It stars Burt Lancaster in his film debut, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, and Sam Levene. The film also features William Conrad in his first credited role, as one of the titular killers. An uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks co-wrote the screenplay, which was credited to Anthony Veiller.
Two hitmen, Max and Al (William Conrad and Charles McGraw), come to a small town to kill Pete Lund, known as "The Swede" (Burt Lancaster). The Swede's coworker at a gas station warns him but, strangely, he makes no attempt to flee, and they kill him in his hotel room. ("The Swede" is soon revealed to be Ole Andreson.)
Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned to find and pay the beneficiary of his policy. Tracking down and interviewing the dead man's friends and associates, Reardon doggedly pieces together his story. Police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a close, longtime friend of the Swede, is particularly helpful.
Through flashbacks, it is revealed that the Swede was a professional boxer whose career was cut short by an injury to his right hand. Rejecting Lubinsky's suggestion to join the police force, the Swede gets mixed up with a bad crowd, including "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker). He drops his girlfriend Lily (Virginia Christine) for the more glamorous Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). When Lubinsky catches Kitty wearing stolen jewelry, the Swede "confesses" to the crime and serves three years in prison.
When the Swede gets out, he, "Dum Dum" Clarke (Jack Lambert), and "Blinky" Franklin (Jeff Corey) are recruited for a payroll robbery masterminded by Big Jim. Complicating matters is the fact that Kitty is now Big Jim's girl. The robbery nets the gang $250,000. When their rendezvous place (supposedly) burns down, all of the gang members but the Swede are notified of where to meet. Kitty then informs him that he is being double-crossed. The Swede takes all of the money at gunpoint and flees. Kitty meets him later in Atlantic City, then disappears with the money.
Back in the present, Reardon watches the boarding house where Ole lived. Sure enough, Dum Dum shows up, searching for a clue as to the whereabouts of the loot. Reardon gets some information from the robber, but Dum Dum gets away before the police can arrest him.
When Reardon gets confirmation of one particular detail, he is certain he knows what happened. He goes to see Big Jim, now a very successful building contractor. Reardon lies, telling Big Jim that he has enough evidence to convict Kitty. He suggests that Kitty contact him. She agrees to meet him, and they go to a nightclub at her suggestion. However, after she goes to the ladies' room, Max and Al show up and try to kill Reardon. Fortunately, he and Lubinsky are ready for them, and the two hitmen are slain instead.
Reardon and Lubinsky head to Big Jim's mansion, but are too late to stop Dum Dum and Big Jim from killing each other. Reardon explains that when he discovered that the fire that destroyed the rendezvous point had been set hours after Kitty was sent to notify everyone of the new meeting place, he realized that Kitty and Big Jim, her husband, had been setting up the Swede. Dum Dum finally figured out the truth as well. When Lubinsky asks the dying Big Jim why he had the Swede killed, Big Jim tells him he could not take the chance that another member of the gang might find the Swede, as he had. Kitty begs her husband to exonerate her in a deathbed confession, but he dies first.
The first 20 minutes of the film, showing the arrival of the two contract killers, and the murder of "Swede" Andreson, is a close adaptation of Hemingway's short story. The rest of the film, showing Reardon's investigation of the murder, is wholly original. According to Hemingway's biographer, Carlos Baker, The Killers "was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire."
Producer Mark Hellinger paid $36,750 for the screen rights to Hemingway's story, his first independent production. The screenplay was written by John Huston (uncredited because of his contract with Warner Bros.) and Richard Brooks.
Lancaster was not his first pick for the part of "the Swede", but Warner Brothers wouldn't lend out actor Wayne Morris for the film. Other actors considered for the part include: Van Heflin, Jon Hall, Sonny Tufts, and Edmond O'Brien, who was instead cast in the role of the insurance investigator. In the role of the femme fatale, Kitty Collins, Hellinger cast Gardner, who had up to then appeared virtually unnoticed in a string of minor films.
The sequence of opening chords of Miklós Rózsa's theme music was later reused for the Dragnet television series.
The Killers is used as an example of film noir cinematography in the documentary Visions of Light (1992).
The film's appeal derives from breaking the traditional narrative structure by using a number of flashbacks.
When the film was first released, Bosley Crowther gave it a positive review and lauded the acting. He wrote, "With Robert Siodmak's restrained direction, a new actor, Burt Lancaster, gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who's wooed to his ruin. And Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him up. Edmond O'Brien plays the shrewd investigator in the usual cool and clipped detective style, Sam Levene is very good as a policeman and Albert Dekker makes a thoroughly nasty thug. ... The tempo is slow and metronomic, which makes for less excitement than suspense."
In a review of the DVD release, Scott Tobias, while critical of the screenplay, described the drama's noir style, writing, "Lifted note-for-note from the Hemingway story, the classic opening scene of Siodmak's film sings with the high tension, sharp dialogue, and grim humor that's conspicuously absent from the rest of Anthony Veiller's mediocre screenplay. ... A lean block of muscles and little else, Burt Lancaster stars as the hapless victim, an ex-boxer who was unwittingly roped into the criminal underworld and the even more dangerous gaze of Ava Gardner, a memorably sultry and duplicitous femme fatale. ... [Siodmak] sustains a fatalistic tone with the atmospheric touches that define noir, favoring stark lighting effects that throw his post-war world into shadow."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 100 percent of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 29 reviews.
WinsEdgar Award: Edgar; from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture, Anthony Veiller (writer), Mark Hellinger (producer), and Robert Siodmak (director); 1947.
Nominations—1947 Academy AwardsBest Director: Robert Siodmak.
Best Film Editing: Arthur Hilton.
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture: Miklós Rózsa.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Anthony Veiller.
American Film Institute ListsAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated
The Killers was dramatized as a half-hour radio play on the June 5, 1949 broadcast of Screen Director's Playhouse, starring Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters and William Conrad.
In 1958, director Andrei Tarkovsky, then a film student, created a 19-minute short based on the story which is featured on the Criterion Collection DVD release.
The film was adapted in 1964, using the same title but an updated plot. Originally intended to be broadcast as a TV-movie, it was directed by Don Siegel, and featured Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan, who, as a formidable villain, famously slaps Dickinson across the face. Siegel's film was deemed too violent for the small screen and was released theatrically, first in Europe, then years later in America.
Scenes from The Killers were used in the Carl Reiner film noir spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). starring Steve Martin.
Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has written a screenplay for a new adaptation of The Killers.