The Killers, the 1946 insurance movie made from an Ernest Hemingway short story, is an overlooked classic that practically invented film noir. It’s in black and white and spookily lit.
It’s got that rude, choppy dialogue that Hemingway liked, and it introduced two mega movie stars to the big screen: Burt Lancaster, hopelessly hunky at age 32, and Ava Gardner, age 23. He plays Swede, a gangster, who gets murdered in the first 10 minutes. She is Kitty, the gorgeous, flirtatious, and cold-hearted dame who leads him into the lowlife. (“I’m poison, Swede,” she says, “to myself and everybody around me.”)
Swede gets mixed up with a crime kingpin and two of his henchmen, delightfully named Blinky and Dum Dum. But the hero is insurance investigator Reardon from Atlantic Casualty, who gets involved in Swede’s murder because of a $2,500 life insurance payout to a chambermaid who is Swede’s beneficiary.
The insurance boss tells Reardon to forget investigating the murder with its peanuts payout. But he knows that the obsessed Reardon will work for Prudential for more money if he doesn’t get his way. (Seriously.) Reardon, playing at being a real detective, pulls together zillions of plot threads, solves an old robbery, and does not go to work for Prudential.
The Killers made tons of money and was nominated—fruitlessly—for four Oscars. But it wrote the rules for the film noir genre, with its fedoras, frosted glass office doors, cheesy rooming houses and greasy diners. It also introduced a classic piece of scary music that was plunked out every time the bad guys showed up on screen. For reasons currently unknown, it became the theme music for the TV show “Dragnet” in 1951. Now that is a contribution.