The screenplay for The Killers by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston (uncredited), is not so much an adaptation of Hemingway’s short story (1927), but an imaginative response and more strongly a rebuttal to the last few lines at the end of Hemingway’s text spoken by Nick Adams, the guy who runs from the diner to warn Ole Anderson (‘the Swede’) of the Killers’ arrival:
“I’m going to get out of this town”, Nick said… “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.”
After establishing the absolute resolve of the killers in the opening sequence, which is essentially faithful to Hemingway’s text, the film ventures on to explore the burning questions in the mind of the audience. What did the Swede do to warrant this retribution? Why doesn’t he run? In pursuing the story, the film’s ethos is that it takes courage not cowardice to confront and accept an inevitable – even violent – death.
In Hemingway’s text the Swede’s explanation to Nick is “I got it wrong”, but this is changed in the script to “I did something wrong – once”. These stronger words are the fulcrum of the picture. Ole’s repentance is established from the outset and his tragic redemption seared into the viewer’s sympathies even before his story unfolds. How the script and the director, Robert Siodmak, construct the narrative using flashbacks and the continuum of the insurance investigation is a lesson on filmic technique.
The ‘rap sheet’ read to insurance investigator, Jim Reardon, by his secretary, tells us that despite Ole losing his parents at a young age, he managed to grow up straight in a tough neighbourhood until after his career as a boxer is ended by an injury in his last fight, when he falls in with the wrong crowd, and ends up in the numbers racket. Ole’s life from that fight to his death is a story of betrayal. In the dressing-room after the fight, he is dumped by his manager and trainer without empathy or ceremony. Later, his childhood friend, a cop, let’s him take the rap for the femme fatale, who then goes on to betray him again when she enacts the final double-cross.
A decent man destroyed by fate: the stuff tragedy is made of.