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The Killers (1946)

Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmund O'Brien

Written by Anthony Veiller
From the story by Ernest Hemingway

Directed by Robert Siodmak


The Killers (1964)

Starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavettes, Angie Dickinson,
Clu Gulager, and Ronald Reagan.

Written by Gene L. Coon
From the screenplay by Anthony Veiller
From the story by Ernest Hemingway

Directed by Don Siegel


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers" is short and sweet, a lean reduction by the literary master of the pulpy fiction of his contemporaries. Depending on the size of the print, the story usually runs seven-to-10 pages and spares no room for sentimental embroidery in its tight scenario of two hardened assassins suffering small-town innocence as they hunt a man who is resigned to be their prey.

While reveling in the tough dialogue of Dashiel Hammett's ilk, "The Killers" is short on plot, focusing instead on small situations: on the disconnect between brutal big-city killers and small-town folk, and the psychological mystery of a victim lying in dispirited wait. It's not the kind of story that begs for big-screen treatment, and yet it's been filmed twice. Well, sort of. That's the premise, anyway, of this Criterion double-feature DVD, which groups the loose, noirish 1946 adaptation with an even looser version produced 18 years later, as well as a strong selection of additional features including a faithful (and, necessarily, short) screen version of the story in student-film form by a young Andrei Tarkovsky.

1946

During the height of the film noir craze, director Robert Siodmak used Hemingway's sharp prose as a springboard for a diverting dive into the seedy underbelly of the criminal world. With the first 15 minutes faithfully interpreting the author's fatalist story, the rest of Siodmak's film reverts to ordinary form, as a captivated insurance-claims investigator (Edmund O'Brien) plays gumshoe to unravel the story of the murdered Swede (Burt Lancaster), a ruined prize fighter whose hard luck hooked him up with a troublesome dame (Ava Gardner) and an ill-advised payroll heist.

It's little surprise that the opening act is the strongest, clinging faithfully to Hemingway's playfully hard-boiled tough talk, but when screenwriter Anthony Veiller takes over imagining the backstory, the results are mixed. While the scenes between Lancaster, Gardner and heistmaster Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) make for fun if uninspired melodrama, O'Brien's faux-shamus crusade guiltily indulges in the sillier shade of noir, pulling it out of the darkness with a mood-breaking softness. Miklos Rozsa's strong score does what it can to make up for the mood swings, and Woody Bredell's chiaroscuro cinematography distinguishes itself with style.

1964

Director Don Siegel, who just missed out on directing Siodmak's film two decades earlier, was enlisted to helm this remake as the very first two-hour made-for-TV production for NBC. Siegel's main condition for accepting the task was that the film have as little do with Hemingway as possible. As a result, this remake of Veiller's screenplay knocks out all of the source dialogue, recasts Lancaster's marked boxer with a has-been race car driver (John Cassavettes), switches out Gardner's femme fatale with Angie Dickinson, and, in a swift and promising move, sheds O'Brien's weak claims dick in favor of an inquisitive hit man (Lee Marvin).

As no-nonsense cleaner Charlie, Marvin gives a typically captivating performance as a professional killer stunned by his victim's resignation to the hit. Along with his wacky partner Lee (Clu Gulager), Charlie traces his contract back to its source to figure out why Johnny North (Cassavettes) accepted his fate so easily. Although Marvin is terrific is his limited role, the same can't be said about the scenes recounting North's doomed whirlwind romance with Sheila (Dickinson), or their mail heist in league with kingpin Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).

From the start, Siegel's The Killers seems to promise a fast-moving go-go tussle, as John Williams' bustling score (prescient of Lalo Schifrin's great music for Siegel's later hit Dirty Harry) rips through the opening titles, but the energy introduced by that opening theme fades soon after the opening scene (a ruthless assassination in a school for the blind, no less), and the movie never recovers.

Like Siodmak's film, Siegel's movie suffers from its need to enlarge Hemingway's material and ends up lost in an aimless sprawl. The final scene, with a great Marvin flourish, provides the best few moments of the double-feature, and for many of the reasons that short stories are so tough to turn into feature films: Rather than trying to sell an arching dramatic journey, short stories are more concerned with creating an impression, capturing a brief moment of time or thought (which, for Hemingway, was often some sort of display of grace under pressure), and nuance is the key to the expression.

Disc One

In addition to Siodmak's 1946 film, in a good new 1.33:1 full-frame digital transfer and Dolby Digital mono audio track (with an optional music and effects-only track), this disc also contains a booty of noir-centric extras, including a few other dramatic incarnations of Hemingway's famous story.

Disc Two

Siegel's 1964 version is also presented in a new full screen 1.33:1 digital transfer with Dolby Digital mono and an alternate track with only music and effects.

The liner notes include essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O'Brien.

— Gregory P. Dorr

The Killers (1946)

The Killers (1964)



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