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Hemingway's The Killers - Starring Burt Lancaster

In early September 1946 the Hemingways moved to Sun Valley. Hemingway loved the bracing air and excellent hunting. As Carlos Baker points out in his 1969 biography of Hemingway “...they dined on game nearly every night, with mountain sheep, elk and venison steaks, pheasants and ducks. After the departure of his brothers, Patrick, who was spending the year out of school, bagged a fat buck for the table. Jack Hemingway returned in October to fish for steelhead trout and celebrate his twenty-third birthday.”

Jack's birthday was marked by a special showing of the film The Killers, based on Hemingway's short story of the same name from 1926, which is one of Hemingway's finest and builds in strength, tension, and terror with every word. It was an ideal vehicle for a Hollywood movie.

The film was made in early 1946, and produced by Mark Hellinger who'd worked for Zanuck at Fox but now had his own production company.

Hellinger was born on the Upper East Side of New York in 1903 and became a buddy of the columnist Walter Winchell, a drinking pal of Bogart's, and firm friends with leading mobsters of the day. He wrote a column for the New York Mirror (which boasted 22 million readers) that was made up of “...short, swift, sobby little tales of Broadway that were so sentimental they could only have been written by a cynic.”

Hellinger also wrote story lines for several hit movies of the 1930s, most notably Broadway Bill, and The Roaring Twenties.

As Kate Buford has written, Hellinger:

...had a newspaperman's instinct for the story behind what were called, then, '...the little people...',

meaning he could make something out of very little. Hellinger's wife was a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, and once out in Hollywood the cigar smoking Hellinger raced around in a huge black Cadillac which had been a death bed gift from a New York mobster. When not driving around he
strutted like James Gagney playing George M. Cohan. In 1945 the burning question (one of several million in 1940s Tinseltown) was could old Mark get Hemingway (who hated Hollywood and what they'd done to his novels) to sell The Killers, and secondly make a seven and a half page story
into a ninety minute movie?”

Hellinger flew out to Cuba, got as drunk as a lord with Hemingway, who agreed to sell the screen rights to the kid from the Upper East Side for $36,700. Hellinger now had the instant draw of Hemingway's name. What he now needed was a young man to play what Hemingway describes as a 'big Swede,' the guy the two hit men are looking for.

What Hellinger hadn't told Hemingway was that his famous short story was in many ways just a front for a bigger back-story Hellinger had already sketched out based on a successful 1920s New York heist where the gang fall out with one another, with each one of them getting bumped-off, and
the money disappearing.

The producer's story line was then passed to Richard Brooks to work it into a first draft script who suggested it might be best to get Hemingway bumped-off before he got to see the finished film.

Brooks' script was then passed to John Huston who was on leave from the army, and looking for additional work to top-up his screenwriting contract with Warners. Huston's finished script was then sent to Anthony Veiller for polishing before being given to director/producer Jed Harris to
comment on. Harris liked it.

But Hellinger still didn't have his 'big Swede', until he met Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster had been told Hellinger was looking for a tall guy and that he should get along to Hellinger's office at Universal. Lancaster made an appointment ( he'd been sent a copy of the script), borrowed a jacket from Robert Preston, and sat on the steps of Hellinger's bungalow waiting for the producer to return from lunch. When Hellinger spotted him he knew he'd found his man.

You Lancaster?”

Yeah. You Hellinger?”

Lancaster, a trained acrobat and trapeze artist, talked and moved slowly, and came from the same district of New York as Hellinger.

You like the script?”

Fair, could be worse.”

In fact it was the first movie script Lancaster had ever seen, let alone read.

After a good deal of haggling Hellinger eventually signed Lancaster to a three picture deal - $20,000 for The Killers, with the next two pictures at $45,000 and $65,000 respectively. It was Lancaster's big breakthrough.

The film was directed by Hollywood veteran Robert Siodmak, and starred a young Ava Gardner, with Edmond O'Brien, Sam Levene, and Albert Dekker.

The film did well at the box office, and no one had to bump-off Hemingway.

After the private screening for Jack's birthday Hemingway proclaimed it was best goddam thing Hollywood had ever made out of one of his stories.

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