Is there an idea to “The Killers”?


Noir is often characterized by pithy dialogue, rainswept city streets, the femme fatale, shadowy characters, tortuous plots, etc. These tropes certainly help one identify a style of noir, and you can find the tropes in all the literary examples of noir we shared for week two of Noir 106. But one of the things I find most interesting about noir as a literary and film genre is its profound questioning of what it all means? At its core, noir is the modern expression of a deep existential crisis of certainty and faith. The dark realization being there may be no rhyme or reason to it at all.

Back in 2007 I wrote a post about Robert Siodomak’s 1946 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” in which I elaborated on this theme:

Hemingway’s story was a tale about a man (the Swede) who refuses to run away from death and ultimately faces it with both resignation and dignity -an unfathomable reality for most- and for Hemingway the zenith of a darker sense of heroism. The director of this film, Richard Siodmak, was a German-born Jew who fled the rise of Nazism during the 1930s, arriving in the US in 1939 and began making films in Hollywood as early as 1941. He was also a filmmaker in Germany and his experience with sophisticated studio shooting and the brilliant lighting of black and white (prevalent in many films from Germany throughout the 1920s and early 1930s) brings much to the Hollywood noir style of the 1940s, some of which is readily apparent in the clip below.

THE KILLERS Intro from Jim Groom on Vimeo.

One of the things that occurred to me while watching this film for the umpteenth time was the ways in which the horrific, yet shadowy, realities of Nazism inform the first 10 minutes of this film. Adorno’s famous claim that ”After the Holocaust there can be no poetry,” or, as Daphne Merkin explains this quote, “in the wake of such mind-numbing atrocity, there can be only linguistic diffidence, an exhausted heap of words” (link) informs the ways in which the popular appeal of film Noir may have started immediately trying to speak to such an atrocity indirectly through allegorical images. Almost immediately after this global atrocity, Siodmak adapts a short story by Hemingway to comment on the unutterable horror of the legacy of Nazism using the figure of the Noir killers. Moreover, the ultimate violence of their being no perceivable idea, as they communicate to Nick Adams in the clip above, dramatically captures that sense of unfathomable horror that remains.

Another way to deal with this exhausted heap of words is to strip them down to almost nothing. And Hemingway’s style is one of the most powerful examples of just that. In “The Killers” Nick Adams asks the assassins, “What’s the idea?” To which they simply respond, “There isn’t any idea.” There’s never really an explanation of why they’re going to kill the Swede, they’re contract killers doing their job. And when Nick Adams races over to the Swede’s boarding-house to warn him, all he can say is, “There ain’t anything to do.” He is resigned to his death, and simply waits for the inevitable. There is no reason, there is no real explanation, it’s simply the way it is.

Now Hemingway’s short story has some telltale noir stylistics and tropes, you can almost see the two killers leaving the lunch-room in this passage:

The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the window, pass under the arc-light and cross the street. In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.

A stark, crisp description of the scene that immediately evokes what has come to be known as a noir setting. And the two killers are beautifully drawn: menacing, yet personable. They even let their hostages in the lunch-room live. But they’re not so modest that they don’t mention how fortunate they are:

“So long, bright boy,” he said to George. “You got a lot of luck.”
“That’s the truth,” Max said. “You ought to place the races, bright boy.”

But sparing their lives has nothing to do with mercy, it is simply chance. The killers seem to arbitrarily let them live. A moment wherein it becomes clear here isn’t any idea, only dumb luck. This marks the dark, existential frame for Hemingway’s story, and becomes a trademark for what I think of as noir more generally.

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