After Ole "The Swede" Anderson (Lancaster) is murdered by two mysterious hitmen, a life insurance investigator (O'Brien) interviews the deceased's friends and associates to find out who would want to kill him. Ultimately, his search links Swede to a past robbery and $250,000 in cash.
A remake was produced in 1964, directed by Don Siegel, scored by John Williams and starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, and (in his last film role) Ronald Reagan. The main difference between the two films is that while it has basic plot similarities, the 1964 film has the titular hitmen as protagonists.
The short story provides example of:
- Face Death with Dignity: The point of the original story. The Swede knows he's going to die and listens to Nick Adams warning with resignation. He stoically accepts his coming end with "grace under pressure" (as per Hemingway's ethos).
- Faux Affably Evil: The tension of the short story is the mask of civility and kindness maintained by two brutal hitmen before they exercise power on the Cafe and take them hostage and conduct their contract.
- Heroic Bystander: Nick, who goes running to warm Swede despite the killers being nearby.
- Implied Trope: The Swede's death is never depicted or mentioned after Adams warns him, but it's clear that he will die. The film adaptations openly take this for granted and depict his death.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: The two killers hurl racial insults at Sam, the African-American cook. Hemingway was certainly hoping to invoke this by making his gangsters openly racist, because in 1927, a good number of his readership would have shared these attitudes.
- Verbal Tic: One of the hitmen calls Nick "bright boy".
The film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptation Expansion: Hemingway's short story is rather small and limited in scope, and indeed the entirety of the story is faithfully recreated in the opening minutes of Siodmak's film. The rest of the movie greatly expands the backstory leading to the contract to kill Swedish boxer Ole Andreson, adding in a Femme Fatale and a Big Bad.
- Adaptational Nice Guy: The scene where the cook and counterman treat Adams' report that Swede isn't going to run from the killers casually is omitted from the 1946 film.
- Affably Evil: Blinky Franklin is a jovial guy and gracious host who tries to play peacemaker between Sweede and Dum-Dum and is among the few criminals who isn't shown trying to betray anyone.
- Ain't Too Proud to Beg: After being fatally wounded in a shootout with Dum Dum, Colfax holds on for long enough to admit to the police that Kitty stole the money with him, and since they were married (which the other gang members knew but Swede did not), they couldn't testify against each other. A panicked Kitty immediately begs Colfax to insist that she is innocent as he dies in her arms, her pleas becoming more desperate as it becomes obvious he won't save her from a long prison stretch.Lubinsky: Don't ask a dyin' man to lie his soul into Hell.
Kitty: [shaking Colfax' body] "Kitty is innocent! I swear, Kitty is innocent!"
Reardon: It's no use, Kitty. Your would-be fall guy is dead.
Kitty: [her voice becoming ever more frantic] Come back, Jim! Tell them! Come back!... Save me! "Kitty is innocent! I swear, Kitty is innocent!" "Kitty is innocent! I swear, Kitty is innocent!" "Kitty is innocent..." [falls sobbing onto his dead body]
- Almost Dead Guy: Colfax lives long enough to tie up some loose ends for the police.
- Anachronic Order: There are a total of eleven flashbacks in the 1946 film. The first to be shown is the last to take place (Colfax happening to stop by the service station at which Swede was working six years after the heist), followed by the one immediately before (Swede discovering Kitty has disappeared with the heist money), then they proceed in mostly chronological order to show how Swede fell in with Colfax and his gang and took part in the hat factory payroll heist, before one final flashback shows that the night before the heist, Kitty persuaded Swede to double cross Colfax by stealing the entire take from the heist so they could run away together, when in fact she and Colfax were planning to double cross Swede by taking the money and letting him take the fall for stealing it.
- Artistic License – Space: The astronomy lesson in the prison cell is a disaster. Not only is the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) nowhere near Orion, but the star Betelgeuse is improperly identified as the brightest star in the sky - however, Sirius, which is the brightest star in the sky, is close to Orion. Nonetheless, those books weren't helping out as much as thought.
- Bantering Baddie Buddies: Swede's coach and trainer always appear together and provide some Plucky Comic Relief with how chatty they are.
- Bathroom Break-Out: Kitty escapes through the pub's bathroom window.
- Because You Were Nice to Me: Swede names a hotel maid who talked him out of committing suicide as the begficiary of his life insurance policy.
- Betty and Veronica: A hilariously brief dilemma. Swede and his sweet, pretty blonde girlfriend go to a party. While there, Swede sees the scorching hot Kitty across the room. He literally never looks at his blonde girlfriend again. After the girlfriend realizes that Swede is not looking at her or listening to her chatter, she leaves. Of course, the blonde girlfriend is shown in the film to have been Happily Married and settled down later, which is a better fate than that dealt to Ole Andreson.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Kitty, who not only hires hitmen to have the Swede killed after he does 3 years for her, but also pleads with Colfax to tell the cops she's innocent as he dies from a gunshot wound.
- Concealment Equals Cover: Reardon flips over a table and hides behind it when the killers open fire on him.
- Dead-Hand Shot: Swede's hand sliding down the bedpost after the hitmen fill him full of lead.
- Dumb Muscle: Swede is large and strong, but also quite the naïve bumpkin. Kitty has little trouble getting him to fall under her spell so that he takes the fall for her when she is caught wearing stolen jewels, and steals the entire take from the hat factory payroll heist when she claims to want to escape from Big Jim, thereby allowing her to steal it back and escape with Big Jim.
- Emerging from the Shadows: We first see Swede as he lies in his bed with his face hidden in the dark.
- Femme Fatale: Kitty Collins says herself that she is poison to everyone around her, but she still has both Big Jim and Swede wrapped around her little finger. Swede takes the fall when she is caught wearing stolen jewels and spends two years in prison, then Kitty manipulates Swede into stealing the entire take from the payroll heist so that she can get away from Big Jim. Except that she then steals the money back for Big Jim.
- Flashback: Eleven in all.
- Nick gets the first flashback, and the last chronologically. A man (Big Jim, though Nick doesn't know his name) pulls into the filling station where Nick and the Swede work; the Swede and the man seem to recognise each other, and the Swede calls in sick for the next several days.
- The second flashback, and next to last chronologically, comes from "Queenie" Daugherty, the unexpected beneficiary of the Swede's life insurance policy. In her capacity as a chambermaid at the hotel where the Swede and Kitty hide after the robbery, she finds him trashing his room, wailing "She's gone!", and trying to jump out of the window to his death before she talks him down.
- The next three flashbacks are the first three chronologically. Lt. Lubinsky remembers Swede breaking his hand in a fight, putting a premature end to his boxing career. His wife Lily, also the Swede's ex, remembers going to a party where he immediately falls head over heels for Kitty. And then Lubinsky remembers the Swede taking the fall for Kitty when she is caught wearing a stolen brooch, allowing himself to be sentenced to three years.
- The next two flashbacks are also the next two chronologically, told by the Swede's former cellmate, Charleston. He recalls the Swede showing him a green silk handkerchief with a golden harp on it, and ignoring his misgivings about why Kitty hasn't written. Then, he remembers running into the Swede again after their release from prison, when Big Jim tries to get them interested in the hat factory payroll heist; Charleston doesn't want to risk yet another prison sentence, but Kitty's presence is enough to entice the Swede.
- After an indirect flashback to the payroll heist itself (courtesy of a newspaper article), the next two flashbacks come from the dying "Blinky" Franklin. In the first, Big Jim and the Swede get into a fight over Kitty the night before the heist. In the second, the Swede shows up at the farmhouse at which the crooks are sharing out the loot, curses them out for not telling him the original meeting place (a halfway house) burned down, and takes the whole $254,912 for himself at gunpoint.
- Kitty gets the last flashback, which takes place after the fight between Big Jim and the Swede but before the heist. She tells the Swede that the halfway house burned down and that the other thieves weren't planning to tell him, and pleads with him to join her in stealing all of the money so that she can get away from Big Jim.
- How We Got Here: The film opens with Max and Al showing up to carry out Swede's murder. The rest of the film intercuts Reardon's investigation into the murder with a series of flashbacks (notably not presented chronologically) showing how Swede participated in a hat factory robbery only to double cross his partners in crime by absconding with the money, thereby ending up a marked man.
- In with the In Crowd: After his boxing career is over, Swede joins a group of criminals which opens up doors for him. His girl friend is not amused.
- It Always Rains at Funerals: It does at the Swede's.
- Leitmotif: Miklos Rozsa's score includes one of these for the titular killers, a distinctive four-note refrain that was later adapted for the Dragnet theme.
- Memento MacGuffin: The scarf.
- Morton's Fork: In response being accused of having done a Revealing Cover Up, Colfax tells Reardon that after stumbling upon Swede, he carefully considered his options and realized they all looked pretty bad. He could have left Swede alone, but this meant that someone else from the gang could have run into Swede in the same way he did, or Swede himself could have started wondering why no attempts on his life were made and started looking into things. He eventually decided that murdering Swede and then trying to tie up the loose ends as they revealed themselves appeared to be the less risky choice.
- Multiple Gunshot Death: Implied but not shown with the killing of Swede who gets riddled with two magazines full of bullets.
- No Honor Among Thieves: This trope is clearly in play after the hat factory payroll heist, but precisely how only becomes clear by the end of the film. At first, it seems the other thieves are planning to cut Swede out of his share by not telling him that the halfway house at which they planned to rendezvous afterward burned down the previous night, requiring a change in venue. Swede finds out, and takes the entire $250,000. However, he was persuaded to do so by Kitty, who told him the halfway house had burned down - before the act of arson which caused it to do so. She, in fact, was planning to take the money on Big Jim's behalf.
- Nothing Personal: Dum-Dum's attitude when he recounts shooting Blinky.
- Number Two: Blinky Franklin to Big Jim.
- The Old Convict: Charleston, serving as a cellmate and mentor to Swede and coming out of prison wary enough to decline an opportunity to take part in another robbery.
- One Last Smoke: Colfax gets one at the end.
- The Oner: The scene of the robbery is one continuous shot from a crane.
- One-Steve Limit: Averted. We have both the main character, Jim Reardon, and the significant side character, Jim Colfax.
- Plot-Triggering Death: Swede is killed in the first fifteen minutes; the remainder of the film is about Reardon's efforts to find out who killed him, and why.
- Posthumous Character: Swede. The greater part of the film is flashbacks of events months and years prior to his death.
- Put on a Prison Bus: The film ends with Kitty being presumably sent to prison.
- Revealing Cover-Up: At the end, Reardon points out that Colfax could have avoided having his part in the robbery and conspiracy uncovered all if he hadn't had Swede assassinated.
- Second Love: Lieutenant Lubinsky to Swede's ex-girlfriend Lily.
- Separate Scene Storytelling: The stories about Swede told by the many characters are shown as flashbacks.
- Spell My Name With An S: Is Swede's name Ole Andreson or Anderson? Hemingway uses the former, the 1946 film uses the latter.
- Those Two Guys: Swede's coach and trainer are constantly seen together, talking on about what to do next in a somewhat prattling manner without really addressing him directly.
- Tired of Running: Even though he was warned that two hit men were after him, Swede didn't do anything to protect himself. He just waited to be killed.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Kitty married to Colfax.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Swede spends three years in jail for Kitty's crime but she isn't afraid to screw him over when he gets out of jail.
- The Vamp: Kitty.