“[Y]ou better not think about it.” Those are the last words of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” published in a 1927 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. The “it” referred to here is the death of Ole Anderson at the hands of his gangland assassins—a death to which he submits despite the chance to escape.
Better not think about it? The easygoing diner proprietor can give us all the sage advice he’d like. We know we won’t heed it. Are there some things we’d best not contemplate? Sure. But they’re often the things most worth thinking about—and the things we most want to think about, unhealthy though they are for us. (Hell, you’re the one who would read a story or watch a movie called “The Killers.” What were you expecting? A nursery rhyme?)
Noir makes us think about the things we’d “better not think about.” It forces us to acknowledge the depravity lurking on the outskirts of (and sometimes smack dab in the middle of) normalcy. It catches the audience indulging its interest in the perverse… and thus reveals the audience’s own perversity.
Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers spins a complex, flashback-driven tale of erotic obsession and crime, using Hemingway’s story as a kind of prelude. If you read the story, you can see that the dialogue in the film’s first 10 minutes was lifted almost word for word from the tense account of two big-city toughs waiting in a diner for their target.
So, what does cinema as a medium add to the text? Siodmak’s images explore the crevasse of subtext carved out between Hemingway’s lines.
Consider the slick silhouettes of the two assassins, shadow men whose mere presence corrupts the sleepy berg of Brentwood, as they approach steadily, implacably under the credits. The appearance of the two killers has all the horrifying impact of a foreign invasion. (I daresay a number of emigrés, Siodmak included, would associate such an image with the relentless Gestapo agents who’d pursued them in Europe.)
Hemingway describes the killers as resembling “a vaudeville team.” By 1946, however, their laconic swagger brands them not as creatures of the stage but of the screen. They come from Noir Country—but the border isn’t as far away as we’d like to believe. Like bogeymen, the mugs you thought existed only on film might descend on your town, Siodmak seems to suggest. Don’t think to yourself, “It can’t happen here.” It can. It does.
At one point in the diner hold-up, William Conrad moves right past the camera, his bulk eclipsing our vision for a moment, antagonizing and disrespecting the viewer as he does the hapless small-town denizens he meets. He violates our personal space, as though coming out of the screen to bully us.
Or let’s ponder those sensuous, borderline feminized shots of the ever-masochistic Swede, looking at the door of his room with something like longing, anticipating his violent death as though waiting for a lover. Attracted by the brutality of prizefighting then by a woman who labels herself as poison, Swede’s always had a death wish. But perhaps that’s something we’d better not think about.