The Killers (1946) [DVD]
Screenplay : Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1964
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)
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 choosing to wait for his own death.
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.
In 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 screenwriter Anthony Veiller 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.
Eighteen 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, 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 Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 18, 2003|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
Both the 1946 and 1964 versions of The Killers included here have been given new digital transfers, both in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The 1946 version was transferred from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive and then digitally cleaned up using the MTI Digital Restoration System. 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. Oddly, the liner notes don’t inform us of the transfer source for the 1964 version, but it was clearly taken from a 35mm print that was in good, but not great shape with no digital restoration. There are some instances of dirt and vertical lines here and there, but 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.
| English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
Both films are presented in their original monaural mixes. The inherent limitations of the one-channel soundtracks are unavoidable, but both sound clean and mostly hiss-free. Each film also has a separate track that isolates the music and effects.
| Yet again Criterion has assembled an almost dizzying array of relevant supplementary material to put these two classic crime films in their proper historical and thematic contexts. |
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1956 student film version of The Killers
Video interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky
Screen Director’s Playhouse radio adaptation
Actor Stacy Keach reads Hemingway’s short story
Paul Schrader’s essay “Notes on Film Noir”
Reflections with Clu Gulager
Excerpts from Don Siegel’s autobiography
Cast and crew biographies
Liner notes by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffery O’Brien
© 2003 James Kendrick