The Killers (1946)

Ernest Hemingway once said that writers selling the screen rights to their work should arrange something like a ransom payment at the California state line: “You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.”

Actually Hemingway may never have said that. Those words were chosen by British critic David Lodge, who identified them as “a saying attributed to Ernest Hemingway,” in his 1974 review of a book by Gene D. Phillips of Loyola University. Six years later Phillips included the quotation in his book Hemingway and Film, sloppily giving the impression that these were Hemingway’s own words. When the quotation turns up online now, presented as indisputable fact, it’s sometimes broken into two sentences to make it sound more Hemingwayesque.

The quote is a damn good one, fully reflective of how Hemingway felt, and if he were still around, he’d probably claim it whether he’d said it or not. But this literary game of telephone shows how easily an author’s admirers can wind up putting words in his mouth. Earlier this month the Criterion Collection rereleased a DVD set on Blu-Ray that includes three screen adaptations of Hemingway’s classic short story “The Killers.” The set is titled Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, yet Hemingway had nothing to do with any of the films, and in some cases they’re most notable for how freely the screenwriters elaborated on his source material.

Published in 1927, “The Killers” became a template for the hard-boiled crime pictures of the sound era, with their clipped, confrontational dialogue. Two thugs walk into a small-town lunchroom and hold hostage the counterman, the cook, and the lone customer, Nick Adams (a stand-in for Hemingway in numerous stories). They’re looking to bump off one of the regulars, a boxer, but when he fails to materialize, the two men depart. As soon as they’re gone, Nick races over to the rooming house where the boxer lives, hoping to warn him, but the boxer lies in bed with his face to the wall, resigned to his fate. “There ain’t anything to do,” he tells Nick. “After a while I’ll make up my mind to go out.”

“The Killers” embodies an idea much noted in Hemingway’s fiction, that a real man is one who can stare down his own death with honor and dignity; anyone who can’t is going to spend his entire time on earth either living in fear or living in denial. Nick can’t persuade the boxer to run, so he returns to the lunchroom and tells the counterman what happened. “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it,” says Nick. “It’s too damned awful.” The counterman replies with one of the greatest closing lines in all of American fiction: “Well, you’d better not think about it.”

Hemingway was habitually disgusted with how Hollywood distorted his thematic intentions, yet he was a vocal fan of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). “It is a good picture and the only good picture ever made of a story of mine,” he wrote in 1959. According to Gene Phillips, who corresponded with the author’s widow, Hemingway received a print of the film from Universal Studios and liked to screen it for his houseguests, “although he invariably fell asleep after the first reel—the only portion of the picture based directly on his story.”

Anthony Veiller was the credited screenwriter, but the real author of The Killers was John Huston (High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon), who was under contract to another studio. Huston compressed the action of the Hemingway story to about 12 minutes and used it as the jumping-off point for a mystery in which an insurance investigator (Edmund O’Brien) looks into the boxer’s murder and can’t rest until he uncovers the motive for the crime. As Huston imagines it, the boxer (Burt Lancaster in his screen debut) has gotten mixed up in a robbery to please the woman of his dreams (Ava Gardner) and wound up taking the blame when she and her lover absconded with the loot. Siodmak, a master of light and shadow, turned The Killers into a landmark film noir, and the invented backstory, told in flashback, was tough and fatalistic enough to satisfy Hemingway.

The very idea of building out the story, however, was inimical to Hemingway’s concept of fiction. He likened a story or novel to the tip of an iceberg, and “The Killers” was a particularly striking example of this. “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote,” he once revealed. His model for the boxer was Chicagoan Andre Anderson, who was shot to death in a Cicero nightclub in April 1926, supposedly for refusing to throw a fight. Including all this would have distracted mightily from the metaphysical tale Hemingway had in mind, and from Nick Adams, the protagonist. In “The Killers,” the boxer’s only explanation for why he’s being hunted is “I got in wrong.” The counterman later speculates that the boxer “double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for.” But leaving this to the imagination allows a lot more room for you or me to get into the same jam.

Hemingway had blown his brains out by the time Universal remade The Killers as a TV movie, but a good guess is that he would have been angry about it (especially because, having already sold the rights, he wouldn’t have made a dime off it). Don Siegel—who, coincidentally, had been in the running to direct the 1946 version—didn’t want to use any action or dialogue from “The Killers.” His instructions for screenwriter Gene Coon (later a key contributor on the original Star Trek) was to revise the story Huston had invented, turn the boxer into a race-car driver (John Cassavetes), and have the mystery be unraveled not by an insurance investigator but by one of the hit men (Lee Marvin), who wants to learn why his victim refused to run when he had a chance. Like the 1946 version, the new one would identify itself onscreen as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers.

Siodmak may have been a master of light and shadow, but Siegel was a master of the smash cut, an editing technique in which one scene jumps violently to the next for dramatic effect. He spent 25 days editing his film, which moves like a bat out of hell, though in contrast to the 1946 version it was shot in color and, consistent with TV production values, so overlit it looks like an episode of Batman. Marvin contributes his usual steely performance, Angie Dickinson is the woman playing the race-car driver for a chump, and Ronald Reagan, in his last screen role, plays her lover, the crime boss behind the robbery. The end result was deemed too violent for television and ultimately released to theaters in 1964—in one scene the hit men pay a visit to the femme fatale, punch her in the face, and hang her out a seventh-story window. Marvin’s character is the true protagonist here, but what kind of Hemingway hero would beat on a woman?

To counterbalance all this wild invention, the Criterion set also includes an audio recording of Stacy Keach reading the original story and, even more important, a 21-minute student film of “The Killers” made in 1956 by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky and two classmates at the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. A master of elongated time, Tarkovsky knew how to magnify a moment and elevate simple action to the level of profundity, valuable skills for a movie about time running out. He and his collaborators stage nearly the entire story without sacrificing any of its inherent tension; best of all, Tarkovsky (who directed the lunchcounter scenes) finds time for Nick’s final conversation with the counterman, which was dropped in both American versions. Of the three adaptations, Tarkovsky’s is the only one that doesn’t include Hemingway in the onscreen title, but no such clarification is needed, because the story still belongs to him.  v