Directed by Robert Siodmak, The Killers (1946) follows a life-insurance investigator whose main goal is to find the beneficiary of an insurance policy. As the film progresses and he realizes that the insured man, “the Swede,” was murdered, he becomes obsessed with the case and on trying to put all the pieces together. Based on Hemingway’s short story, the film is not only faithful in terms of the first scene’s plot, but it also draws on the modern sensibility that is conveyed in the original text by employing non-linear and subjective narrative strategies, by presenting a non-heroic hero, and by expressing themes of existentialism and absurdity.
Like most films noir, The Killers has a nontraditional narrative structure that suggests subjectivity and lack of objective truth. The voice over / flashback device present in this film creates a non-linear narrative that breaks away from traditional means of telling a story. This aspect of the film, like modernist literature, creates a sense of uncertainty and presents a lack of objectivity. This voice over / flashback technique is reminiscent of stream of consciousness in literature because it allows the audience to witness the interior worlds of the characters. In addition, it adds fluidity to the events and presents a reality based on individual perception. In this sense, the use of this technique further emphasizes the lack of defined truths and moral ambiguity present in the universe of the film. Besides employing voice over / flashback, the film presents multiple narrators and makes the audience wonder about the reliability of their testimonies. This device, found in modernist works, supports the overall idea that facts are nothing but social constructs and that they are open to individual experience and perception. Furthermore, as Telotte notes in Voices in the Dark, this subjectivity opens up the question of the self as “unconstructed, unthought, perhaps even meaningless,” which is also implied in the film (21).
In addition to the narrative strategies previously discussed, the use of the non-heroic hero is another important modernist aspect contributing to the lack of clear morals in The Killers. The Swede is essentially the antithesis of a noble hero; his life of crime and disregard for the rules suggest that this character has no moral compass. As with most films noir, morality becomes a gray area and mirrors the pessimistic attitude that was present in post-war American society. As mentioned by Telotte, the cultural shift eventually led to the negation of the American dream, which ultimately justifies the “pattern of self-examination and self-critique” found in these films (4). Furthermore, both the non-heroic hero and the investigator seem to be alienated individuals, which is reminiscent of the modern sensibility and adds a layer of moral complexity to the film.
Finally, on a larger scale, the sense of meaninglessness and absurdity found in The Killers is also evocative of the modernist movement. In the opening scene, the dialogue makes a direct reference to existentialist concerns when Nick Adams (Phil Brown) asks one of the killers why he must move to the other side of the counter by saying, “What’s the idea?” The killer in turn responds that, “There isn’t any idea,” which may suggest that there is no overall meaning in the universe of the film. This idea is further emphasized at the end, when the insurance investigator finally completes the puzzle and is reminded by his boss that solving the crime was meaningless in the first place. In addition, The Swede accepts his death when Nick goes to warn him and says that there is nothing he can do about it. These scenes not only reflect an overall attitude of absurdity, but they also illustrate the human condition.
Overall, The Killers is a notable example of a film that draws on modernist themes and devices to emphasize moral ambiguity. With the voice over / flashback and the multiple narrators, the concept of subjectivity becomes a central concern and it serves as a reminder that the universe, at least in the film, has no inherent meaning and that it is only defined by individual perception. In addition, the use of the non-heroic hero adds a layer of moral complexity to the film that reflects the concerns of post-war America. Lastly, a sense of meaninglessness and absurdity is evoked in various ways throughout the film, which makes a commentary on the human condition and on modernity itself.
Telotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. University of Illinois, 1989. pp. 4, 21.