Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

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Criterion

The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.

The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.

Hemingway’s story ends there for all intents and purposes but it’s only the beginning of the film, which as Hollywood invention from then on. An insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) wonders why Swede never tried to run and tracks his story back to a life as a former boxer turned petty criminal, a not-too-bright kid who fell in love with a calculating golddigger (Ava Gardner, shedding her ingénue image to play a slinky sexpot with a heart of ice) and fell in with a crew that pulled off a big payroll heist. The money was never recovered. The story is pieced together in flashbacks provided by witnesses and partners in crime, including the heist itself, a remarkably understated piece of filmmaking presented in a single shot. the steady, dispassionate narration of the witness provides counterpoint to the crack timing and brutal efficiency of the job. But the web of deceit and double crosses of the story and expertly-constructed screenplay by Anthony Veiller (with uncredited assist by John Huston) works thanks to the atmosphere of doom and duplicity created by Siodmak and his crew, and to the defining presence of Lancaster and Gardner.

To be honest, their inexperience shows. Lancaster, who doesn’t carry the weight of experience, is rather callow, a perfect patsy but less tragic than merely dumb. Gardner is a kitten playing a viper, a pretty face and slinky body without that strength in her voice to carry her malevolence. They offer neither depth nor complexity but the camera loves them, every curve of their bodies, every shadow on their faces. Siodmak turns their images into icons: the wounded romantic with a beefcake build, and the temptress pulling the heartstrings of innocents merely by staring up from under those long lashes in a calculated nonchalance. Surrounded by seasoned pros (Sam Levene, Albert Dekker, Vince Barnett, Jack Lambert, and Jeff Corey) and lit with the light and shadow of a noir master, the films takes the spark they carry—Lancaster’s brooding ambition and wounded innocence, Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and crafty flirting—and lights a bonfire with them.

Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in 'The Killers'
Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in ‘The Killers’ 1946

Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is less remake than re-imagined tribute, with John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role (this time he’s a reckless race-car driver), Angie Dickinson as the seductive femme fatale, and Ronald Reagan as the crime boss pulling their strings, but this time the focus is on the killers themselves. It opens and ends on hitmen Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, who bully their way into a school for the blind to kill their target (Cassavetes), and the rest is their investigation into why their victim is so willing to die and why they were paid so much for what they’ve been told a simple grudge hit. Note that the opening moments are set to recycled music cues from Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil score. The sassy opening is a remarkably effective introduction to Marvin beating up a blind secretary while his partner can barely be bothered to notice, and sets the lurid tone that suggests tremendous brutality through intimidation and threat.

It was originally produced as a TV movie but was deemed too violent for the small screen and released to the theaters. Those origins are very evident, and not simply in the classic academy ratio. It has a cheap, cut-rate look to every set and location shot, weak rear-projection sequences, bad studio backdrops, and scenes simply shot against blank neutral colors. Clearly the producers were counting on the broadcast standards of sixties TV to hide their cut corners, and it creates a weird visual atmosphere for the film, a cynical, cruel story playing out against a banal, unreal backdrop. As scripted by Gene L. Coon (a longtime TV vet who wrote over a dozen Star Trek shows), however, the dialogue is hard-boiled redux. Marvin cuts every conversation directly to the point: no wasted words, no colorful flourishes, not even complete sentences, just key words driven home by the threat in his voice. And even in a feature-film setting, the sight of Ronald Reagan slapping Angie Dickinson is startling if not shocking. His subsequent political life just gives it all a little extra spice.

Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in the 1964 film

This edition includes most the supplements over from the earlier DVD and adds a new one: an audio-only excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography read by Hampton Fancher. Carried over from the previous release is yet another version of Hemingway’s short story, this one Andrei Tarkovsky’s faithful student film Ubijtsi (1956), an audio interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky (author of “Don Siegel: Director”) and a video interview with Clu Gulager both recorded in 2002, the 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” radio adaptation of the original film with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters (audio only), Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s original short story (audio only), and fold-out inserts with essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O’Brien.

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