“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 Gardner, Ava: My Story
After five years of casting Ava Gardner in small and uncredited parts, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) loaned out their 23-year-old contract player to different studios for two 1946 productions. The first of these films, Whistle Stop from Allied Artists, paired Ava as the female lead opposite seasoned actor George Raft. While this first film was a box-office success and garnered Ava her best reviews to date, it was her second film on loan-out, The Killers from Universal Studios, that would catapult Ava to stardom and insure her a lasting place in Hollywood history. After seeing her performance in Whistle Stop, producer Mark Hellinger's only choice to play the lead female role in his production of The Killers was Ava Gardner. The character of Kitty Collins was that of the archetypal femme fatale, a beautiful woman who ultimately brings disaster to the men around her. In the case of The Killers, Kitty was the mastermind behind a major double-cross.
Ava Gardner owned this leather-bound script of her star-making film The Killers. This script, which is now part of the museum’s permanent collection, includes gold, embossed lettering on the cover and spine listing the names of the film and star.
The Killers short story by Ernest Hemingway first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. It was an instant hit with readers and has since become one of Hemingway's most famous short stories. Years after the work’s first publishing, producer Mark Hellinger reportedly paid Hemingway $36,750 for the film rights to the story. Hellinger hired screenwriter Anthony Veiller to develop the script. Although uncredited, writer/director John Huston was also solicited to enhance the film’s final screenplay. The first 20 minutes of the film closely follow Hemingway’s original narrative, but the remainder of the film, focused on the murder investigation, was wholly new and original.
The text on this publicity image reads: “Kitty Collins was what happened to the big Swede. He took a two-year rap for her, and when he came out – it was the double-cross to end all double-crosses.”
The director of The Killers, Robert Siodmak, hailed from Germany and began his career working in silent film. Siodmak fled Germany at the outbreak of World War II and found refuge in Hollywood. As American aesthetics changed during and after the war, filmmakers and audiences began to embrace more visual and narrative realism. Siodmak’s background and early years at UFA studios during the age of German Expressionism, a style known for using the camera to produce exaggerated manipulations of light and shadow, made him perfectly suited for this shift in tastes. In The Killers he was able to fuse elements of German Expressionism with newly adopted techniques in location shooting to create a taut, gritty thriller.
The distinctive musical score for The Killers was composed by Miklos Rózsa. Born in Hungary, Rózsa, like Siodmak, had his early training in Germany. At the start of WWII, Rózsa’s film work took him to Hollywood, where he chose to remain, becoming an American citizen in 1946. His Oscar-nominated score for The Killers is perhaps most recognizable today for its later sampling in the popular TV series Dragnet – specifically the rising and falling “dum-de-dum-dum” portion of the musical theme.
Before pursuing a career in Hollywood, Ava Gardner was a student in Wilson, North Carolina at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College). When The Killers was released, the Wilson Theatre displayed a large poster of Ava Gardner and announced on its marquee: “Wilson’s Own / Ava Gardner / The Killers.”
The Killers opened at New York City’s Winter Garden Theatre on August 28, 1946. The film generated $10,341 at the theatre’s box office on its the first day, exceeding a previous house record by over $3,000. As the studio release of the film expanded nationwide, The Killers received almost universal praise from both audiences and critics. The film ultimately earned four Academy Award nominations in 1947 – Best Director, Best Editing, Best Music Scoring, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Since its original premiere, it has only grown in popularity and importance as a quintessential example of the film noir genre.
In her autobiography, Ava: My Story, Ava said of starring in The Killers:
“Until I played Kitty Collins [in The Killers], I’d never worked very hard in pictures, never taken my career very seriously. I felt no burning ambition to become a real actress. I was just a girl who was lucky enough to have a job in pictures. Playing Kitty changed that, [the film] showed me what it meant to try to act, and [it] made me feel that I might have a little talent in that area after all.”
According to the book Living with Miss G by Mearene Jordan, Ava made $200 per month at the time she made The Killers, but for her loan out Universal Studios paid MGM $1,000 per week for seven weeks. Despite her small salary compared to what the studio received in fees, Ava felt valued and appreciated while working with the film’s producer. In Ava: My Story, Ava said of the producer, “I liked Mark Hellinger at once, because I could tell he saw me as an actress, not a sexpot. He trusted me from the beginning, and I trusted him. And he gave me a feeling of responsibility about being a movie star that I’d never for a moment felt before.”
In addition to being Ava’s big break, The Killers also launched the careers of character actor William Conrad and Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, with the film giving them both their first credited screen roles. Lancaster was 32 years old and a former circus acrobat when he landed the role of Ole “The Swede” Anderson. Hellinger was so pleased with Lancaster’s performance when he first saw the rushes that he allegedly yelled in the screening room, “So help me, may all my actors be acrobats!”
This advertisement declares Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner to be the “hottest box-office combination on the screen!” The success of The Killers prompted MGM to cast Ava Gardner in The Hucksters, opposite newcomer Deborah Kerr and Ava’s childhood film idol Clark Gable.
The film was widely lauded by audiences and critics alike when it was first released. In his review of The Killers, longtime New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, "Burt Lancaster gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who's wooed to his ruin. Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him.”
Critics in Ava’s home state of North Carolina also praised the film. In The Pilot newspaper from Southern Pines, NC the reviewer stated: “Adapted from Ernest Hemingway's classic, The Killers has been made into a brilliant piece of screen storytelling. This tense human drama features a trio of young dynamic players in Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmund O'Brien and, in true Hemingway style, the sharply-etched characters leave a definite impact on the mind.”
Ava Gardner's family gifted this Ilford photo paper box to the museum. Ava used manila envelopes and boxes like this to organize her personal scripts, notes, and clippings for her various films. On the lid, you can read the inscription in Ava's own hand. She simply uses the word "Me" when listing out the cast of The Killers.
Biographer Carlos Baker shared in his work Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story that The Killers was the first film adaptation from any of his literary works that Hemingway actually liked and enjoyed watching. In Ava: My Story, Ava Gardner said, “After Mark Hellinger, the producer, gave [Hemingway] a print of his own, he’d invariably pull out a projector and show [The Killers] to [his] guests.” According to the book Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era, Hemingway so loved Ava Gardner’s mix of sexuality and vulnerability in the film that, years later, he urged producer Darryl F. Zanuck to cast her in the roles of Cynthia Green in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and as Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises (1957).
After wrapping production on The Killers, the film’s stars, Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, made a delightful series of promotional photos on the beach showcasing their athleticism.
Since audiences first experienced The Killers on the big screen, Hemingway’s popular short story and the original movie’s screenplay have been reimagined for radio, television, and subsequent film adaptations. In June 1949, Burt Lancaster reteamed with William Conrad to perform alongside Shelley Winters in the Screen Director’s Playhouse half-hour radio play of The Killers. In 1959, Ingemar Johansson, Dean Stockwell, and Diane Baker starred in a televised production of the story for CBS’s Buick-Electra Playhouse. Later, director Andrei Tarkovsky created a 19-minute short film based on Hemingway’s work. In 1964, director Don Siegel produced a new film version of the story featuring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan. Clips from the original 1946 film even appear in director Carl Reiner’s send-up to film noir, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) starring Steve Martin.
In 2018, the museum commissioned North Carolina-based fashion designer Danielle Wiggins to recreate Ava Gardner's iconic black dress from The Killers. Danielle's fashion line, Dani Oliva, is inspired by classic Hollywood glamour, so she was the perfect choice.
With frequent screenings at film festivals around the world and regular airings on Turner Classic Movies, Hellinger’s production of The Killers continues to excite viewers and influence filmmakers to this day. In 2008, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and, therefore, selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Recently, The Film Foundation partnered with Universal Pictures to restore the film for the digital age. With Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg providing their technical expertise, a new 4K digital restoration of The Killers premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2018.