TENSE! TAUT! TERRFIFIC! Told the untamed Hemingway way!
Film noir (if you agree with the comments in this DVD) takes the B movie to its ultimate heights of artistry. These two versions of Ernest Hemingway's short story are enjoyable and artistic, if somewhat flawed. It is hard, however, to find a flaw in the DVD presentation of The Killers. The extras are fascinating alone, but together they form a greater picture. In The Killers, Criterion has provided a thorough exploration of film noir and its impact on American cinema. For that alone, the package is worth obtaining.
Facts of the Case
In 1946, two wisecracking heavies enter a diner and terrorize the people there. They explain that they're about to kill "The Swede," Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster's debut role). Ole doesn't show and the pair leaves the diner. One of the customers runs ahead to warn the Swede. When he gets the news, Ole complacently awaits the two grim men. He offers no resistance as the men gun him down.
What could explain this conundrum: a man knows he's about to be killed, has time to run, but awaits his killers? Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) wants to find out. His investigation reveals a twisted labyrinth of deception and betrayal, with remorseless vixen Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) at the center.
In 1964, two killers enter a school for the blind and gun down an unresisting mechanics instructor, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The elder killer, Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) knows something isn't right. He and his partner Lee (Clu Gulager) use their skills of persuasion to find out why. They learn about Johnny North's racing career, one million dollars, and how it all turned south when Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) and Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) entered his life.
The cinematic realization of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" is convoluted enough to do justice to film noir. Don Siegel was originally chosen to direct the 1946 film, but could not due to contractual reasons. Robert Siodmak was the beneficiary. Through expert casting and careful cinematography, he created one of the masterpieces of film noir, though Hemmingway's story only comprised the first couple scenes. Ten years later, a Russian film student named Andriie Tarkovsky created a taut, literal translation of Hemingway's story. In 1964, Don Siegel finally gets his shot at the story in the first made-for-TV movie. But he includes no Hemingway dialogue and barely references the previous versions of the movie.
All three versions are worth watching, but for different reasons. I'll start with the 1956 version, which is my favorite of the three.
This short film by Russian film school students is impressive. It is the most faithful adaptation of the story, using word-for-word dialogue and ending where the story ends. It is easy to get too picky in a literal translation, losing a cohesive view of the piece. This film did not fall into that trap. Dark, brooding cinematography provokes tension. Warm shadows and pools of light play off of each other. The actors are grim and make the clunky dialogue sound believable. The film is lean, with no unnecessary words, actions, or shots. By staying true to the story, the whole focus becomes the killing and what it means when a man doesn't run. There are clues to the student origins, such as the black cook being played by a white Russian in blackface. I know it isn't politically correct, but I was impressed at the convincing portrayal. Overall, this brief but competent film represents the truest adaptation of "The Killers."
By comparison, the 1946 diner scene seems remarkably forced. When I first watched The Killers, the dialogue completely turned me off. I got an impression of campy absurdity from the whole affair. "You're a real bright boy aintcha?" I couldn't help but laugh while I shuddered involuntarily. It took most of the movie for that initial bad impression to wear off. That's a shame, because it is a hallmark film and I wish the opening scenes hadn't felt so wooden to me. It is ironic that the strength of the 1956 film is its absolute adherence to Hemingway, while my least favorite part of the 1946 version is the same material.
There is plenty to like about the 1946 version. Most noticeable is the deft chiaroscuro of the cinematography. Woody Bredell does an impeccable job of lighting and shadow placement. The film is enhanced a whole order of magnitude through cinematography alone. Watching the shadows play in haunting reverie over the faces and sets was enough to wrest my attention away from the action a couple of times. The inky shadows become entities with life of their own, grasping at the characters and draining their resolve. If you are a fan of cinematic trickery, there is a two minute unbroken shot of the robbery. The shot begins with a wide overhead perspective, swoops into the factory, up to the robbery, and back out over the fleeing cars. This technical finesse is another testament to the capabilities of the filmmakers.
Fine acting breathes life into the characters, which is good: otherwise, we'd have no investment and the whole film would be a numbing drain. Burt and Ava became big, bigtime stars and their skills are on fine display here. Ava was sensual and alluring, if manipulatively cold. She is not my favorite femme fatale of all time, but she looks great and does despicable things. Her solid character gets trapped in her own deceit, which lends an element of desperation and closure to the conclusion of the film. Burt is a "dumb but lovable" boxer who is manipulated by circumstance, lust, greed, and luck throughout the whole film. He is a fly caught in the web, so it's hard not to feel sorry for him. His downplayed charisma leaks around the corners of his character, giving us moments of genuine connection with Ole Andersen.
The story itself is convoluted and constrained by a narrow viewpoint. The tale takes several paths which seem to enlighten us, but as the layers peel away we learn how little we know. (The complexity of the story and the importance of perspective is approximated in The Thirteenth Floor, a modern work of true film noir.) This circuitous delivery feels surprisingly modern: The film opens with an event, and then jumps into the past. Through different vignettes we see facets of the story, and we eventually catch up to the opening scene, which plays into a finale. Does this sound like Pulp Fiction?
Speaking of sound, the score is brooding and taut. Music keyed the right note of tension in many scenes, but I lost track of the score from time to time. Clearly, someone liked it: the killers theme was plucked to be the theme song for the television series Dragnet.
The whole affair is aided by Criterion's superior job with the transfer. Whether they got hold of a pristine master or just took their time with the cleanup is beside the point: it looks razor sharp and truly black. I paused a couple of dramatic scenes to gauge the detail and I was convinced. This transfer is fine work, more amazing given the age of the film.
The elements come together to form classic noir film. The 1946 version is widely hailed as the best of the three. From a cinematic and artistic point of view, I agree. But I found the later versions more satisfying and approachable.
Which brings us to the 1964 version. In many ways, it is the polar opposite of Robert Siodmak's vision. Siodmak made a claustrophobic, haunting film cloaked in shadow and rife with the painful mystique of human manipulation. Siegel flips on the light switch and reworks the story into a faster, more direct tale.
The flaws with Siegel's version are immediately evident. This version was made for TV. As such, it has a whitewashed color balance, over bright mise en scène, heavy reliance on close-ups, cardboard sets, and cartoonishly bad back projection. (The racing scenes are obviously two people in a car with racing footage projected behind them.) Racing scenes? Yes, "The Swede" is no longer a boxer, but a grimy race car driver. Lengthy racing scenes shift the focus away from the knot of the story to traditional TV action. The classy and manipulative Kitty is now a gold digging dame with a thrill for danger and dangerous men. The story is tersely told and the direction is good, but the TV elements make it feel like TV. (Funny how that works!) Artistically, this film is inferior to both Siodmak's finely crafted work and the student version.
Where Siegel's version shines is in the way the story is told. The clunky dialogue is gone, as is the artifice of the insurance adjuster. In this version, the killers themselves want to know why Johnny didn't run. They sense a deeper plot and opportunity. It is clean and believable. With the killers are driving the story, we get visceral reminders of menace and violence as they interrogate people.
This version of the killers contains another precursor to Pulp Fiction. Charlie and Lee are menacing and efficient when they are "on." Victims don't have a chance against their unfeeling brutality and intimidating effectiveness. They terrorize blind people, beat women down, hang people out of windows, and use any means necessary to get information. In their downtime, the pair is wisecracking, thoughtful, and unguarded. They tease and converse like friends. Lee is a health nut, Charlie looks forward to retirement. The byplay between their professional and personal demeanors, their quirky friendship, and the pulp roots of their cool attitude are remarkably similar to Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction.
The 1964 version has great acting, though of a different vintage than previous versions. Lee Marvin is in top form, hardboiled and ruthless. His fearsome, calculated brutality equals his approachability. You find yourself rooting for Charlie despite the despicable acts of violence he perpetrates. As the climax nears, you sense a transformation in Charlie wrought by the answer to his riddle. But he cannot escape his ingrained nature. The closing scene is dramatic, ironic, and completely convincing. Clu Gulager provides edgy antics that echo the wisecracking intimidation tactics of the first killers, but with more success. Angie Dickinson's femme fatale is less sophisticated than Ava Gardner's, but more believable in some ways. Kitty Collins was otherworldly, never in Ole's class. Sheila Farr and Johnny North are somewhat better matched, enough that you can buy into Johnny's obsession. John Cassavetes gives Johnny a visceral heartache and believable anguish.
Two supporting roles deserve mention. Norman Fell (Mister Roper from Three's Company) plays a sleazy gangster. The killers sweat him for information, payback for all those snooping neighbor antics. But the real coup de grace is Ronald Reagan as villain Jack Browning. Not only was this Reagan's last role, it was the only time he played a villain. He is surprisingly effective in the part, shedding his reservations and oozing calculated menace. If you have political issues with Reagan, there's a bit of wish fulfillment for you as well when Johnny North lands a punch right in his face. To me it was creepy seeing the former president assaulted.
Though artistically inferior, the 1964 version has Siegel's clear vision driving the production. The acting is pointed, the action is brutal, and the tale is sparsely told. The players are brought down from the stratosphere and given an approachability that enhances our connection with them.
Whichever version of the story you prefer is almost irrelevant, because the real beneficiary is the DVD package. The extras are so well chosen and complement each other so nicely that you could be forgiven for considering yourself a film noir expert after watching them.
There are publicity stills, music/effects tracks, and liner notes by film authorities Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O'Brien. There is even a radio adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters. These extras are solid and give a great sense of the story and production. A studio could be forgiven for thinking the package complete with such extras included. But we get more.
Prepare to read. Excerpts from Don Siegel's autobiography, memos, broadcast standard reports, and casting suggestions work together to provide startling insight into what kind of man Don was and the climate he was working within. The cast and crew suffered setbacks and critical venom. The picture was made for TV, but was deemed too violent. Thus, it ran as a movie and was lambasted by critics. The memos show Don's caring and control as he comforts Angie and makes comments on the script and production notes. This is a rare glimpse into the actual workings of Hollywood.
A pair of interviews gives amazing perspective on the films. Critic Stuart M. Kaminsky integrates many of the facts about the three versions of The Killers into a cohesive argument about the movies' relevance. A second interview with Clu Gulager is simply bewildering. It is shot on video by his sons, so the technical proficiency is slightly lacking (but better than I could do). Clu is simultaneously uproarious, infuriating, and puffed with bravado. He is remarkably candid, if biased, and gives a heartwarming account of the travails and rewards of working with Don and crew.
The source material is helpfully included, so you can judge the fidelity to Hemingway for yourself. This seems so simple, but is often overlooked. But the real written gem is the essay notes on film noir by Paul Schrader. This thorough treatise on film noir is a cohesive and influential landmark of cinematic criticism. Reading it gave me an epiphany regarding film noir.
Each extra works in concert to breathe life in to the films on the DVDs. I felt truly educated after having witnessed this stellar portfolio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've mentioned that the dialogue bothers me in the 1946 version. Though it is a personal gripe, the delivery of the lines grates on my last nerve. I was not at all intimidated by the pair of heavies, they seemed ludicrously non-threatening. I'm willing to chalk that bias up to personal issues. In fact, I was willing to put the annoyance behind me and enjoy the rest of the film when the second issue came to light.
In Hemingway's story, the whole focus of the piece is the men in the diner—why they are there and what they are going to do. As a written work, the premise is a good foundation for tension and menace. In the movie, however, two hours of plot follows the opening murder. This shift in focus invites a niggling question with no real answer: why did the opening scenes take place at all? Heavies walk in and tell three witnesses what they're going to do. Then they walk out, go to Ole's apartment, and shoot him there. Are these killers rank amateurs? Why in Capone's name would they tip their hand like that, then waltz away whistling to themselves? Live witnesses, people. Not only that, but it gave their target warning. Furthermore, any killers worth their salt would have waited for the Swede to walk in, followed him out, and capped him on the sidewalk or in his apartment. It is a transparent MacGuffin of epic proportions that soured my whole impression of the movie.
I've noticed this on several Criterion titles, so I might as well spill it now. The liner notes are on shimmery black paper that collects fingerprints. Every time I read the liner notes and put them down, I feel the urge to buff the fingerprints away with a cotton ball and rubbing alcohol.
Three fine films and a stellar extras package make The Killers a masterpiece of DVD presentation. You will be entertained while a sophisticated grasp of film noir principles seeps into your brain. Criterion has a knack for bringing out the best in the films it releases, and this one is no exception. If you are a discerning fan of cinema, this DVD package is a must have. For film noir specifically, I have never seen its equal. Play it again, Sam!
This court is humbled in the presence of such a fantastic effort.
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Scales of Justice
• Features for The Killers (1946 Version): Andriie Tarkovsky's 1956 Student Film Version of The Killers; Video Interview with Writer Stuart M. Kaminsky; Screen Director's Playhouse 1949 Radio Adaptation, Starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters; Actor Stacy Keach Reads Hemingway's Short Story; Production and Publicity Stills; Essay by Jonathan Lethem; Paul Schrader's Seminal 1972 Essay "Notes On Film Noir"; Music and Effects Track
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