town is leave it.” He’ll get his wish, but he’ll get it the hard way.

He’s not the only one. Caught in the crossfire is a hapless little punk named Steve Reynolds (Byron Barr), a bank clerk at the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank who’s hanging around the getaway car because he has the hots for Betty.

Betty and the Conley brothers make off with $100,000, but Durling drives them into a ditch. He’s knocked unconscious, the robbers flee, and he’s left to take the rap.

He hangs his hopes for freedom on young Steve Reynolds, who lies in the hospital dying from a bullet wound. Steve’s sister June (Barbara Britton) comes to visit him in the hospital. She and Durling are immediately attracted to each other, and she reluctantly becomes his ally as they race to prove his innocence, and Steve’s.

All of this probably sounds better on paper than it plays out on screen. The acting is bargain basement and the direction is maladroit, turning what could have been an entertaining one-hour programmer into a forgettable snoozer.