Facing Death With a Shrug in Two Versions of ‘The Killers’


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In foreground, Burt Lancaster, left, and Albert Dekker in Robert Siodmak’s version of “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (1946)

Credit
The Criterion Collection

To read Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” first published in Scribner’s magazine in 1927, is to understand why this most mainstream of American writers was once considered a modernist.

The prose is terse and at times incantatory; the situation — a man known as the Swede anticipates without emotion the inevitable punishment for his unknown crime — is existential. Having occupied a near-empty diner to fulfill their contract on the Swede, two hit men for an unmentioned Chicago gang lord are scary, yet absurd, agents of death. “What’s the idea?” the counterman demands. “There isn’t any idea,” is the laconic response.

More, the story provided the basis for two outstanding Hollywood movies, “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak, and a 1964 remake of the same title, directed by Don Siegel, both newly out from Criterion on a single Blu-ray. (An older double DVD set is also available.)

The 1946 “Killers” uses its brilliant opening scenes to dramatize the complete Hemingway story almost verbatim, with the hit men terrorizing the diner, and the Swede (Burt Lancaster, making an impressive movie debut) awaiting death. The rest is largely invented back story, as the movie veers into the land of noir with a hard-bitten insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) researching the murdered man’s life to solve the mystery of his fatalism.

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From far left, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in Don Siegel’s version (1964).

Credit
The Criterion Collection

Like many artistically ambitious Hollywood movies of the 1940s, “The Killers” is clearly influenced by “Citizen Kane” — not just in its Expressionistic lighting, showy camera angles, carefully contrived mirror shots and percussive montage but also in its flashback structure. Its dramatic personae, however, are pure pulp.

Less a narrative than a Hollywood neighborhood, “The Killers” is populated by slang-slinging tough guys with tilted fedoras and dangled cigarettes and gorgeous dames who are not to be trusted. O’Brien is a low-rent Humphrey Bogart. Lancaster is dreamy, dense and doomed. Ava Gardner, in her first major movie, doesn’t do much more than exist. She hardly needs to. Materializing some 40 minutes into the movie in a backless black satin number, she turns from the hubbub of some dubious soiree to face the camera head-on; it’s clear from Lancaster’s dumbstruck gaze that he has met his Circe.

The cinematography, by the Universal workhorse Woody Bredell, offers much to enjoy, but the movie’s languorous aestheticism is complemented by its spasmodic violence. The Swede is revealed to have been a professional boxer, and the jagged razzmatazz of the choreographed, closely edited fight scenes were unsurpassed until Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”

“Its scenes of sadism and menacing action have been formed and filled with a vitality all too rare in current movies,” the film critic and genre film connoisseur Manny Farber declared in The New Republic. “The Killers,” Farber wrote, is “suspense-ridden and exciting down to tiny details in the background.” Noting Siodmak’s pre-Hollywood career in German cinema, Farber credited him with the movie’s “stolid documentary” quality and “gaudy melodramatic flavor,” as well as an artiness “most noticeable in the way scenes are sculpted in dark and light.”

Nominated for an Oscar, Siodmak established himself as the leading stylist of what was not yet known as film noir, and a name-brand director, briefly bracketed with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang.

Don Siegel’s remake was hardly so well received, although it is in many respects a more vivid, streamlined, callous film. The shock opener has the two relentless hit men (Lee Marvin and the frequent TV actor Clu Gulager, in matching shades and sharkskin suits) hunting their prey (John Cassavetes) in a school for the blind; their mission is accomplished amid a crowd of witnesses, none of whom can see.

While making its hapless antihero a racecar driver, the 1964 version of “The Killers” largely hews to the 1946 structure. The major alteration has the hit men, rather than an insurance investigator, teasing out the victim’s story. Money is involved, but so is curiosity. “I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run,” Marvin rumbles.

Made for TV, “The Killers” was deemed too violent for home consumption and released on a double bill with a 1960 Mamie Van Doren sex farce, “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve.” The movie’s small-screen origins are apparent in the emphatic cutting and abundant close-ups — vehicles screeching to a halt a foot from the camera — that play to Siegel’s strengths as an action director and editor.

The cast is first-rate. Thanks to Marvin’s sleek, snub-nosed menace and the edgy thrill-seeking projected by Angie Dickinson’s classy moll, the movie exudes a cynical Rat Pack cool. The jazz singer Nancy Wilson, who has a musical sequence looking like Ms. Dickinson’s sister by another mother, adds to the ring-a-ding flavor. Cassavetes’s jangling, immoderate intensity is markedly uncool, although one of his seduction lines — “You’re a nut, we’re both nuts!” — might have been written for Frank Sinatra.

The 1964 “Killers” is also notable for its heavy, a criminal mastermind played by Ronald Reagan, who is first seen scowling, squinteyed and leathery beneath a sculpted pompadour in the company of his servile gofer (Norman Fell, later the original landlord on the sitcom “Three’s Company”). “The Killers” was Reagan’s last movie, but it was the first one of his I ever saw (in 1969 as part of the Museum of Modern Art program “Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964”), and his Teflon image notwithstanding, it left an indelible impression.

The Blu-ray’s extras include an audio recording of Stacy Keach reading the original short story, a 1949 radio version of the 1946 movie, and a credible 1956 student adaptation by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky and two colleagues. Their approach is straightforward, modern and very “American”; one fillip has Tarkovsky in a small role, whistling “Lullaby of Bird-land.”

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Correction: August 3, 2015

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of one of the stars of “Satan Met a Lady.” He was Warren William — not Williams.



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