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DVD SAVANT
Double Disc Special Edition:

THE Killers (1946)
and
THE Killers (1964)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion has a standing arrangement with Universal to release special editions of some of their older library titles, which has yielded really good Preston Sturges comedies and other Universal and Paramount titles. This time around they've given us a double dose of Film Noir, two pictures from different eras adapted from the same Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers, a one-act bit of anguish where a pair of hit men terrorize a lunch counter before rubbing out their appointed victim. Each film expands the brief, chilling fragment into a dark thriller told in retrospective flashbacks, and together they chart the evolution of Film Noir from romantic fatalism to existential nihilism.


The Killers
Criterion 176
1946 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 105 min. / Street date February 18, 2003 / $39.95
Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Virginia Christine, Jack Lambert, Charles McGraw, William Conrad
Cinematography Woody Bredell
Art direction Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Film editor Arthur Hilton
Original Music Miklós Rózsa
Written by Anthony Veiller (Richard Brooks, John Huston) from the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Produced by Mark Hellinger
Directed by Robert Siodmak

Synopsis:

Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) doggedly pursues the mystery behind the gangland-style hit of Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster, in his first role), a moody gas pump boy who, instead of running, calmly allowed himself to be gunned down. As Reardon uncovers the truth about Ole's crooked dealings with femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) and crook Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), he puts his own life in jeopardy.

Robert Siodmak and Mark Hellinger put together a corker of a story in The Killers, introducing both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in starring roles, and redefining the new, dark style of Hollywood thriller. To the Hemingway pedigree was added a Citizen Kane-like flashback structure, telling the story of a crime through multiple character testimony. The inverted narrative starts from a fated conclusion as we watch boxer Andersen struggle to keep stolen money and a gangster's unfaithful girl friend, knowing he'll lose both.

The fated flashback structure had worked well in Double Indemnity and Detour, but in this story, the protagonist is already dead, which lends a poignant aspect to his love for Kitty Collins, and a pallor of doom overall. Like Kane, the investigator Reardon interviews witnesses and slowly pieces the story together. The testimony cues for us a number of deeply felt scenes that go way beyond what Reardon must be hearing - The erotic spell Kitty places over Ole, his desperate entanglement in a multi-leveled doublecross. There's even a setpiece showing a daring daylight factory robbery, that's filmed in one long and complicated crane shot. Reardon finds out who cheated who, but only we are privy to the lush narrative vision of Ole's downfall.

The whole show is bathed in pools of darkness and light ruled by Woody Bredell's chiaroscuro lighting. The opening scene is a static angle past two mysterious men from the back seat of a car speeding in the night, a key noir visual that would be repeated in Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place, and later referenced in Taxi Driver. The obsessive, destructive love of Ole for Kitty was already a noir staple, and would be further elaborated in Siodmak's followup with Lancaster, Criss Cross, a story about similarly doomed characters. But the pairing of Lancaster and Gardner generated real sparks, as beefy Burt's attraction for Ava's toxic beauty comes right through the screen.

The elaborate flashback mystery adequately answers the big 'Why' of the original. Along the way Siodmak and his stellar writers treat us to a gallery of grotesques, from Albert Dekker's dour Mr. Big, to all-purpose bad guy Jack Lambert's moronic thug, appropriately nicknamed Dum Dum. In the present tense, O'Brien's cheerful insurance investigator, and his cop friend played by Sam Levene, are opposed by the only characters from the original short story, the two hit men, Al and Max are cold-bloodedly played by radio star William Conrad and newcomer heavy Charles McGraw. They're a Laurel and Hardy of gangland, a pair of menacing angels of death. Their long absence from the story results in a big jolt when at a crucial moment they suddenly reappear, ready to kill ... with a blast of music recognizable as the later signature theme from Dragnet!

Reardon wraps up all the loose ends in the case of The Swede Who Didn't Run, but the gnawing pessimism in the sexy but sad career of Ole Andersen stays with us, as do his last words: "I did something wrong once." For another decade, Films Noir would make romantic martyrs out of fatal losers.


Criterion's transfer of Robert Siodmak's The Killers is a good but not overwhelming presentation. The telecine work is fine, but Universal doesn't seem to have perfect elements. Contrast is good but not excellent. It's the best I've seen the picture, just the same.

The extras are extensive (see below), with the standout being the 1956 Andrei Tarkovsky student version of the short story, that follows the Hemingway story even closer than Siodmak did. There's also a radio play version with Shelly Winters and Burt Lancaster, where we can hear Siodmak describing The Killers with the same words used by later Noir critics. Stacy Keach recites the short story in another feature, and included for good measure is the Paul Schrader essay that effectively launched American Noir fever, when it was used as a pamphlet for a 1972 Filmex marathon.



The Killers
Criterion 176
1964 / Color / 1:37 flat / 93 min. / Ernest Hemingway's The Killers / Street date February 18, 2003 / $39.95
Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan
Cinematography Richard L. Rawlings
Art directors Frank Arrigo, George Chan
Editor Richard Belding
Original Music Johnny Williams, Henry Mancini, Don Raye
Written by Gene L. Coon from the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Produced and Directed by Donald Siegel

Synopsis:

When hit men Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) rub out their contract target Johnny North (John Cassavetes), the auto shop teacher passively accepts his fate. Charlie is so intrigued by this that he and Lee criss cross the country to figure out North's backstory - to quench Charlie's curiosity, and to profit from whatever crime their victim was a part of.

Writers on Film Noir love the contrast between these two film versions, and happily chart their essential differences. In the fifties, the low-key darkness of Noir gave way to the greys of naturalistic daylight and drab location-filming reality, and the elaborate romances and convoluted, often absurd plot structures of the early films became more straightforward exercises in iconic structures and minimalist plotting. (Whew!) Fritz Lang's last Hollywood films were Noir thrillers set against generic backgrounds. Pictures like The Brothers Rico were more about defining the essentials of what a mobster was, instead of what he did.

The hit men of the earlier film were a marginal threat, who spent most of the running time lurking somewhere offscreen. In this 1964 remake, the hit men are the ones who do the investigating. Charlie and Lee are our protagonists, and the cops are almost completely absent. We watch the two killers terrorize innocent people for information, just like Al and Max, with the essential difference of of expedience. Al and Max took their time, playing sadistically with their captives like cats with a mouse; it really didn't matter if they got their information before or after they ate. Charlie and Lee, in the hepped-up, speed-obsessed go-go Sixties, just don't have the time to mess around. Rudely cornering their prey, they immediately go for the hard sell, whether it means hanging a woman out of a high window, or terrorizing a helpless blind lady.

The mystery Charlie and Lee uncover is essentially the same as the caper from the earlier film, changed to accomodate a car racing millieu. The robbery objective is a moving mail truck instead of a stationary factory. Instead of the sultry siren of Ava Gardner, poor fool John Cassavetes falls for an obvious golddigging goodtime girl, Angie Dickinson, whose insincere outer level peels off to reveal just more layers of insincerity. Johnny North dies not once but three times, in an early car crash. The shot where he walks away from the obviously fatal stockshot crash is unintentionally funny. He 'dies' yet again when Angie sells him out to her main man, Ronald Reagan .... !! (insert incredulous double take here).

Lee Marvin nails the buttoned-down shark patter that Charlie lays on his victims, defining the star persona he'd keep for the next two decades. He's often pictured squint-aiming a pistol with one of those enormous silencers attached to the barrel, an image that gives the gun equal graphic emphasis. Clu Gulager affects a giggling hipster cruel streak, primping like Ed 'Kookie' Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip (click click) in a way that hasn't aged well. He comes off as the weak sister to Marvin's cold menace, sort of a hit man's Sancho Panza. There were some notable hit man teams in earlier noirs (especially the covert gay pair from 1955's The Big Combo), but Charlie and Lee are arguably the model for Quentin Tarantino's chatty, funny killers in his later Pulp Fiction.

Angie Dickinson, the modern man's woman from Rio Bravo and China Gate, is here called the sensible Sheila Farr instead of the fetishistic 'Lucky Legs', or 'Feathers'. Her essential toughness would later make her the perfect mobster's foil when she reunited with Marvin in Point Blank. John Cassavetes is on board just to pay the bills for his own experimental independent productions, but he contributes his reliable intensity. He even got his Faces star Seymour Cassell in for a fast bit part.

But the big coup was casting the semi-retired Ronald Reagan. As rigid as a washboard, Reagan's last film has him playing Big Jack Browning, the gangster crook, as a one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, a combination he'd carry to the state capitol as Governor two years later. The absurdity of 1970 college life never got more absurd as when we'd be dodging Reagan's national Guardsmen one day, and then the next day see the Drugstore Truck-Driving Man himself in a film school screening, bitch-slapping  1 Angie Dickinson across a room. It's a classic piece of film, just on content alone: Burt Bacharach's woman recoils backward, hair flying, and our cool liberal Cassavetes, Machine Gun McCain himself, decks Reagan with a retaliatory right cross. Utterly priceless. This got standing ovations at UCLA.

Virginia Christine, who plays a charming cop's wife in the original, comes back in this remake in the brief role of the blind lady terrorized by Lee Marvin. Her television fame as the Folger's coffee lady only adds to the cruelty of the scene.

The remake of The Killers has an archetypal Sixties' finale, with (spoiler) Lee Marvin collapsing in a stupor on the sunny green lawn in a new-looking suburban development, clutching the suitcase with the cash for which so many have died. It's an instant cliché, but effective nonetheless, especially with Marvin's cocky final gesture at the cops. It's one of director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry)'s finest moments.


Criterion's DVD of Don Siegel's The Killers is a flat transfer that must have looked cramped when matted on a wide theater screen. It started out as a TV movie (supposedly the first) but got bumped to the big screen after JFK was assassinated - there's more than one scene with a sniper picking off a victim at long range. One of our heroes (spoiler) is gunned down in a setup staged identically to a killing in 1931's The Public Enemy.

The show, unfortunately, looks like a TV movie from the period, with blah color and ample grain. It takes place on cheap sets with bad backdrops, and uses a high ratio of unconvincing rearscreen projection, which doesn't help. The style-less look is stylistically right-on, evoking a low-rent TV world, but try telling that to an angry mob, I mean, DVD buyers. The 'new digital transfer' copy on the box cover probably translates as, 'Criterion had to take the master that Universal provided'.

The extras here range from some excellent network memoes to excerpts from Don Siegel's autobiography. The video interview is a real stumble for Criterion, a newly-taped 'reflection' from actor Clu Gulager, shot by his sons in an annoying style that dissolves back and forth between two DV cameras. Gulager tells tales about the production in a rambling, hyped discourse that resembles Jim Jones getting ready to dispense the Kool-Aid, a mess of unreliable actor-speak that wants us to believe that ol' Clu was at the center of everything cool about the production. Criterion usually limits its extras to carefully chosen prime-source items, so this was a disappointment.


The The Killers Double Disc Edition
Packaging: Double NexPak Keep Case
The Killers (1946):
Extras: Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 student film version, interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky, 1949 radio adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters, Hemingway's short story read by actor Stacy Keach, Production and publicity stills, Essay by Jonathan Lethem, Paul Schrader's seminal 1972 essay notes on film noir, Music and effects track.
The Killers (1964):
Extras: Reflections by star Clu Gulager, Excerpts from Don Siegel's autobiography, Production correspondence including memos, broadcast standard reports, and casting suggestions, Production and publicity stills, Essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, Music and effects track.
Reviewed: February 16, 2003


Footnote:

1. The only time I'll use that word, but it's entirely appropriate here.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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