Friday, 6 December 2013

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway, 1927

This is my contribution for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“What are you going to kill Old Andreson for? What did he ever do to you?
“He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.”
“And he’s only going to see us once,” Al said from the kitchen.

A classic story never dies. It lives on long after it is published and its writer has passed away from this world. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell (1924) and The Killers by Ernest Hemingway (1927) are just two examples of short stories that continue to enthral readers and viewers through early and modern adaptations retold via stories, novels, plays, films, and even comics. For instance, James Hadley Chase borrowed the basic premise of Richard Connell’s story for his 1969 novel The Vulture is a Patient Bird (1969), reviewed here. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I'd read it somewhere before.

The two short stories are so well written as to inspire the reader to try and write in a similar fashion. Those who write short stories know that writing one is not as easy as it seems. In Hemingway's case, you have to be a miser with words and generous with the narrative. Just as he was in his short story The Killers first published in Scribner’s magazine in March 1927 (see below) .

© www.library.sc.edu
The iconic writer is so annoyingly sparse with words that it’s a wonder there is a story at all. But that was his greatness. There is little description of the two mobsters, Al and Max, who walk into Henry’s lunchroom in Summit, a crime-infested suburb of Chicago, looking for a big Swede called Ole Andreson. They want to kill the former heavyweight prizefighter when he comes in for his daily supper. The hitmen are wearing derby hats, silk mufflers and gloves, and are hiding sawed-off shotguns under their tight overcoats. They look like twins and they're menacing in a quiet way.

While Al and Max wait for double-crosser Ole Andreson at the lunch counter, they order ham and eggs and bacon and eggs, and make fun of its owner, George, and the food on his menu, his black cook, Sam (who is referred to as “nigger”), and the only other diner, Nick Adams (frequently teased as “bright boy”). There is no description of George, Sam and Nick, or their thoughts and expressions, or their state of mind. But you know they're scared of what’s going to happen. If there is any description at all, it is to be found in the dialogue between the five characters, Ole Andreson, and his landlady.

A scene from the 1946 version of The Killers.

There is history behind this short story, just as there is history behind nearly every story written by Hemingway. Reading about it on the internet, I found that the writer lived in Chicago for a while. The city was under prohibition and organised crime was rampant. Summit was ruled by the mob. Those were the days of Al Capone. And a real boxer called Andre Anderson was killed by real gangsters, which formed the basis for this story. While Hemingway had intimate knowledge of gangland crime, he conceded that he left out most of it: “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2,951 words,” he has been quoted as saying.

Prohibition probably got to Hemingway, a heavy drinker, more than the gang wars. He sort of ridicules it in The Killers.

Women protest in Chicago.
“Got anything to drink?” Al asked.
“Silver beer, Bevo, ginger ale,” George said.
“I mean you got anything to drink?”
“Just those I said.”
“This is a hot town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”
“Summit.”

Hemingway was in his late twenties when he wrote the story and I'm not sure if he was already drinking a lot at the time.

Final word
As you read The Killers you'll mentally play it out on a black-and-white cinema screen. It's that kind of a story, fit for a low-budget noir film.

In fact, there are two full-length movies, made in 1946 (directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O'Brien) and in 1964 (directed by Don Siegel and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan). The 1946 version had Charles McGraw as Al and William Conrad as Max. Besides, there are at least four short films including a student film in 1956 made by Andrei Tarkovsky and others. Having never seen any I don't know how true the films are to the short story.


It’s a real talent to be able to narrate almost an entire story as a conversational piece and still retain all of the suspense intact. Ernest Hemingway was a past master at this storytelling.

24 comments:

  1. Been quite a while since I've read this one. I need to reread

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    1. Charles, I still haven't read all of Hemingway's novels and short stories and I hope to follow up this story with his other work. I like his style of writing.

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  2. Terrific post Prashant and a great subject - Hemingway's story is wonderfully allusive and allows the reader togo off in all sortts of imaginative directions. The 1946 movie is a bit of the classic though the opening 15 minutes, in essence all of the short story, is the best part of it - then we get lots of flashbacks in a story about a heist gone wrong. The 1964 version written by Gene L Coon is fascinating as the eponymous duo become the protagonists but otherwise has an almost completely new plot, though still about thieves fighting over money. The Tarkovski was a student production but is highly impressive in its own way - a DVD set from the Criterion company actually brought all three of these together and is well worth getting if you can.

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    1. Sergio, thank you very much. Hemingway will always be a great subject of debate. I didn't know about the 1946 & 1964 film versions of this short story but now that I do, I hope to watch them on the internet or try and get hold of the DVD set you mentioned. Thanks for bringing it to my notice.

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  3. Hemingway wrote some great short stories. I haven't seen the movie versions of THE KILLERS but after reading your review, I want to see them NOW!

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    1. George, thank you for the kind words. I marvel at the way Hemingway wrote, especially short stories, although some of his novels like FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS may not instantly appeal to readers.

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  4. I read the story so long ago, I barely remember it. But the 1946 film you can watch over and over. It was done in a great noir style and has wonderful performances, including William Conrad, one of my favorite scene stealers (who also played Matt Dillon on the radio "Gunsmoke" series). Thanks for the research; I didn't know about Summit. As for drinking during Prohibition, I understand that it continued pretty much unabated.

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    1. Ron, you're welcome, and thanks for your views about the 1946 film. I don't know anything about William Conrad and I look forward to watching him play Max in the film version of this story. There is a joke here that people drink more during prohibition than otherwise. One of our leading states still has it.

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  5. I've never been a huge fan of Hemingway's short stories, but this sounds like it might be for me. Maybe I've just read the wrong ones.

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    1. Kelly, I think you'll like THE KILLERS. Hemingway gives away and holds back with the same hand, if I can put it that way.

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  6. I've never read any Hemingway at all. (At least that I can remember.) I tried to, but...Maybe this terrific post will kick start me in his direction. :)

    Have you seen the wonderful Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Woody Allen's film, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS? In some strange way it really does make me want to read Hemingway as well.

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    1. Yvette, thank you! I have a couple of his slim novels that I want to re-read. I haven't seen MIDNIGHT IN PARIS but I've read about it: for instance, it has some fine actors playing famous writers and artists including F. Scott Fitzgerald enacted by Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki in the THOR movies. Another film to look out for, no doubt.

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  7. Great post Prashant. The 1946 Siodmak movie is terrific and you really ought to check it out. The opening is, as has been noted by Sergio, extremely faithful to the short story before expanding on it via multiple flashbacks.

    Colin

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    1. Colin, thank you very much. I can't ignore a recommendation from you and Sergio, so I'm definitely putting both the films on my list. I liked the look of the black-and-white stills from the 1946 version.

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  8. I'll join the chorus Prashant. This is indeed a great post. I love Hemingway's style and have read quite a few of his works though I don't remember reading this.

    I love the photo of the women protesting. Most of them seem to be wearing some weird kind of head-gear. The banner they carry is a winner.

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    1. Neer, I'm glad you enjoyed it, many thanks! I remember when I was in college I'd a couple of friends who read his novels and decided they wanted to write like him. I liked the picture too. I selected it from several others taken during prohibition in Chicago, which has a fascinating history.

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  9. I've always avoided his books as a bit too literary or wordy for my tastes - a bit of a daft stance to be honest, Maybe I ought to try something from him,

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    1. Col, as I noted above, Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is wordy, in the sense that he has used the literal translation of words, including expletives, as spoken in Spain at the time. The novel is set in the civil war. In contrast, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA is easier on the tongue, so to speak, written in his familiar storytelling style.

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    2. The Spanish Civil War attracts me because of my recent visit to Spain via Lime's Photograph. So possibly FWTBT, but the other one might be an easier introduction......decisions (and an embargo) to ponder.

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    3. Col, in that case you'll enjoy reading FWTBT. I'd like to know what you think of it. Frankly, it took me a while to get used to Hemingway's prose but I was hooked after the first 100 pages. I believe THE SUN ALSO RISES is his best-known novel and it's one I look forward to reading in coming months.

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    4. Stop please! Don't throw any more titles at me!

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    5. Col, fortunately, Hemingway hasn't written many novels though he has penned lots of short stories and some non-fiction too.

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  10. I guess I am going to have to find this story and read it. I have watched both movie versions on the Criterion DVD, so I should read the story. And then I can rewatch the movies. Great post, Prashant.

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    1. Tracy, thank you for the appreciation. I'm going to have to look for the Criterion DVD set although I doubt I'll get it readily, unless I place an order for it. You'll like the story to the extent that you'll be annoyed with Hemingway for the anti-climax.

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