Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in The Killers (1946) was one of noir’s most stunning and destructively seductive femmes.
For Gardner The Killers came at a crucial time in a young but seemingly stalled career. She’d gone seven months without work, and was in a difficult marriage with bandleader Artie Shaw that made her feel more insecure than loved. At his urging she started seeing a psychoanalyst, and instead of helping, the expert filled her head with new doubts, fears and damaging guilt about her life choices. She was also self-medicating her stress and pain with alcohol. At 23 she sometimes felt it was all over and needed something to grab onto.
Meanwhile, producer Mark Hellinger was deep into casting decisions for The Killers. He’d gone through thinking about Audrey Totter, finished considering Leslie Brooks, and started taking seriously a suggestion from Walter Wanger to go see Whistle Stop starring Gardner and George Raft, where he found his “Kitty Collins.” MGM loaned Gardner out to Universal for The Killers and it re-introduced her to movie audiences, this time as a star and as part of a hot couple with fellow newcomer Burt Lancaster. Gardner eventually became a better actress than she was here, even though she never considered herself much of one, but I don’t think she got enough juicy opportunities like this to demonstrate it, and certainly never got another noir this good. The Killers also caught her youthful beauty and possibly her most natural phase of acting, before she grew to dislike the experience.
The source story by Ernest Hemingway was developed by screenwriter Anthony Veiller, with help from John Huston and Richard Brooks and Scotch (uncredited). They structured the plot so you hear about Kitty, anticipate and gradually discover her in flashback as the woman capable of knocking out the Swede, an ex-fighter (not only his former vocation but also a good description of his current will to live).
Among the Breen office’s “suggestions” aka censorship notes, there were more objections to liquor than there were bottles consumed while writing the script. There were a few notes addressing one futile goal: on page 125 “Kitty and Swede should be fully clothed and end of sequence should be no suggestion of sex.” That’s a good one, tell me another. Tell it to the Swede, whose eyes whirl like barbershop poles at first sight of her. Tell it to the studio advertising department, who placed stories-high images of Gardner in alluring poses at theaters everywhere. You could fully clothe Ava Gardner in nuclear plant grade sheets of lead and it’s safe to say there might still be some suggesting going on.
Gardner always considered herself just a real, earthy looking regular gal, and ironically it was through deliberate simplicity and stripping away artificial glamour here in The Killers, that we got the best remembered image of Gardner, and an image that ended up both influential upon and representative of the look of the noir femme. Director Robert Siodmak and director of photography Woody Bredell instructed Gardner to go without makeup, and according to him it was the first time an adult actress did so in film. All they did was apply some vaseline to make the light shine and bounce off her skin, which created the stark contrast effect characteristic of the whole film. The acting got a make-under as well. Siodmak was constantly instructing her to do less, to do ‘half as much’ as she attempted in initial takes. Everyone looks at and admires her, so with relatively little screen time, Gardner is the focus of whatever scene she’s in. For her final scene, in which Kitty sees her luck run out, Gardner was nervous about working up her emotions and being believable. Siodmak’s solution was to berate, scold and threaten her so she would be suitably raw, rattled and frantic. As with most classics, it’s tough now to imagine anyone else in that role, Gardner “takes a powder and the movie goes with her.”
A version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES Super Special The Killers Giant issue.