An adaptation of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), is a tour de force of the noir genre, one that covers a wide range of noir themes and noir locations, a story with a cruel and twisted plot, in which a young but broken-down prize-fighter takes a perilous path to ruin. It was in fact only the first twenty minutes of the movie based on Hemingway’s words – that haunting opening with the silhouettes of the two hit men at night who visit the inhospitable diner in search of information for the man they are looking for, Burt Lancaster’s Swede, who is already waiting for his fate in his dark boarding room. From there, Anthony Veiller’s screenplay (with a significant contribution from John Huston, uncredited) follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) being catapulted into a shadowy scheme that unfolds a past drenched in double-crossers, violence and cynicism. Unfolding the “why”, even if we know the ending, even if we don’t understand the fatal choices that will seal a man’s fate, is what keeps us captivated. It’s the incursion into the dark and the unknown dangers, the atmosphere of fright that we are attracted to.
Burt Lancaster, in his debut role, became a star overnight. “Unlike the expansive and exaggerated characterisations of years later, the Lancaster of film noir kept his energy levels under rigid control, rarely extending himself and then only to withdraw quickly like a hunted animal,” wrote Robert G. Porfirio in his essay, “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir, from 1976.” Ava Gardner also had her breakthrough performance as beautiful, sultry, double-crossing Kitty Collins. The ultimate femme fatale role was made for Ava Gardner. Her time on screen was brief, but Siodmak made the best of it. “A lot of people have told me through the years that it was The Killers that set me on the road to stardom, that defined my image as the slinky sexpot in the low cut dress, leaning against a piano and setting the world on fire,” Ava wrote in her biography. She said Siodmak coached her to create her seductive character with cat-like movements and expressions. But she didn’t need the skills of any cameraman to heighten her raw sexuality. It was instinctively hers. “Whatever it is, whether you’re born with it or catch it from a public drinking cup, she’s got it,” Humphrey Bogart remarked.
Ava Gardner’s wardrobe was designed by Vera West, the head costume designer at Universal from 1928 to 1947. The signature one-strap gown in black satin Ava is wearing mimics the dark nature of the film itself and recalls to mind another famous black satin gown, Jean Louis’ design for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, also released in 1946. To it, Kitty is wearing a pair of black silk velvet sandals made for her by Salvatore Ferragamo. Swede, Burt Lancaster’s character, is entranced by her beauty when he first sees her in the black dress, leaning against a piano to sing in a hyper-stylised moment when he can’t take his eyes off of her. His girl, Lilly, also knows that he’s finished with her from that moment on.
In the scene at the Green Cat café, where Kitty Collins reveals to Reardon in flashbacks what she knows about the robbery, she wears a sweetheart neckline dress with structured shoulders, a “pancake hat” with a net-like band tied around the neck and a stolen spider emblem brooch – a reference to the femme fatale and the way she weaves her lies and traps. The name of the café itself, Green Cat, is an obvious allusion to her feline name, Kitty. There is an aura of danger and fatal attraction that surrounds the place, one of those places we don’t find in reality, but which only exist in the world between pulp fiction and existentialism of film noir.
The trench coat Kitty is wearing is almost as indispensable in film noir as bad weather and the time of night. The rolled-up sleeved shirts, sweaters and knee-length skirts are not. But Kitty looks anything but innocent in them. Her sultry look and magnetism were enough to establish her as a femme fatale. Ava Gardner was one of “the sweater girls” of the ’40s and ’50s, a term that described Hollywood actresses like her, Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, who adopted the fashion of wearing sweaters two sizes too small to emphasize their busts and enhance their sex appeal. In the fabric rationed 1940s, function played a bigger role than fashion, which ultimately brought simple shirts like the ones Kitty dons into fashion.
Ava also wore almost no make-up at all in the film. When she came on the set with her face covered in regulation MGM make-up (she had a contract with MGM and she was borrowed by the Universal studio for The Killers), Robert Siodmak ordered her to wash it off. She wore no make-up, except for Vaseline on her skin to create a soft sheen, and lipstick. The natural lighting, which accounts for the deep visual impact of the film, was enough to give Kitty “a soft glow, making her appear even more sensuous”. Ava Gardner’s biographer, Lee Server, wrote that “the smooth ivory tone of her skin produced such a pure white image that Bredell [Elwood Bredell, the cinematographer] based his whole lighting treatment around it”. And why wouldn’t he? No woman ever looked more fatale with that look in her eye and a cigarette in her hand. That’s how movies used to be, that’s how film noir created its own language: finding a streak of poetry in the light coming out of a street pole in a dark alley, or in the smoke of the omnipresent cigarette, or in the glowing face of a deadly femme fatale that got under the viewer’s skin.