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.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled Criterion: It’s a Don Siegel ‘Riot’

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It may not have been obvious at the time but Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) was a perfect match of film and filmmaker. Don Siegel later made a name for himself with his gritty Clint Eastwood collaborations (not to mention is brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but was just a promising journeyman director when he embarked on this low-budget 1954 film, a project initiated by producer Walter Wanger after he served a short sentence for assault with a deadly weapon (he shot a man that he thought was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett). Riot gave Siegel a situation where violence was a defining element of the world and the people in it, a power always threatening to blow up and burn out control, and he used it to create a powder-keg of thriller with a message underneath the drama.

It begins with a newsreel-like prologue to establish its ripped-from-the-headlines bonafides—”Where will the next riot occur?” teases the narrator after showing us a succession of protests in prisons across the country—and then jumps into the fictional story of a carefully-planned riot in the punishment block of an overcrowded prison. (Phil Karlson used the same structure a year later for an even more explosive The Phenix City Story.) Neville Brand, a real-life war hero who made a career playing Hollywood villains thanks to his tough manner and scuffed-up face, is the ringleader of this protest, a convicted killer who has no agenda but to call attention to prison conditions. His fellow inmates are not so committed to his restraint, however, and the prison guard hostages are in constant danger of retribution from vindictive prisoners, especially Leo Gordon as a sociopath who has no interest in curbing his impulses. The warden (Emile Meyer) is not only sympathetic to their demands, he’s already complained to the state about the prison overcrowding and understaffing, lack of education and training programs for the inmates, and insufficient training for the guards, but the state politics demand a policy of no negotiations with rioters, which just raises the stakes and the temperature of the stand-off.

Siegel helms this film with both a hard-edged portrait of the violence and desperation of the situation and an intelligent engagement with the issues. Most of these guys have nothing to lose. Others are so angry that they riot in sympathy, whether it helps or not (in this film, it’s both). Brand holds the center as a both, a guy ready to follow through on his threats if necessary but restrained and far-sighted enough to hope it doesn’t come to that. He’s fighting the power on both sides: holding back what is close to a paramilitary response from the outside while trying to keep the volatile chemistry inside from combusting. He’s sympathetic to the prisoners without whitewashing their crimes or their violent nature. Much of the film was shot on location at Folsom Prison with guards and prisoners serving as extras and advisers, which gives the film added authenticity, but it’s Siegel’s direction that really lights the fuse. And Siegel is aware of the tension between social message and violent spectacle; he, like Brand’s character, realizes that it takes a big story to get people to pay attention to the issues. Siegel, however, is more interested in the personalities and the conflicts and the lengths to which both sides will go in this war.

It’s mastered from a new 2K digital restoration in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which has raised some debate; in some shots the headroom is distracting and the film looks like it should be masked to 1.66:1 widescreen, in others it looks well balanced and composed. Clearly the film was protected for both aspect ratios, but it’s not clear which the director’s preferred or intended format was. Features commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Berstein, audio excerpts from the director’s autobiography “A Siegel Film” and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director,” both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara.

More Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Classic: ‘Private Hell 36’

Ida Lupino gets top billing in Private Hell 36 (Olive), and for good reason. In addition to starring in this low-budget film noir as a nightclub singer drafted into the police search for a counterfeiter, she so-wrote the script and co-produced through her company The Filmmakers, with partner Collier Young. The story revolves around the loyalties and temptations in a police partnership between the impulsive, younger cop Steve Cochran and family man Howard Duff, stretched thin on his salary. Temptation comes when Cochran pockets a portion of the recovered counterfeit stash after the crook is killed in a high-speed car chase and Duff’s conscience eats away as he keeps quiet and accepts his share (to come when they sell the phony bills in Mexico). The title refers to the address of their stash house.

Lupino had directed her share of films as well, many of them exploring similar moral quandaries, but she passed directorial reigns over to Don Siegel, who at the time was making his name with a series of tight, stylish little low-budget pictures. This is more about tension than action, with plenty of surveillance and scenes of police procedural detail, but he opens with a quiet street scene of a realist crime drama with an ominous sense of anticipation that explodes in a crime scene shoot-out and bookends it with a gut-punch of an ambush that ricochets with some dynamic twists. In between, greed and guilt divide the once devoted partners. Dean Jagger and Dorothy Malone co-star.

More cool and classic releases at Videodrone

Classic: The Original ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Olive) – The original version of the oft-filmed science fiction horror is still the most insidious alien invasion film ever made. This is an invasion from within. Small town family doctor Kevin McCarthy returns to his small California coastal community from an out-of-town trip to find everything just a bit off: friends and family suddenly become “other,” emotionless beings that trade personality and joie de vivre for ruthless efficiency. This loss of emotion is set against the growing romance between McCarthy and Dana Wynter, who pull together as they stumble across the corpses of unformed people (a weird mix of plant and person) and become isolated within the transforming community. Director Don Siegel transforms the atmosphere for sunny and open to dark and claustrophobic as the humans become a kind of hive mind.

Other alien invasion films were about life and death, but this is far more insidious: it’s about loss of soul and self, and the desperation to hold on as doppelgangers were grown to take their place. The film coined the phrase “pod people” and has been called a metaphor for the repressive conformity of both Communism and McCarthyism in the fifties. That it works for both readings, and remains resonant for every generation (substitute urban alienation or emotional suppression), is testament to its genius and its power. “You’re next!”

This is one of the first releases in Olive’s exclusive arrangement with Paramount to distribute the Republic Pictures catalog on Blu-ray and DVD – “High Noon” also debuts today — and Olive gives both films their respective Blu-ray debuts.

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MOD Movies: Tough Guys

Hickey and Boggs (MGM Limited Edition Collection) from 1972 reunites former “I Spy” partners Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as down-out-heels private detectives in Los Angeles. Directed by Culp from a script by Walter Hill, it’s very much a scrappy early draft of the buddy action films that Hill would later direct, but in the key of seventies grit and cynicism. One is separated, the other divorced and unable to get over it, but both of them hang on to the last gasp of Raymond Chandler-esque dignity and professionalism even as they get taken by their clients and harassed by the cops at every turn. Culp is a director in the Don Siegel mode, just as focused on process and professionalism and refreshingly straightforward in both dialogue and action. He understands these characters, he likes them, and while he may not agree with them, he definitely respects their doggedness (though not the self-pity). Success may not satisfying, given all they lose along the way, but they earn it out of sheer perseverance and loyalty. The last men standing get the spoils. It is nice to finally see this film on DVD and in its correct aspect ratio.

Humphrey Bogart stars in a couple of recent Warner Archive releases, neither of them among his best. But hey, it’s Bogie and that alone has my interest. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (Warner Archive), from 1939, is a late gangster film with Bogart in a rare pre-1941 leading role (when he became a star after the double-shot of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). At the time, he was mostly playing criminals and second bananas, secondary roles to the heroes and featured villains, and while he gets top billing here, he’s no hero but a cold-blooded thug who lets an innocent man take the rap for a murder and then keeps the pressure on his patsy when he’s sent up for robbery with a reluctant conspirator. It’s plays like low-rent reworking of Angels with Dirty Faces, a  Warner Bros. gangster film as morality tale, where the crooks are wise-talking cowards and hypocrites and the future of one kid in thrall to the swaggering neighborhood thug (Bogart, of course) and the straight-arrow guy they frames is at stake. Watch for Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life) as the prison librarian with a paternal streak.

Conflict (Warner Archive), a 1945 murder mystery with a psychological twist, melodrama flourishes and a shadowy film noir style, once again features Bogart on the other side of the law, this time as a man who murders his wife after their fight wedding anniversary in what appears to be the perfect crime… until she suddenly returns to haunt him. Alexis Smith plays his sister-in-law (and the motivation for his murder — he wants to upgrade to a younger model) and Sydney Greenstreet (a familiar Bogart nemesis indeed) is a psychiatrist who gets involved when Bogie’s wife mysteriously “disappears.” It’s a generic title for a routine suspense thriller, but Bogie is far more fascinating when he tips to the dark side in his post-“Maltese Falcon” films than when he routinely played the villain in the thirties. He’s more unstable and unpredictable, suggesting a psychosis that makes him far scarier than the thugs of his gangster years. And while director Curtis Bernhardt doesn’t bother trying to give the story (concocted by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann) a plausible foundation, he does conduct the mood quite nicely. Interestingly enough, Bogart turned to knocking off his wives and yearning for Alexis Smith again a couple of years later in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), also from the Warner Archive (reviewed on Videodrone in 2011 here).

Edge of Eternity (Columbia Pictures Classics), a murder mystery set in an isolated desert mining town in Arizona where the mines closed year ago, stars Cornel Wilde as a straight-shooting sheriff trying to untangle the mystery around the murder of an unidentified stranger and the cover-up of his identity. Director Don Siegel gives the otherwise routine thriller a nice tension and a great sense of place. Shot on location near the Grand Canyon, the widescreen photography gives the open landscape a vastness and an isolation, and the “bucket” of the industrial loader that cranks across the canyon and the use of small private planes and a police helicopter over the craggy hills only adds to the feeling of remoteness. But in my own perverse way, I found it worth the time just to see the end credits offer their thanks to the many organizations that helped out, notably The United States Guano Corporation.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for March 6

MOD Movies: Don Siegel’s ‘The Gun Runners’

Audie Murphy: babyfaced tough guy

Don Siegel’s low-budget 1958 adventure The Gun Runners is not exactly a remake of To Have and Have Not but it is the third screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway novel. Audie Murphy takes the lead here as independent skipper Sam Martin, who rents his cabin cruiser to tourists looking to fish the waters of Key West. When his latest customer skips on the bill and he gambles himself into the hole attempting to win enough to make his payments, he ends up in debt to a gun runner (Eddie Albert), making illegal trips to Cuba under cover of night so Albert can make his deal with the Cuban revolutionaries. The politics of the situation aren’t even hinted at, but then Albert’s character is a businessman, not a patriot or an idealist.

It’s a stock thriller premise brought to life with clever screenwriting (by Daniel Mainwaring and Paul Monash, and reportedly an uncredited contribution from Ben Hecht), deftly turned characters, a terrific supporting cast and delightfully sexy rapport and physical intimacy between Murphy and Patricia Owens, who plays his wife. The bloom hasn’t worn off this romance and her playful flirtations in the dive of a waterfront bar, pretending to be a floozy seducing the married Sam from his “wife,” is one of the sexiest scenes I’ve between a married couple in a fifties feature.

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New on DVD – Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I

Film noir was the term that the French gave to a particular strain of American crime movies in the forties and fifties, defined by its shadowy style, largely urban settings and mood of doom and corruption. But another strain of film noir also flourished in the fifties, films shot on location with an almost documentary quality, where psychopathic gangsters walked the city streets in broad daylight like a virus. These styles intermingled as more films embraced the expressionistic qualities of locations, but Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (Sony), the fourth collaboration between Sony and Martin Scorsese’s non-profit film preservation organization, The Film Foundation, spotlights three films that embraced the docu-noir style of daylight thrillers with darkly psychotic characters.

Arthur Franz is "The Sniper"
Arthur Franz is "The Sniper"

The Sniper (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer and directed on location in San Francisco by Edward Dmytryk, has a much edgier atmosphere and modern feel. Adolphe Menjou’s police detective has seen everything, but the spree of a woman-hating psychopath troubles him because (police psychiatrist aside) he can’t understand the motivation. The direction straddles the studio model of storytelling and the immediacy of low-budget location shooting and Dmytryk punctuates the violence with vivid explosions of brutal force without showing a drop of blood. Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), also shot on location in San Francisco, stars Eli Wallach as a killer on the trail of smuggled heroine shipments ready to kill anyone in his way. It’s low budget theatrical version of a TV series, but Siegel makes it all about the killers and gives the film a matter-of-fact violence that gives the film a life of its own. Murder by Contract (1958), by contrast, is almost laconic it its story of a self-made assassin-for-hire (Vince Edwards), an almost existential figure who is happy to share his philosophy while on a job to silence an inconvenient witness. Irving Lerner’s direction is almost hypnotic as he matches the deliberation of his killer with meticulous direction: every murder is so carefully set up that we never need to see the follow through. All three of these films take place mostly in the daylight and all have a crispness to them that the shadowy studio noirs don’t.

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