Siodmak's film is the first of two films that were based on Ernest Hemingway's short story The Killers, published in Scribner's magazine in 1927. The second film was directed by Don Siegel in 1964. Both films announce their literary origins in their screen titles by referring to Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, and the first ten minutes of Siodmak's film follow the original very closely. The short story, however, ends with the killers leaving the diner to look for Swede, and the bulk of both films is taken up with an explanation of the reasons for his murder and is, therefore, non-Hemingway in origin.
It was, however, the divergence of the film from the original Hemingway that preoccupied the English critics in 1946. The Observer's critic CA Lejeune wrote:
'... at this point the Hemingway short story ended and so does the film as a ponderable work ... Due to lack of invention, lack of imagination or simply lack of talent, it proves to be a mere bumble, signifying nothing.'
Lejeune's evident dislike of the film's structural complexity was taken up by another writer who complained that 'either this film is or I am. Except for the first ten minutes when the killers take over the milk bar [sic], I never knew who was who or what was what.'
The Spectator's critic noted that:
'Lack of characterization also spells death to The Killers. I could not believe in any of them, even within the accepted conventions of the type of story. The film is a gangster affair which has strayed from its class and is trying to appear grown-up.'
There are several related themes running through these and the other contemporary reviews: an equation of 'literariness' with artistic merit, a dislike of formal complexity and a demand for 'human interest' or 'social comment' - all of which have militated against serious critical consideration not simply of The Killers but also of the film noir in general. The qualities of film noir are visual rather than literary; the form is of paramount importance and is diametrically opposed to the 'social realism' favoured by the critical consensus.
The critic Manny Farber has described The Killers as being 'sculpted in dark and light' and this opposition is of crucial significance. Darkness and night predominate. The film opens on a highway at night with the killers bringing death out of the darkness. Everything that happens subsequently takes place in the shadows: in Swede's room, lit momentarily by gunshots, in the gang's hideaway, in the morgue where Swede's shattered body lies, stiff with rigor mortis ('got eight slugs in him,' says the mortician, 'near tore him in half.'). Darkness reigns over Reardon's savage confrontation with Dum Dum and at Colfax's house when the gang-leader is gunned down.
The shadows disappear in the scene on the roof-top patio where Lieutenant Lubinsky and his wife help Reardon by throwing light on Swede's past. In the daylight Reardon gains a partial resolution to his mystery, but then plunges back into darkness, and death regains its dominance over goodness and life. The shadows and shafting light created a sense of entrapment and claustrophobia, which also emanates from the film's settings. The feeling of control and constriction is even extended into individual camera shots - for example, in the elaborate shot of the robbery where, as in the opening scenes of later film noirs such as They Live by Night (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958), the camera seems to hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles.
The narrative of The Killers is structured by Reardon's investigation of Swede's death, which we witness at the start of the film. The element of suspense is largely absent since the viewer does not have to wonder if Swede will live, but merely feels curious about the reason for his murder. The sensation is of watching an elaborate but pre-determined game being played out. As in Out of the Past (dir Jacques Tourneur, 1947), the past weighs so heavily on the present as to displace it. Swede is literally doomed from the start. Reardon pursues a largely pointless investigation since his company is not interested in so trivial a case and his boss wants him to drop it. Reardon, like other modern, existential heroes, is caught up in an absurd situation and is simply trying to penetrate a corner of the darkness and confusion which, in the world of film noir, can be read as a metaphor for life itself.
Consciously or not, The Killers undercut the largely positive, optimistic outlook of most American cinema of the period, opposing it with a world-view that seemed to have more in common with post-war existentialist philosophy. This was one of the reasons for the popularity of these films in France in the Forties and Fifties. Today the importance of films like The Killers lies not simply in their explicit narrative content but primarily in their relevance to current critical questions such as modernism - the investigation of form as being significant in itself.