The Killers (1946)

The Killers
The Killers (1946)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway)
Stars: Burt Lancaster (Ole “The Swede” Andersen), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Reardon), Albert Dekker (Big Jim Colfax), Sam Levene (Lt. Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lilly Harmon Lubinsky), Jack Lambert (Dum Dum Clarke), Charles D. Brown (Packy Robinson), Donald MacBride (R.S. Kenyon), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1946
Country: U.S.
The Killers (1964)
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway)
Stars: Lee Marvin (Charlie Strom), Angie Dickinson (Sheila Farr), John Cassavetes (Johnny North), Clu Gulager (Lee), Claude Akins (Earl Sylvester), Norman Fell (Mickey Farmer), Ronald Reagan (Jack Browning), Virginia Christine (Miss Watson)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: U.S.
The Killers Criterion Collection Blu-ray
It isn’t surprising that not one, but two suspenseful potboilers have been made from Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 10-page short story “The Killers.” Hemingway’s story reads like a primer for a screenwriting class assignment, leaving far more questions than it does answers by the final page. Two mysterious men walk into a lunch-counter in a small town, tie up the occupants, and declare that they are awaiting the arrival of a man they intend to kill. When the man doesn’t show up, they leave, and one of the men at the lunch-counter runs to warn the would-be victim. Rather than try to escape, the intended target wearily accepts his fate, refusing to leave his room, thus chhosing to accept his own imminent death (we assume).

Who are the men coming to kill him? Why do they want him dead? Why is the would-be victim so passive in accepting his fate? Is he eventually killed? All of these questions linger at the end of the story, virtually begging to be answered.

The KillersIn 1946, as the subgenre of crime films that would later be known as film noir were beginning to proliferate, director Richard Siodmak, a German émigré, and prolific screenwriter Anthony Veiller (The Stranger) took a shot at adapting Hemingway’s story. They maintained the original text almost line-for-line in the film’s opening sequence and then used its enigmas to structure a mystery story much like Orson Welles’ elusive Citizen Kane (1941), in which the reasons for a man’s death are explained through interviews and subsequent flashbacks, not all of which add up. The man digging into the past is a hardened insurance investigator named Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), who is less interested in his professional obligations than he is in solving the mystery of why two professional killers came into a small New Jersey burg and killed Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster), otherwise known as “The Swede,” an ex-boxer who worked at a gas station and kept to himself.

Not surprisingly, there is much more to Andersen than first appears, and Reardon’s investigation eventually takes him deep into the world of organized crime. Along the way he gets information from various people who knew Andersen throughout his life, including Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a childhood friend-turned police office, and Charleston (Vince Barnett), an aging professional thief with whom Andersen spent time in jail. Reardon eventually winds his way to uncovering a payroll heist in which Andersen played a role. The heist was spearheaded by a crime boss named Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), who was involved with Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), a slinky femme fatale with whom Andersen was so in love that he served time for a crime he didn’t commit in order to protect her.

The narrative of the 1946 version of The Killers is effectively complex, building well on a series of fractured flashbacks and unreliable narrators. What the film is best known for, though, is its tone and brooding atmosphere, which fit in with other film noir such as Double Indemnity (1944). Siodmak and veteran cinematographer Elwood Bredell paint their complicated world of double-crossings and hidden secrets in dark shadows, dank hotel rooms, and seedy bars.

The characters remain frustratingly ambiguous—we never get a real sense of who Andersen is even though the thrust of the narrative is discovering precisely that. All we are left with is the existential doom that surrounds everything he does. The same goes for Ava Gardner’s smoldering Kitty—she’s bad not because she is supplied with any identifiable motivation, but because the genre dictates that a dangerous woman be the chief cause of the (anti)hero’s downfall. However, the film develops an electric charge precisely because of these ambiguities; much like Welles’ masterpiece, it leave you with the sense that some things may never be fully known, even when the obvious answers are uncovered.

The KillersEighteen years later, director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry), who was originally slated to helm the 1946 version, took another stab at adapting Hemingway’s story, except this time as the first made-for-TV movie. Alas, his version of The Killers never made it to the small screen because network censors felt the film was too violent, but it was later released theatrically after several months of sitting on a studio shelf.

Even in today’s violence-jaded era, the 1964 version of The Killers packs a punch when needed. Women receive just as much abuse as men, blind people are ruthlessly terrorized, and there is a surprising amount of blood flow, particularly given that it was made three years before Arthur Penn’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Shot in harsh, flat color amid stark, modernist set designs, its visual look is a world away from Siodmak’s shadowy, visually expressive noir, but it’s no less effective. In fact, the film plays as a primer for the revolution that would become “The New Hollywood” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even if its general crudity (the process shots are particularly bad) harkens back to ’50s exploitation films.

Screenwriter Gene L. Coon, a veteran TV scribe who started in the early 1950s writing for Dragnet and contributed to a wide range of shows including Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, Kung Fu, and Star Trek (he wrote the episode that introduced the Klingons), maintains the basic structure of the 1946 film, but makes a crucial change by turning the killers themselves into the investigators. The film opens at a school for the blind where two hired assassins, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), brutally barge in and kill an instructor named Johnny North (John Cassavetes). As in the Hemingway story, Johnny is given ample warning to escape, but instead accepts his fate and is gunned down in his classroom (the fact that all his students are blind and cannot see his death does not make it any less traumatic for them or us).

On the train ride back from the hit, Charlie starts to wonder why Johnny didn’t try to run. His interest is also piqued by a rumor that Johnny had been in on a million-dollar heist and might have stashed the money somewhere. Hoping to get their hands on the stolen loot, he and Lee begin an investigation into why they were hired for the hit and by whom.

It turns out the Johnny was once a well-known race-car driver who got involved with a dangerous woman named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). After an accident damaged his peripheral vision and made him incapable of racing professionally, Johnny accepted an offer to join a heist masterminded by Sheila’ corrupt and possessive boyfriend, Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, the future President of the United States in his last and best film role). As in the earlier film, double-crosses ensue, and Charlie and Lee have to pick through various versions of the same story to finally learn who really has the money. However, unlike Siodmak’s version, Siegel’s film is much more narratively spare—there are only three informants and the heist itself is almost embarrassingly simple.

Yet, that very leanness is what makes The Killers so effective. In The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery 1958–1999, Jake Horsley rightly points out this film as one of the primary sources of Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern crime canon, particularly the use of brutal, but ultra-cool killers as the film’s protagonists. There is no sense of morality here, but rather varying shades of corruption and greed. The only character who comes off as even remotely decent is Cassavetes’ Johnny, but mostly because he is so weak and easily manipulated.

As the two killers, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are simply superb. The opening sequence in which they extract information about Johnny’s whereabouts from a blind receptionist is utterly chilling (did they really think they could get this on network TV in the mid-1960s?), yet the characters still maintain a strange likability. Their casual banter and off-handed remarks coupled with their cold professionalism sets the stage for a cynical tale of crime at its lowliest. The fact that the film ends in a literal bloodbath with every character getting his or her due doesn’t play as moralizing, but rather as the logical outcome of shared ruthlessness. Almost 30 years before Reservoir Dogs (1992), Don Siegel used Hemingway’s famous story to depict the bloody realities of crime as a zero-sum game.

The Killers Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Supplements English
Supplements
  • Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1956 short film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”
  • Interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky about both films
  • Audio recording of actor Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s short story
  • Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio adaptation from starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters
  • Interview with actor Clu Gulager
  • Audio excerpt from director Don Siegel’s autobiography A Siegel Film read by actor and director Hampton Fancher
  • Trailers
  • Essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 7, 2015
    SRP$39.95

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion has included both the 1946 and 1964 versions of The Killers on a single Blu-ray, which means they may have had to sacrifice a bit of quality and bitrate. Nevertless, both films look great and their presentation here is a strong improvement over the 2003 DVD edition. The 1946 version was transferred from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive, and the result is a uniformly excellent picture that showcases the film’s brilliant use of light and shadow in the film noir style. Blacks are deep and rich, and the detail quality is consistently high without losing the image’s film-like appearance. The 1964 version was transferred from a 35mm interpositive and it is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There is some contention about how the film should be presented, since it was originally shot 1.33:1 for television, but then never aired and was subsequently screened theatrically masked to 1.85:1. Thus, both presentations are technically “correct,” historically speaking, but Criterion has opted to include only the original televisual aspect ratio. The image is generally smooth and clean with good color saturation (it is clearly obvious when grainy stock footage is used). In some ways, the 1964 version has an inherently ugly look when compared to the 1946 version because it was shot in the evenly lit TV style of the 1960s, which makes everything look flat and bland. Both films are presented in their original monaural mixes transferred at 24-bit and presented in Linear PCM. The inherent limitations of the one-channel soundtracks are unavoidable, but both sound clean and mostly hiss-free.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion has included a significant amount of supplementary material on their Blu-ray release of The Killers, although it should be noted that quite a bit that was on the 2003 two-DVD set is missing here. But, first let’s look at what is included.

    Certainly one of the coolest supplements on this disc and a real treasure for film buffs is a student film adapted from Hemingway’s short story co-directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) in 1956 with fellow All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography students Alexander Gordon and Marika Beiku. Running just over 20 minutes in length, it is a somewhat plodding, but extremely faithful adaptation. The transfer was obviously taken from an older print that is in watchable condition—some persistent vertical lines and a few bad splices, but otherwise relatively clean (there are some shifts in exposure that may be the result of the original cinematography). Also on the disc are a number of interviews from 2002. Stuart M. Kaminsky, author of more than 50 books (including Don Siegel: Director), offers some intriguing thoughts and historical information about these two films in an 18-minute video interview. He discusses Siegel’s history as a director, the roots of film noir, and compares the two films visually and thematically. In a 19-minute video interview, veteran character actor Clu Gulager reminisces about his experiences making The Killers, particularly working with the other actors. He has some good stories to spin, including the fact that Lee Marin was, in Gulager’s words, “drunk as a skunk” in his big death scene at the end of the film. From the archives we get the Screen Director’s Playhouse radio adaptation of the 1946 film, originally aired in 1948. It is divided into six chapters and concludes with an interview with Robert Siodmak. There are also two audio recordings: One in which actor and director Hampton Fancher (was was, for some reason, credited as Wolf Wolverton on the 2003 DVD) reads excerpts from Don Siegel’s autobiography (divided into 12 chapters) that deal with the production of The Killers and one in which actor Stacy Keach, best known for playing Mike Hammer on TV, lends his tough-guy voice to an engaging reading of the entire text of Hemingway’s source story. Finally, there is a gallery of trailers. Included are one for the 1964 version of The Killers and five of Robert Siodmak’s ’40s films: Son of Dracula (1943), Cobra Woman (1944), The Killers (1946), Cry of the City (1948) and Criss Cross (1949).

    Now, here’s what has been cut from this edition and why you should probably hold onto your DVD set. Gone are the isloated music and effects tracks for both films, the cast and crew biographies, and the extensive stills galleries, which included publicity stills, production stills, behind-the-scenes photographs, press books, original advertising, and newspaper ads and one-sheets. Paul Schrader’s seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir,” which was originally published in Film Comment in 1972 and subsequently reprinted and anthologized in too many books to count, is also gone. Probably the biggest loss, however, is production correspondence: six letters written in 1963 and 1964 about production of The Killers (during much of this time it was titled Johnny North) that includes script notes by Don Siegel, warnings from NBC’s Broadcast Standards Department about the film’s violent and sexual content, and casting notes.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Universal Pictures / The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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