Ernest Hemingway wrote the short story "The Killers" one morning in a hotel room in Madrid, Spain. His editor didn’t change a word of it before it was published, that same year, in Scribner’s Magazine. Since that first publication, it’s been included in many of Hemingway’s short story anthologies, including Men Without Women in 1927, The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1936, and The Nick Adams Stories in 1972. "The Killers" is considered one of Hemingway’s best works, so it’s not surprising that literally thousands of pages of literary criticism have been written about these 3000 words. (We even read an essay by Quentin E. Martin arguing that "The Killers" represents Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.) On top of that, three movie versions were made, two starting with Hemingway’s story and running off in derivative film noir glory.
Main character (although this description is subject to debate) Nick Adams has been the protagonist of many other of Hemingway’s short stories (hence the collection The Nick Adams Stories, which you would imagine might require quite a bit of Nick Adams). In these works, Hemingway basically explores Nick’s coming of age, from adolescence to adulthood, and all the stuff that goes with that. "The Killers" is par for the Nick Adams course, and in this tale we do hit a lot of these themes.
Why Should I Care?
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released. In their first scene of the film, we meet lead characters John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson – violent mobsters on the way to kill a man (or two, or three, depending on the situation). In the car ride there, they talk about…cheeseburgers. More specifically, they talk about the Quarter Pounder with Cheese and the fact that, in Europe, they have the metric system and have to call it something else.
Amazing, interesting, super-cool, but not entirely original. Go back a few years to Reservoir Dogs, out in 1992. We have a group of criminals talking about…tipping a waitress. The violent intertwined with the mundane – surely this is where it started?
Not quite, since we can go all the way back to 1972 and The Godfather for the famous post-whack line: "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis."
1972 -- wow! Talk about ahead of its time… Now indulge us for just one more scene: two hit men for the mafia staking out their target in a small-town diner. While they wait, they argue about the fact that the dinner options are listed on the menu, but the dishes aren’t available yet. What’s this from…Kill Bill? Casino? The Sopranos?
Nope. This is "The Killers" in 1927. Maybe you didn’t catch that year – 1927. Exclamation point. Hemingway did something very new by combining in his "bad guy" characters clichéd elements of criminality with the comic mundane things of everyday life – something which has since become a HUGE part of mob movies and a basic trademark for Quentin Tarantino. And Hemingway did it about fifty years before everybody else. So there’s got to be something about this motif that explains why it’s still around. What’s so powerful about hit men debating the ins and outs of quality coffee beans while a man lies dead in the garage?
Well, it’s clear that’s there’s something incredibly disturbing about the juxtaposition between everyday trivialities and these dangerous, violent men. In one sense, we’re bothered by the fact that they can’t seem to recognize the severity of what they do. To them, quality coffee is as important as the dead body. They’re at work doing their jobs, so they’re having water-cooler conversation. In another sense, we’re bothered by the fact that we identify with them.
Either way, these conversations reveal to us that something is definitely wrong. You’ll find as you read "The Killers" that it’s evident from the get-go: these men are bad news. And it builds suspense in this incredibly stylistic, artful, genre-specific way. Why? Because we know that any little squabble could turn into a gunfight. Consider Goodfellas: first you’ve got the "Am I a clown?" scene, where Joe Pesci makes a big deal out of Ray Liotta’s character calling him funny. As it turns out…he’s just kidding. No harm done. BUT, later in the film, the same sort of scene goes down again, this time ending with a bullet-wound. And that’s just it – we don’t know what to expect. In "The Killers," when the waiter comes out with two dishes and can’t remember which is which…let’s just say the thought crosses our minds.
So, in a nutshell, in response to every scholar who ever wrote about the "vaudeville philosophy" of Hemingway’s two killers, or the "theatrical yet realistic" quality of "movie clichés abounding in the reality of everyday life," we think the best way interpret "The Killers" is this: Pesci and De Niro meet Bert and Ernie.