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The Killers (1946)

Two stars were born when producer Mark Hellinger convinced Ernest Hemingway to sell him the rights to his 1927 short story “The Killers.” The writer had long held out against Hollywood on that one, even as he sold others of his works to the studios. Perhaps he was worried about what screenwriters would add to his terse tale of a man waiting stoically for the hitmen who’ve tracked him down. If so, he needn’t have worried. The backstory Anthony Veiller and an uncredited John Huston created was a perfect fit, and he would later call The Killers his favorite of all the films based on his work.

The film’s first ten minutes stick close to the story. After hired guns (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take out former boxer “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster), the screenwriters add an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) trying to make sense of what happened. He uncovers a criminal kingpin (Albert Dekker) and the beautiful woman (Ava Gardner) who lured Lancaster into a life of crime, a plot that helped make this one of the definitive films noirs.

Hellinger hired the best possible production team to bring the story to life. Director Robert Siodmak, already an established expert on film noir, worked with cinematographer Woody Bredell to create indelible images of the corrupt city, while Miklós Rózsa provided a score that echoed the key players’ violent passions. In his film debut, Lancaster shot to stardom with his blend of sensitivity and brute force. Ava Gardner had been playing mostly thankless roles at MGM, where she was best known as Mickey Rooney’s first wife. Hellinger saw something in her, however, and fought to borrow her to play the femme fatale. She scored a huge success, becoming an overnight sensation after five years in the business.

d. Robert Siodmak, 103 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Universal Pictures