What Cronenberg Owes to Hemingway


Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner as ‘The Swede’ and ‘Kitty Collins’, The Killers, Universal Pictures, 1946

by Daniel Roberts

By now, the 1946 noir classic The Killers, available on Criterion Collection DVD (currently our best indication that a movie is held in high regard), is likely better known than the work that inspired it, a 1927 Hemingway short story of the same name. That being said, both pieces of art are rather under the radar to anyone but true buffs of the medium: casual cinephiles are unlikely to have seen The Killers unless they have a special interest in noir, and even big readers of Hemingway will only have read “The Killers” if they’ve sought out the Nick Adams stories.

But a contemporary film that is popular indeed—David Cronenberg’s gruesome 2005 thriller A History of Violence—mirrors both sources. For all its violence and blood, the movie is no mere gangster flick; it’s an artful statement on identity and small-town comfort by a director that has studied the greats. Cronenberg, in interviews, has confirmed that the 1947 noir Out of the Past, among others, influenced A History of Violence. But Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, and by extension Hemingway’s story, has its tentacles all over Cronenberg’s very good film.

Before we go any further, and if you fear spoilers, you might want to watch these films and read the story. They’re both on Netflix, while the Hemingway tale has somehow made its way onto a public Scribd document.

In The Killers, the opening credits roll while two men in black suits and hats drive through a dark night into the small town of Brentwood, New Jersey. Ominous music plays as the goons park their car and walk across the street to a small diner. Soon enough, they’re sitting at the counter giving the waiter a hard time and issuing—often verbatim—the dialogue from Hemingway’s story, which begins right in the diner with two mean guys arguing over what items they can order, as Nick Adams sits by and watches.

In short time, the men are making veiled threats and teasing both the waiter, George, and Adams. “What do they do here nights?” asks the one named Al, and his partner Max answers, cynically, “They eat the dinner. They all come here and eat the big dinner.” (This line is especially well spoken in the film, by William Conrad; it’ll make you laugh and shudder.) Then they begin calling George a “bright boy.” Soon they ask Adams his name, and when he answers, Al says, “Another bright boy. Ain’t he a bright boy, Max?”

The “bright boy” refrain, with time, became more famous than the story from which it comes, and in fact The Great American Novel, Philip Roth’s 1975 baseball farce, pays tribute to the gag. Word Smith, Roth’s narrator, is describing a time when he sailed with Hemingway and they got into an argument over whether Smith, a sportswriter, stole Hemingway’s prose style. When Smith denies it, Hemingway, who calls Smith “Frederico” as a joke, says, “I suppose I stole it from you then.” Smith responds, “That isn’t what I said,” which prompts Hemingway to turn to the “baby-faced telegraph operator” on board and say, “Hear that, bright boy? That isn’t what he said. Tell the bright boy who I steal my ideas from, Frederico.” Smith: “Nobody, Hem.”

Film noir in general owes a large debt not just to Hemingway but to “hard-boiled” fiction writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others. The Killers continues to exemplify this gritty dialogue. When Max threateningly tells George not to laugh, and George weakly says, “All right,” Max tells Al, “He thinks it’s all right.” Al, playing along perfectly, says cruelly, “Oh, he’s a thinker.”

A History of Violence begins similarly to The Killers in terms of the first characters we see, but takes longer to heat up with dialogue; Cronenberg’s baddies don’t immediately speak. The first shot, a slow look at the front of a deserted motel, shows two grimacing, cruel looking men walking out. They pack up their car to leave, and when one re-enters the front office for water, he steps right past a dead woman, whom we understand was just killed by his partner. It is made clear that these are the “bad guys.” You know that something bad is going to happen soon, but you just don’t know what.

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris as ‘Tom Stall’ and ‘Carl Fogarty’, A History of Violence, New Line Cinema, 2005

Both films, by opening with criminals rather than with the protagonists, imply that these sorts of evil men have control in the gloomy world that both stories inhabit. In short time, both movies develop the same setting: a quaint, small town (Summit, Illinois in the story; Brentwood, New Jersey in the movie; Millbrook, Indiana in Cronenberg’s film). Like in The Killers, whose protagonist is not Adams but “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster), we don’t meet Cronenberg’s protagonist, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), for a few minutes. When Stall walks down the street to his own diner, passersby all know his name and greet him with friendly smiles. The Sheriff, Sam (Peter MacNeill), paints the image best when he later tells gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), “This is a nice town. We have nice people here. We take care of our nice people.” Because both movies begin in safe little towns, the result is more jarring for the audience once these places are penetrated by evil. That’s a key difference between the films and Hemingway’s story, which establishes immediately, through its threatening dialogue, that the danger has already arrived, rather than suggesting, as Cronenberg does by showing the two men on the road, that it is soon too arrive.

Eventually, Cronenberg arrives at his own “bright boy” scene. It isn’t when the two men from the opener show up at Stall’s diner at night, demanding food after closing time, then try to rob the place. It’s much later, after Stall has become a local hero by dispatching those two men, smashing a coffee pot on one’s head and killing both. Ed Harris, the more professional evil dude (in contrast to the two men from the beginning, who are made to look like amateurs), comes to the diner, clad in black, channeling Al and Max of “The Killers,” and tells Stall: “So you’re the hero.” Tom humbly denies it and tries to get the man’s order, but Fogarty mockingly insists: “You sure took care of those two bad men.” Then, Fogarty adds, “Joey” at the end of his sentences, using the name he believes Stall has left behind in Philadelphia. He repeats this moniker throughout the movie; it’s Cronenberg’s answer to “bright boy.” Each time he addresses Tom Stall and adds, angrily, “Joey,” Stall’s wife Edie (the beautiful and very good actress Maria Bello) looks terrified. It’s just as Jack Shadoian wrote of The Killers in “Focus on Feeling: Seeing Through the Fifties” in 1977:

No one can speak a line without it echoing with significance… dialogue is heavy, weighted, thematically resonant by design.

As A History of Violence proceeds, it becomes something of a search movie, just as The Killers does. In the latter, Al and Max look around town, not so quietly, for Swede, who has wronged them in some way. In Cronenberg’s movie, Fogarty shows up at the diner again, pesters Stall’s wife at the mall, and finally comes to their home to take “Joey” away, but fails. (Stall kills both of Fogarty’s men, and Stall’s son takes out Fogarty with a gunshot round to the head.)

The difference between the two, ultimately, is that Cronenberg allows his hero to win. Stall eventually admits to his wife that yes, he’s Joey, and he’s originally a gangster from Philly who relocated to create a new identity. He then journeys back home to kill his brother, who saw him on the news and is responsible for having sent the men to find him. After he murders a whole mansion of henchmen and his twisted brother, Stall washes his bloody hands in the river and drives back to his small-town life. His family greets him coldly, but serves him dinner nonetheless, and we are to understand that life will go on. Not so for The Swede, who is found by the killers in quick time and killed rather unceremoniously (we get a wonderful shot of only his shadow as he sits up in bed, then slumps over after they pump him full of lead). The Killers moves on to what may be the real protagonist, Jim Reardon (Ed O’Brien), a relentless insurance agent investigating Swede’s death.

Through Stall and Reardon, the movies investigate character motivation. What they find is that the world has people good and bad, and that’s that—neither director passes any judgment on the players, just as Hemingway’s story presents everything in a doggedly matter-of-fact tone. In The Killers, Reardon’s motives are a mystery: the viewer wonders why he becomes so involved in Swede’s case, since he didn’t know the man personally. Even after his successful investigation, Reardon’s boss tells him in all seriousness: “Congratulations. Owing to your splendid efforts the basic rate of the Atlantic Casualty Company… will probably drop one-tenth of a cent.” Reardon goes to dangerous lengths, even risking his life in a shootout, all for an outcome that Shadoian sees as unhappy: “Not only can’t he be of use to Swede, his meddling causes the death of all the others.” Shadoian goes on to decide that The Killers “raises the possibility that Reardon’s new role goes to his head, that he… begins to act like a figure of the underworld he now inhabits.”

A History of Violence, New Line Cinema, 2005

That is exactly what happens to Stall in A History of Violence. Throughout the entire first half of the movie, Tom claims he does not know Fogarty and has never been to Philadelphia. Fogarty repeatedly insists that Tom is Joey Cusack. The viewer wrestles with what to think of Tom—with the nagging suspicion that he must indeed be Joey, since this is, after all, a movie—until finally, after he kills the two henchmen outside his house in that pivotal scene, Tom tells Fogarty, “I should have killed you back in Philly.” It’s the first verbal confirmation that yes, Tom is this “Joey Cusack”. And yet it’s not as simple as Tom and Joey being one person; in the very next scene, Edie begs Tom to tell the truth, asking, “You did kill people back in Philly, didn’t you?” Tom cryptically answers, “I didn’t, Joey did!” He pleads, “I thought I killed Joey Cusack! I went out into the desert and I killed him!” His brother (played by William Hurt, who got an Oscar nomination for his mere ten minutes on screen), running the show from his mansion in Philly, simply won’t allow Tom Stall to continue in this blissful second life. Thus Tom, before our eyes, becomes the very character Fogarty suggested he was, and by the end of the movie, it’s clear his wife will never think of him the same way again.

Hemingway’s story and these two films are about the inescapability of one’s past. Stall thought he could move away, change his name, settle down and run a diner, and no one would be the wiser. But he has to deal with his former friends by killing them all before he can exist peacefully. Swede, just like Tom Stall, has fled to the safe haven of a small, cozy town. Like Tom, he changed his name (to Pete Lunn), and like Tom, he took an innocuous job (a gas station attendant) and made every attempt to blend in. It worked for a few years, just as it worked for Tom, but inevitably, the killers find him, sent by an old nemesis from his past, Big Jim Colfax. In Hemingway’s story, the character is resigned to it; Nick Adams warns Swede that the men are coming for him, and he doesn’t move or do anything. There is no way out. For the movie, Siodmak adds a second narrative framework: the insurance agent Jim Reardon, digging up Swede’s past. But the result is no different: Swede is dead. Cronenberg’s character, unlike Swede, does try to avoid dealing with his past, but eventually gives in, gets violent, triumphs and survives.

Hemingway, Siodmak, and Cronenberg agree: Your dark past will catch up to you. There is no deeper, comforting lesson to be gleaned, and that, perhaps, is what makes a piece of hard-boiled Hemingway short fiction so well suited to cinematic adaptation.

About the Author:

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter and book critic in New York, originally from Massachusetts. He tweets @readDanwrite and blogs here.