Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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16 thoughts on “Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)”

  1. Ahhhhhh, one of my favorites in the film noir genre. It has one of my three favorite lines in all of movies: “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.” Great. Lancaster seeing Ava for the first time in the movie is dumbstruck and we literally watch his date watch the boat sail once he gets a gander at Ava. She really IS spectacular to look at. Enjoyed your piece on this film.

    1. I know, you’re so right, there’s no hope for Burt once he spots her. And weren’t they both gorgeous, I hardly know who to look at in some of their scenes together. Thanks so much for reading!

  2. Ava may be my favorite femme fatale of the classic film noir era. I heard somewhere that Hemingway always said this was his favorite film based on his work. Ava was in 3? Hemingway adaptions if I remember correctly.

    1. That’s right, and they had a friendship and a lot in common personality-wise as well. Not surprising he loved this incarnation of his character. Thanks!

  3. Aw, man, I keep wanting to see THE KILLERS, and somehow time I never watch the whole movie! I really like what I’ve already seen, but I need to see the rest of it! I’ve finally put THE KILLERS on TCM to mark it down for its future airing! (And it’s close to my birthday, too! :-D) Thanks for the heads-up, my friend, and have a great weekend!

    1. You have to see it, even if you end up not liking the story it’s worth it for the beautiful leads. Hope my double posts on Ava & Burt have got you into it. Check it out, also for the great supporting actors!

    1. Ha! I’ll have to pass that on to Karen! I agree, I don’t think Ava got a juicier role that also made full use of her looks like this did, it was ideal.

  4. Certainly my favourite Gardner role and one of the best femme fatales – although Phyllis Dietrichson is up there too! I love that she did this role without make-up & just got on with it – imagine the outcry that would accompany such as ‘scandalous’ decision today!

    1. Mine too, and what an interesting contrast to Phyllis, in look and approach, no makeup vs very deliberately “designed” styling, etc. Two totally different femmes and so influential and powerful in the genre.

  5. Kristina, I’ve finally been able to see your moving posts about THE KILLERS, and especially Ava Garner; it really touched me! So many people don’t really know the real star who is sad and needs real v It make me wish I were a kind doctor who chould can help her. Where’sa gras kind

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