September 18 2021
12:30 PM
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Criterion Collection Reviews: The Killers (1946 & 1964)
Kozak rating: 3 1/2 stars

Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers is as sparse in plot as stories get. It’s a mood piece that’s basically about two hit men showing up at a small town diner, asking for the location of a washed-up boxer. We never find out what the boxer did for the killers to come after him. At the end of the story, the diner owner leaves town out of despair upon learning that the boxer accepted his fate without challenge.

There’s a certain beauty in the story’s simplicity and the fact that it’s devoid of clear exposition. The short story is not an obvious pick for a feature film, since a lot of plot and structure would have be inserted in order to fill out at least a 90-minute run time. But that didn’t stop it from being adapted not once, but twice into movies that go off from the same premise, but can’t be more different in terms of tone, narrative approach, and visual style. The Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray of both the 1946 and the 1964 versions of The Killers is essential for film buffs and film students who want to study how many different directions a simple premise can be taken. Apart from an analytical standpoint, both films are also entertaining and well made.

Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation plays out like a noir version of Citizen Kane. After the boxer, nicknamed The Swede (Burt Lancaster), is killed by the hit men, a life insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brian) puts the pieces together by interviewing figures who were close to The Swede. Through the testimonies of the people the investigator interviews, we get flashbacks that put together a decent noir/heist movie full of the usual double, triple, and quadruple double-crosses.

The twists and turns in the story regarding The Swede’s femme fatale love interest Kitty (Ava Gardner) and the outcome of the heist at the center of the screenplay don’t add much originality to the genre and are pretty predictable. However, The Killers rises above mediocrity thanks to Burt Lancaster’s appropriately melancholic performance (The film was Lancaster’s first starring role) and the non-linear story structure. Genre veteran Siodmak also knows how to frame a black and white noir and the film’s stark cinematography is one of the best examples of the genre.

Don Siegel’s version, on the other hand, follows a similar structure, the boxer is killed in the beginning and the overall story is unraveled via flashbacks through testimonies from other characters, but it can’t be more different in style and tone. A proud member of the early 60s Technicolor look that borders on the period’s pop art, it also carries with it Siegel’s visceral and brutal approach to film violence and his love of anti-heroes. It was originally made for TV, which explains the 4:3 aspect ratio, but was found to be too violent for broadcast. Siegel must have known this was going to happen, and I suspect that he wanted to pull a theatrical feature out of the deal. The film is violent even for feature standards at the time. Hell, it starts with two goons attacking a blind old lady.

Instead of an insurance investigator uncovering the case, this time it’s the titular killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) who smell something funny after finishing their job of killing a racecar driver Johnny (John Cassavettes) and decide to find out who hired them. Yep, we have a racecar driver instead of a boxer this time around. This adaptation doesn’t even retain the diner setting of the story’s beginning, instead opting for a more shocking setting for a bloody murder; a home for the blind.

The whole affair has an almost-exploitation air to it without going over the edge into a full-blown B-movie, thanks to Siegel’s stamp of quality. The charismatic performances from Marvin and Gulager, whose characters’ non-chalant attitude toward violence must have inspired the likes of Tarantino, are fun to watch, and liberals like me should get a kick out of seeing Ronald Reagan play a bad guy. Interestingly, the 1964 version borrows the third act plot twist from the 1946 version, with of course a more violent and visceral climax this time around.

The audio and video presentations are top notch; the wildly differing visual styles of both films are captured in 1080p in the best way possible. The grain and contrast in the 1946 version retains the classic noir look, while the bright colors of the 1964 pop out and capture the look of the era.

As usual with Criterion, this Blu-ray comes with a great series of extras like an audio reading of the short story, a 20-minute interview with Don Siegel, an interview with Clu Gulager etc… The most interesting extra might be the inclusion of art house legend Andrei Tarkovsky’s 20-minute short film adaptation of the story. Since Tarkovsky was working with a shorter run time, and slow, introspective pacing is his bread and butter, he’s able to pull off a more loyal adaptation of the literary source.