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The Criterion Collection presents
The Killers (1946/64)

"If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's a double-crossing dame."
- Colfax (Albert Dekker) in The Killers (1946)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 19, 2003

Stars: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan, Clu Gulager, Norman Fell
Other Stars: Seymour Cassel, Nancy Wilson, William Conrad, Charles McGraw
Director: Robert Siodmak, Donald Siegel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 3h:17m:31s
Release Date: February 18, 2003
UPC: 715515013321
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA-B+ A-

DVD Review

There's a strange confluence between the language of screenplay adaptation and that of sexual fidelity: will the film be true to the source material? Will it be faithful? Or will the filmmakers have to divorce themselves from what brought them to the project, will they violate what's pure? Are you gonna dance with what brung ya?

This brilliantly devised two-disc double feature from Criterion is a crafty, cagey lesson in screenplay adaptation, as well as serving as a great big fun primer on the ways of film noir. In 1927, Ernest Hemingway published a taut little story called The Killers, about a fellow welcoming the hit men coming to do away with him. It was first filmed in 1946, at the peak of noir filmmaking in Hollywood; the second version was produced in 1964, originally conceived of as the first made-for-television movie. Both films are on this set, inviting the viewer to compare and contrast.

Max: You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?
Al: The town's full of bright boys.
—William Conrad, Charles McGraw, in The Killers (1946)

The lunch counter in Brentwood, New Jersey is like hundreds of others peppered throughout the land, but it's only on this night, at this greasy spoon, that a couple of button men come calling. Hemingway's recurrent character and alter ego, Nick Adams, is at the end of the counter, but here he's just a peripheral player—Max and Al are looking for Ole Andersen, also known as Pete Lunn, but more commonly referred to simply as the Swede. They've been hired to knock him off, and that's just what they do—the Swede doesn't even put up any resistance, but stands and watches as they pump him full of lead.

Among the Swede's few personal effects is an insurance policy: $2,500, to be paid out to a chambermaid at an Atlantic City hotel. Jim Reardon is the insurance investigator on the case, which is small beer for him and his company, but something about the circumstances of this murder stick in Reardon's craw: why didn't the Swede budge when the killers showed up at his rooming house?

This first filmed version of Hemingway's story has obvious cinematic affinities with some of the great movies that preceded it—it's hard not to think of Double Indemnity when your hero is an insurance investigator, and Reardon uncovers the facts of the Swede's life by visiting his friends and enemies in a series of episodes housed in an elaborate flashback structure that are reminiscent of the framing story in Citizen Kane. But Robert Siodmak's The Killers prides itself on its pulpy pedigree, so much so that it's almost a noir encyclopedia: the dangerous dame, the punch-drunk boxer, the big heist, the fast-talking gangsters, the double cross. And Siodmak, a German émigré, lends considerable style to the technical aspects of the filmmaking—the high-contrast black-and-white photography alerts us immediately to the cinematic world we're in, and the score by Miklos Rozsa brims with percussive energy.

"He's dead now, except he's breathing."—Jail Ward Doctor (George Anderson)

And the acting talent assembled is pretty spectacular, too. This film was the coming-out party for not one but two iconic screen presences: Burt Lancaster is brooding and tough as the Swede, a man whose doom can be seen in his eyes, even as he gazes at the girl he loves. And that girl is Ava Gardner, who, as Kitty Collins, fills out a dress as well as any doll ever did—the sexual energy between Lancaster and Gardner is palpable, and you can easily imagine that this a woman worth ruining your life for. (Frank Sinatra might have something to contribute to that conversation.) As Kitty says about herself: "I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everyone around me." But we boys will never learn.

Edmond O'Brien plays Reardon, who is nominally our hero, but functions really as a stand-in for us, the audience—we're as drawn in to the deceitful world of stickups and gun molls and bad guys as he is. And as so many of the movies of this period are, it's full of great little details, like a guy barking into the phone at the operator when he wants to use long distance: "I wanna call Newark, honey." Siodmak's camerawork is especially noteworthy, particularly the $250,000 robbery that's shot in one long take—special kudos to the fine technicians who were working the crane that day.

"I don't like losers. I've been around them all my life. Little men who cry a lot."
—Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), in The Killers (1964)

Director Don Siegel, most famous perhaps for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, revisited the same Hemingway story some eighteen years later. The story goes that Mark Hellinger, who produced the 1946 version, wanted Siegel to direct that one, but wouldn't pay to get him out of his studio contract; and that this second version was slated to be the first M.O.W., until NBC executives screened it and decided it was too violent for prime time.

Many of the structural elements are the same as the first version, and many of those go back to Hemingway; but Siegel puts his own imprint on the material, and this version is equally full of fascinations, and is a telling document about its own time.

This time out the victim is called Johnny North (a very young John Cassavetes), once a big-time race car driver, now an auto shop teacher at a school for the blind. Coming to rub him out are another couple of hit men: grizzled Charlie (Lee Marvin) and callow Lee (Clu Gulager) are, among other things, obvious forebears of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. No insurance man on the case here—this time, Charlie sets to wondering just why he and his partner are being overpaid for this hit, and whether or not there may be an illicit pile of cash floating around somewhere out there, that could be theirs with just a little bit of muscle. (Balzac was right: behind every great fortune, there is a crime.)

The investigation and the flashback structure are similar to the previous picture, but times have changed, and The Killers had to change with them. For one thing, this is in color, and it's deeply saturated, nearly jumping off the screen—this had to make a splash on the smaller TV sets of the mid-1960s. For another, the age of noir had passed, and acting and storytelling styles had changed—it's almost as if you can feel the studio system crumbling from within here, preparing to withstand the shock that would come just a few years later from pictures like Easy Rider. Siegel seems to have been a rather impish filmmaker, and he's telling his story well, but this movie is far afield from the enormous popular productions of the time—things like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, which seem much more wedded to the past than Siegel's crime story.

"I approve of larceny. Homicide is against my principles."—Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan)

And then there's the casting. The Killers is notable for, among other things, being the last film that Ronald Reagan made before he entered politics, and, as Jack Browning, he makes a surprisingly menacing bad guy. Reagan never had the screen charisma of the A-list leading men of his era—he never reached the heights of James Stewart, say, but he's so creepily good here that it's fun to imagine what he might have been like on screen had he done more cultivating of his dark side. He could have been at least the equal of Richard Widmark as a villain. And Norman Fell plays Browning's chief lieutenant—whatever your political affiliation, this makes for some seriously weird images, the fortieth President of the United States flanked by Mr. Roper.

"I don't want to be something to do until something better comes along."
—Johnny North (John Cassavetes)

Of course it's not a noir story without a girl, and that's where Angie Dickinson comes in. She may not quite be Ava Gardner, but she sure puts a hex on Cassavetes nonetheless—after crashing out in the big race, he becomes the wheel man for Browning's big stickup. Lee Marvin is in many ways the straw that stirs the drink—he's full of both charm and venom in this iconic performance. And this story too speaks of its time—Marvin is the only hit man I've ever seen who carries his papers in a briefcase, and he lives in a world where, when a call comes in for you at a restaurant, the waiter plugs in a phone at your table.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Both features have been cleaned up considerably—a look at the original trailers for each makes that abundantly clear. But noir was long looked at as one of the lowest levels of popular entertainment, and so the 1946 film still shows some scratches and wear, and some evidence of bacterial decay can be seen on the later picture. These pulpy movies shouldn't look too good, though, so it all feels of a piece.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono tracks for each film are clear enough, and they too have been given a good going over for the sake of clarity. Still, the best post house can't turn lead into gold, and sometimes things can sound a little thin. Both films also have optional music-and-effects-only audio tracks.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Son of Dracula, Cobra Woman, Cry of the City, Criss Cross
Production Notes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:57m:21s (1st disc); 00h:59

Extra Extras:
  1. publicity photographs, behind-the-scenes photos, original advertising
  2. Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 student film version of The Killers
  3. Screen Directors' Playhouse 1949 radio adaptation
  4. Hemingway's original story and excerpts from Don Siegel's autobiography, along with Paul Schrader's 1972 essay, Notes on Film Noir
  5. accompanying booklets, with essays on the films by Jonathan Lethem (1946 version) and Geoffrey O'Brien (1964 version)
Extras Review: "You ought to go to the movies more."—one of the hit men in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 version of The Killers

Still not enough incarnations of The Killers, you say? That's what the extras package is for, friend. On the first disc is a version (21m:17s) directed in part by Andrei Tarkovsky, in 1956, while he was a film student in the U.S.S.R.—Hemingway's stories had only recently been translated and published there, and Tarkovsky and a few of his comrades adapted The Killers in a pretty straightforward accounting of the short story. It's very, very odd to hear the clipped Hemingway diction translated into Russian; Tarkovsky himself is even on screen, as Second Customer, whistling a slightly flat rendition of Lullaby of Birdland. It's too much to say that this film anticipates his mature style in films like Solaris and Andrei Rublev, but it's obviously the work of a bright film student, soaking up American culture. (The only criticism: one of the Russians appears in blackface, and to his credit, doesn't look very happy about it.)

Also on the first disc is an adaptation of an adaptation: the 1948 installment of Screen Directors Playhouse, a radio rendition (29m:35s) of the 1946 movie. Director Robert Siodmak is on hand to introduce it, and Burt Lancaster reprises his role as the Swede; Ava Gardner is replaced by Shelley Winters. The play is followed up by some scripted questions for Siodmak, delivered by Lancaster and Winters, and the promise that up next week is a radio version of Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

An interview (17m:57s) with pulp writer Stuart Kaminsky also appears on the first disc, in which he discusses Hemingway's story and the history of the two English-language filmed versions; he's very good both on the history of noir, and on Hemingway: "The Swede is exactly what Hemingway thinks a hero should be: a man who accepts." Stacy Keach reads the Hemingway story (17m:37s), which for copyright reasons is probably the necessary second option, but it's unfortunate, for the one thing truly missing from this package of extras is Hemingway's text.

Director Paul Schrader published a landmark essay in 1972 called Notes on Film Noir, and it's reprinted in its entirety. He reviews the pedigree of the genre, the German influence, and puts some definite dates on it: he says noir runs from 1941 (the American entry into World War II) through 1953 (the coming of the Eisenhower Administration and the McCarthy years). He's very good on many aspects of noir, and it's easy to imagine that Robert Towne read this while he was writing Chinatown, for Schrader observes about the genre: "There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water." Schrader calls Kiss Me Deadly "the masterpiece of film noir," and while I'd argue with that (my nominee would probably be Double Indemnity), he's right on the button when he says: "Film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors."

The first disc also includes biographies for eight cast members, director Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger, and composer Miklos Rozsa; a raft of publicity photos, behind-the-scenes snapshots, reproductions of original advertising (posters, lobby cards, newspaper ads all promising that this is "told the untamed Hemingway way!"), a reproduction of the original press book; pictures of the Winter Garden Theater in New York festooned with posters for the film's opening (the theater would later house Cats for years—here's looking at you, Intrigo); and trailers for The Killers and four other Siodmak pictures. Son of Dracula promises that it's "searing the screen with new terror," but the best is surely for Cobra Woman, the "newest pagan sensation," which offers Maria Montez playing twins, "a rascally Sabu," and Coco the monkey. Who could resist?

The second disc isn't quite as jam-packed, but still has some notable extras. In a 2002 interview (18m:40s), Clu Gulager reflects on the film: "If you define The Killers as a great film, you may be stretching the point." But he's got an obvious adoration of both Siegel and Marvin (who showed up five hours late and stinking drunk on the last day of the shoot), and insists that Ronald Reagan "hated it," and made the film only as a favor to his friend Lew Wasserman, then the head of Universal. Gulager has a bit of a potty mouth, which is fine; but it's an oddly shot piece, with great big out-of-focus items (lamps? potted plants?) in the foreground filling up much of the frame and obscuring the actor has he speaks.

There's more books-on-tape fun here too, with an excerpt (19m:07s) from the director's autobiography, A Siegel Film, on The Killers. Again, it might not have been possible, but a text version would have been far preferable. Also included is some production correspondence, including the many objections from NBC's Standards and Practices Department, some casting suggestions (Lee Marvin in Cassavetes' part instead; Carroll O'Connor in Marvin's; Walter Matthau for Ronald Reagan, for instance), and a heartfelt letter from Siegel to Dickinson, defending her performance against what seem to have been negative reviews.

Brief biographies are offered for Siegel and six of the actors (Reagan's ends when he leaves acting for politics), and there's another huge slate of publicity stills and advertising material, along with a trailer. Two accompanying essays are also entertaining and informative, if brief: Jonathan Lethem tells us that John Huston wrote much of the screenplay for the 1946 version, though he wasn't credited, and Geoffrey O'Brien is particularly good on Siegel's career, and how The Killers fits in.

Extra bonus points to Criterion for the two-headed DVD case, featuring art for the 1946 version on one side, and the 1964 version on the other; and for the sly little film quotes that appear on the discs themselves.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Forget about Charlie Kaufman—if it's an abject lesson on adaptation you want, this is the ticket. As a whole, the set is more than its considerable parts, and Criterion deserves a world of credit for pushing the envelope on just what sort of illumination a well-produced DVD can provide.


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