Max and Al are hardened criminals. They’re members of organized crime who have come to Summit solely for the purposes of tracking down and shooting in cold blood an ex-prizefighter they’ve never met. They’re carrying guns, they tie up and gag our most likeable character, and they’re all around complete jerks. That being said, they’re also comedians.
WHAT? Yes, that’s right, comedians. Read any criticism of "The Killers" and you’ll find some mention of Al and Max as the classic vaudeville duo. A lot of this stems from a single line in the story ("In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team"), which just goes to show you how powerful a single word can be for a terse writer like Hemingway. But if the vaudeville argument is sparked by this statement, it’s certainly justified by the rest of the killers’ behavior.
First, you’ve got to know a little bit about vaudeville, which was comedic, stage-show-type performances made up of multiple, unrelated acts. It was basically SNL, but hokier and with a bit more dancing about, so throw a little Three Stooges into the mix. Or, just watch a bit of this vaudeville video.
The argument that the killers are a comedic duo goes a little something like this: Al and Max interact primarily with each other, not the other three men – so it’s almost as though they’re performing for them. In fact, their little "show" lasts just about an hour, just like a real vaudeville act. They also pull off the classic "two-man act" thing, a back-and-forth routine between "the straight man" and the "silly comic" who was often Jewish. It’s been pointed out that Al is Jewish, because Max makes that joke about the "kosher convent." And just think about the way they’re dressed: gloves, mufflers, overcoats, derby hats – they sort of fit the bill. PLUS, think about the opening line of "The Killers"; it’s basically the start of a "So, two guys walk into a bar…" joke.
Needless to say, this is a bit contradictory. How can they be killers and comedians? Well, much the same way that a cheesy, mob-movie-style scenario can go down in a very realistic small-town setting. The killers’ duality represents the story’s duality, the theatrical-silliness-meets-stark-realism thing that we talk about in our discussion of genre.
Since you probably want some evidence by now, check out these two key lines. In the first scene, Max asks, "Do we look silly?" He means it sarcastically, but it gets new meaning in the second half of the story when Nick tells Ole about the killers and we hear that "it sounded silly when he said it." On top of that, Al straight up accuses Max of talking "silly." Now if you’ve heard anything any one has ever said about Hemingway, you’ll know that the man doesn’t use the same key word three times in a row by accident. He wasn’t short a thesaurus, he was making a point. This stuff is silly. It is theatrical. And it’s totally messed up to have dramatic, clichéd mobsters step out of a movie set and into the real world of Nick Adams and Co. If it’s jarring or confusing or contradictory for us, that’s because it’s also all of those things for Nick.
The differences between Max and Al help to highlight this duality further. Al is the clear tough guy. He’s more aggressive in his taunting, he’s the one with the gun, he’s the one who ties up Nick and Sam in the kitchen, and he even the delivers the oh-so-clichéd phrase about "blow[ing] [George’s] head off." He’s also the more professional criminal: he chastises Max for talking too much and is nervous about leaving behind three witnesses. "It’s sloppy," he says.
Max, on the other hand, is Mr. Nice Guy, or at least as nice as you can get when attempting a professional hired hit. He repeatedly tries to make conversation with George while they’re waiting. "Why don’t you say something?" he asks; "Talk to me," he demands, and then, "Talk about something else." He also mentions "keeping amused" both "bright boy" and himself. He even says of George, straight up, "Bright boy is nice. He’s a nice boy. I like him." Of course you could argue that he’s being sarcastic here, but that’s a tough sell. Everything we see indicates that he’s being genuine, most importantly the fact that, when it’s time to leave, Max is the one to make sure the three men stay alive. "They’re all right," he says. So if "The Killers" is a case of theatrical drama meeting bare realism, then we know which killer is which. (Um, that would be Al = theatrical.)
What’s so fascinating about this duality is the way it complicates our understanding of the killers (and, consequently, of "The Killers"). Just how serious are these guys? Just how savvy are they? Are they foppish fools, or are they competent assassins? There are definitely signs that point to the men being foppish fools – the question is just whether they’re faking it or not. Max asks the name of the town, and Al comments afterwards that he’s never heard of it. OK…but if they tracked Ole here to kill him, wouldn’t they know where they were? Indeed, Al later insists: "We know damn well where we are." OK, so that’s Faking: 1 Foppish: 0. Now look at the passage where George brings out the meals – Max takes the wrong dish, and Al doesn’t say anything. We can’t think of a reason to pretend here, so that’s 1 point for "Foppish." Of course, you could go on and on in this vein. When Al asks the second time for Nick’s name, is he pretending to have forgotten it from a mere few moments before? It’s hard to say.
So the bad news is, it’s ambiguous. But the good news is, it’s ambiguous, so your options for arguments are pretty limitless here. One scholar even argues that Max and Al are an iteration of Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So have a field day.