‘The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in …’
And, we might add, immediately barged their way into the cultural history of the twentieth century. Three thousand words later, Ernest Hemingway’s seminal short story The Killers watches in relief as the two men disappear from the narrative, still intent on killing Ole Andreson, ‘the Swede’, ‘just to oblige a friend’.
In considering the afterlife of stories and how successive versions and adaptations interpret the original for their own times, it can come as a shock to realize just how old The Killers is: it was written in 1927. Yet this tale which appears so closely tied to its particular milieu is extraordinarily amenable to reinterpretation and variation. The Killers is firmly embedded in the small-town America of the mid-1920s, yet it is that very specificity which has rendered it malleable and pertinent to generations of artists.
The Killers in 1927
The incantatory prose of Hemingway’s original short story, with its careful repetitions and juxtapositions of words and phrases, is highly artificial, its stripped-down modernism the equivalent of existential threat: there are no words to hide behind, no euphemisms in which to dress things up, no distractions from the reality of death that’s a hair-trigger away. Yet the rhythms of the dialogue in which the story is almost entirely told are also disturbingly naturalistic: it’s as if all the characters – Al and Max, George the waiter, Nick the diner and Sam the cook (recipient of repeated racial slurs) – are quoting themselves, knowingly freighting the banal linguistic currency of their everyday lives with the significations and connotations beloved of literary fiction.
Al and Max are effortlessly nasty pieces of work: they imbue every trivial remark with the potential for violence. When they start ordering people about, nobody argues, despite the fact that neither of them produces a gun – these men do not need to exhibit their firearms because their language and behaviour are already sufficiently intimidating. Early on in the story, George’s forgetfulness about their dinner orders could, it seems, so easily cost him his life. Al and Max convey total menace because the outcomes of each micro-social interaction depend on their moods; they know that, they know we know that, and we all know that Al and Max can choose to act on those moods if they so wish. What’s worse, they are not slaves to their own feelings; rather, they are in complete control of them, yet morally disinterested as to whether or not they indulge them.
Al and Max overshadow the narrative, yet their intended target, Ole Andreson, is equally important as a character, for it is his passive acceptance of his death, his affectless resignation to a future that is anticipated but withheld from the reader, that suggest Al and Max are truly inescapable. Ole’s failure to implicate himself in the events he foresees amounts to an emotional exhaustion, the causes of which are not explained. Ole admits ‘I got in wrong’ with somebody, but he can’t make up his mind to leave his room. ‘I’m through with all that running around,’ he tells Nick, who can’t stand to think about Ole waiting ‘and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.’ ‘Well,’ George tells him in the last line of the story, ‘you better not think about it.’
The Killers Goes to the Movies
The dialogue form of The Killers – especially its blend of everyday subject matter with murderous intent – perhaps explains why the story has been so influential on the movies. We can trace its influence on such key films as The Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman, 1931) and Little Caesar (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1931), on White Heat (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1949) and Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1990), on Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994).
For me, however, three of the most interesting cinematic incarnations of Hemingway’s short story are The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946), Ubiytsy (The Killers) (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, 1956) and The Killers (dir. Don Siegel, 1964).
The Killers in 1946
Twenty years have passed since Hemingway’s story was first published in Scribner’s Magazine, and the world is now infused with the kind of postwar angst and moral complexity indexed by the noir cinematography of Woody Bredell. Character actors Charles McGraw and William Conrad (top photo) play the eponymous killers to perfection: every line, every word, is made arrestingly funny or frightening (often, funny and frightening). In addition, Burt Lancaster (as Ole Andreson) delivers his lines with weary resignation to his fate: from the cadence of his voice alone, we realize there is no escape.
Siodmak’s film noir wisely retains most of Hemingway’s dialogue for its opening scene in the diner. Two decades of social change do not appear to have affected the clarity and meaning of Hemingway’s words, which gain in richness and power from the nuanced performances of the actors who utter them. Film is a collaborative medium of directors and producers, writers and actors, photographers, composers and craft workers. In this case, they had to come up with another hour or so of story explaining what happened to bring the killers in search of Ole. It’s excellent, but nothing can quite match the opening scenes.
The Killers in 1956
It’s quite a jump from the overtight overcoats and derby hats of Hemingway’s killers in 1927 to the looser clothes and fedoras of Siodmak’s film of 1946, but how about a student film made in the Soviet Union in 1956 that transposes Henry’s lunchroom to mid-century Moscow?
Tarkovsky et al.’s nineteen-minute feature Ubiytsy manages to suggest that Al and Max are agents of the government, their dark coats and bland faces part of the trademark anonymity of KGB operatives with a job to do in the dead of night. Assassination has become the business of the totalitarian state apparatus, from which nobody is safe. As if to underline the point, a customer in the diner whistles Lullaby of Broadway, regarded at the time as a song about freedom.
Listening to the Russian dialogue in this politically charged milieu, one can begin to see the connections between Hemingway’s prose and the kinds of literary experimentalism that came after him. Harold Pinter, for example, gave to his characters the kinds of obsessive fascination with words and their meaning that stem from The Killers, usually with a political charge similar to that which lies beneath the surface of Ubiytsy.
The Killers in 1964
Don Siegel’s 1964 film (originally made for television but deemed too violent and released for cinema exhibition instead) eschews the noir aesthetic for the bright glare of daylight, dazzling colour and alienating back projection. This is akin to the unreal reality of the Zapruder footage.
Here, Hemingway’s story is jettisoned entirely, save for the puzzle of the pursued man’s reluctance to flee. The two killers (played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) look like publicity-shy business executives, their briefcases filled not with papers but handguns and silencers. We are in the world of corporate America and organized crime, and these are two of its most dangerous functionaries, to whom nothing is sacred. One recalls the terrible coincidence that JFK was assassinated while this film was shooting. In addition, its own Mr Big – gunned down by Lee Marvin’s hit man – was played by future US President Ronald Reagan.
The Killers Forever
The buttoned-down iconography of Hemingway’s original story lives on in countless novels, films and TV shows, while his dialogue continues to inspire writers today (including, occasionally, Jack Messenger). The influence of The Killers does not look as if it will be diminishing any time soon. Is this a good thing, or is it stultifying and restrictive?
Doubtless there have and will be many instances where inspiration degenerates into second-rate imitation, but great books and films have a knack of finding nourishment from the example of The Killers, within whose shadows succeeding generations have found a light for their own times. ‘You ought to go to the movies more,’ Max advises George. I can’t find a flaw in that argument.