Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers

The Movie starring Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner

The Killers was made in early 1946, and produced by Mark Hellinger who’d worked for Zanuck at Fox but now had his own production company.

Hellinger was born on the Upper East Side of New York in 1903 and became a buddy of the columnist Walter Winchell, a drinking pal of Bogart’s, and firm friends with leading mobsters of the day. He wrote a column for the New York Mirror (which boasted 22 million readers) that was made up of “…short, swift, sobby little tales of Broadway that were so sentimental they could only have been written by a cynic.” Hellinger also wrote story lines for several hit movies of the 1930s, most notably Broadway Bill, and The Roaring Twenties.

As Lancaster biographer, Kate Buford, has written, Hellinger:

“…had a newspaperman’s instinct for the story behind what were called then, ‘…the little people,’ meaning he could make something out of very little. Hellinger’s wife was a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, and once out in Hollywood the cigar smoking Hellinger raced in a huge black Cadillac which had been a death bed gift from a New York mobster. When not driving around he strutted like James Cagney playing George M. Cohan. In 1945 the burning question (one of several million in 1940s Tinseltown) was could old Mark get Hemingway (who hated Hollywood and what they’d done to his novels) to sell ‘The Killers’, and secondly make a seven and a half page story into a ninety minute movie?”

Mark Hellinger. Image: Allposters

He would certainly have a go, and flew out to Cuba where he got as drunk as a lord with Hemingway, who agreed to sell the screen rights to the kid from the Upper East Side for $36,700. Hellinger now had the instant draw of Hemingway’s name. What he now needed was a young man to play what Hemingway describes as a ‘big Swede,’ the guy the two hit men are looking for.

What Hellinger hadn’t told Hemingway was that his famous short story was in many ways just a front for a bigger back-story Hellinger had already sketched out based on a successful 1920s New York heist where the gang fall out with one another, with each one of them getting bumped-off, and the money disappearing. This story line was then passed to Richard Brooks to work it into a first draft script who suggested it might be best to get Hemingway bumped-off before he got to see the finished film. Brooks’ script was then passed to film director John Huston who was on leave from the army, and looking for additional work to top-up his screenwriting contract with Warners. Huston’s finished script was then sent to Anthony Veiller for polishing before being given to director/producer Jed Harris to comment on. Harris liked it. But Hellinger still didn’t have his ‘big Swede’. That was until he met Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster had been told Hellinger was looking for a tall guy and that he should get along to Hellinger’s office at Universal. Lancaster made an appointment (he’d been sent a copy of the script), borrowed a jacket from Robert Preston, and sat on the steps of Hellinger’s bungalow waiting for the producer to return from lunch. When Hellinger spotted him he knew he’d found his man.

“ You Lancaster?”

“ Yeah. You Hellinger?”

Lancaster, a trained acrobat and trapeze artist, talked and moved slowly, and came from the same district of New York as Hellinger.

“ You like the script?”

“ Fair, could be worse.”

In fact it was the first movie script Lancaster had ever seen, let alone read.

After a good deal of haggling Hellinger eventually signed Lancaster to a three picture deal — $20,000 for The Killers, with the next two pictures at $45,000 and $65,000 respectively. It was Lancaster’s big break.

The film was directed by Hollywood veteran Robert Siodmak, and starred a young Ava Gardner, with Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene, and Albert Dekker.

Robert Siodmak. Image: timegoesbyblog

The film did well at the box office, and no one had to bump-off Hemingway.

After the private birthday screening for Hemingway’s son Jack, soon after the film’s release, Hemingway proclaimed it was the best goddam thing Hollywood had ever made out of one of his stories. It still is.

Image: The Cocosse Journal

It was Lancaster who made the movie a hit, and, at last, an actor who looked and sounded like a Hemingway character: always speaking low and slow, and often with menace. There can be no doubt, at least for me, that Lancaster had read the short story:

The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

“ Whats yours?” George asked them.

“ I don’t know, “ one of the men said. “ What do you want to eat, Al?”

“ I don’t know,” said Al. “ I don’t know what I want to eat.”

Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.

“ I’ll have roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes,” the first man said.

“ It isn’t ready yet.”

“ What the hell do you put it on the card for?”

“ That’s the dinner,” George explained. “ You can get that at six o’clock.”

But it’s only five o’clock, and you know there’s going to be trouble, that it’s going to get messy. And Hemingway builds the tension with every other word. That’s why the story is still one of Hemingway’s most popular. It’s a story about the release of accumulated tension brought to the fore by a menu. Hellinger’s film, and Burt Lancaster’s superbly timed acting (and Ava Gardner’s equally good responses) bring out that tension by the seeds planted back in 1927 when Hemingway was having a bad time. His tension is the tension he transfers to the two killers. Everything gets out of hand.

Don Siegel’s 1964 remake, starring Lee Marvin is, for me, not a success because the tension has been replaced by far too many silences. The main characters come across as unthinking robots. The violence has no reasoning, and one can’t imagine Lee Marvin ever wondering what to eat. All the Hemingway has been drained out of the film like oil from a car’s sump.

Image: slapharrylarry.com

Bibliography:

Kate Buford — Burt Lancaster: An American Life (Aurum Press, London, 2008); Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969); Ernest Hemingway — The Killers (A short story. Scribner’s, New York, 1927)…

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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