“The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.”
So begins Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which begat two feature length films, an innumerable amount of knock-offs, and the ubiquitous terse dialogue that became synonymous with crime noir. Clocking in at just 3000 words, the story is the self-contained scene of two assassins holding the staff and customer of a diner hostage, waiting for their mark to show up for dinner. He never comes, and the title characters leave with a passing mention of their plan to kill ‘The Swede,” Ole Anderson.
Hemingway’s muscular, clipped dialogue and minimal descriptors perfectly captured the tension, intimidation and force that would inform the noir genre for decades thereafter. And perhaps it was because of his economical yet imaginative style that filmmakers were inspired to take the story and run with it, creating two completely different films using this minimal material as a springboard, not to mention homages from Blue Velvet to Reservoir Dogs.
Both films are restored and lovingly presented in The Criterion Collection’s seminal set Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, released on Blu-ray and DVD. As usual with Criterion, the set is chockfull of essential extras that help tell a complete story of the “The Killers” journey.
The 1946 original was loaded with talent. Robert Siodmak, a Jewish refugee who had honed his directing skills in Berlin with the likes of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman and Edgar G. Ulmer, became Universals go-to for troubled pictures, which was why he inherited The Killers after it was decided young upstart Don Siegel wasn’t quite ready for the task (more on that later). With the Hemingway story as source material, and a script ghost-written by none other than Noir architect John Huston (his contract with Warner Bros. meant he couldn’t take credit) and the risky casting of first timer Burt Lancaster as the aforementioned “Swede,” the movie was a bonafide hit and a seminal classic.
With the first 10 minutes of the movie adapted almost verbatim from the story, we end with the Swede’s murder in his lonely tenement room. From there, the film is told, Citizen Kane-style, in flashback through multiple narrators, witness to Ole Anderson’s trials and tribulations. Edmund O’Brien is the unflappable insurance investigator who discovers through his research that an unsolved robbery may be at the heart of Anderson’s mysterious murder. Along the way, he grapples with gang leaders and goons, grifters and garage mechanics. He also discovers the love of Anderson’s life and the archetypal femme fatale, a striking Ava Gardner at her most stunning.
Looking back on Lancaster’s career, it’s surprising that as the center of this maelstrom, he’s at his most innocent and naïve. This is the man who could bilk a revival crowd in Elmer Gantry, almost topple a government in Seven Days in May and manipulate countless underlings as a Nazi war criminal in Judgment At Nuremberg. So to see him this ineffectual takes some getting used to. When he so resolutely accepts the killers coming for what ends up being an out-and-out execution, you expect him to pull some third act “rabbit out of a hat” trick, and it doesn’t happen – you feel cheated. The final scene, which offers a fairly high, barely humorous aside from O’Brien doesn’t feel deserved after such a solemn and powerfully deadly tale. But these are barely warranted slights in what is one of the most important, archetypal noirs.
Flash forward 18 years and the source material is again mined, this time for an attempted TV movie. Interestingly, the title is changed to Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, and yet there’s almost nothing remaining from the original short story. Don Siegel, now an established director, had the opportunity to do a “make good” with the material, which stands now, more than anything else, as a curio. The noir trappings are replaced with light drenched, flat sets. The first film’s driving force, an intrepid insurance agent, is replaced by one of the killers running his own “investigation” into why his target accepted his fate with such obvious passivity. The original’s murder, taking place in a shadowy one room flat, now transpires in bright daylight, ironically, in the middle of a school for the blind. The target this time is none other than John Cassavetes, and the killers are Lee Marvin (a year out from his existential master performance in Point Blank) and Clu Gulager, a TV staple, as his strange and not-so-smart partner.
In this 1964 version we’re given the final appearance by Ronald Reagan as an actor, playing his only bad guy role. He and Marvin are the reasons to watch. Reagan, looking more like the California Governor and later President than any of his previous, younger roles, plays the gang boss not as a sneering villain, but a cold and driven businessman. One scene where he has to slap his moll (Angie Dickinson playing the Ava Gardner role) supposedly haunted him for years (he didn’t like violence towards women). And Marvin, always sinister, is able to imbue his character with enough intellect to know something more than meets the eye is afoot.
Still the plot meanders, and we are forced to sit through countless scenes of Cassavetes and Dickenson falling in love, and pining for one another. The two stars generate little heat, and Dickenson’s third act “switch” is infuriating, given the amount of screen time she’s spent showing how much she loves Cassavetes’ “fall guy.” In the previous version, Gardner, there’s never a question that she’s been playing the Swede for all he’s worth. Like any good noir, we know she’s out for herself, and she makes no bones about it.
Siegel’s The Killers was greenlit to be the first made-for-TV movie, but upon completion, the producers felt it was too violent for television audiences, so it was released theatrically, where it did surprisingly strong box office, particularly over seas where audiences tended to project more auteur characteristics to a film than possibly deserved. Today, Siodmak’s The Killers seems to get better with age as Siegel’s version just sags.
The Criterion package also includes a rarely seen short film adaptation, the first by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky from his film school days of 1956 which renders the short story rather faithfully, save for the Eastern European setting. As well, the set has Stacey Keach reading the short story, a1949 radio version starring Lancaster and Shelly Winters, an interview with film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky covering both films, a strange and rambling interview with Clu Gulager shot by his sons near the end of his life, and assorted essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
But by far the most fascinating and worthwhile extra is an excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography “A Siegel Film,” read by director Hampton Fancher, which gives insight into some of the behind-the-scenes drama involved with making the 1964 version. Most entertaining are the passages about the difficulties Siegel had working with raging alcoholic Marvin, who had to be filmed just at the right time of day so he wouldn’t pass out, as well as the ingenious strategy Siegel would use to “trick” Marvin into giving him the performance he needed, sometimes withholding booze, other times “drowning” him in it.
As academic conversations go, Criterion Collection’s packaging of The Killers is a seminal entry into the debate of how much or little a short story can impact modern storytelling. There’s no doubt about Hemingway’s contribution to crime noir – but the bigger question, and one that the set struggles to answer, is at what point does the creator’s vision give way to something altogether different? Quite possibly the real crime, then, was Siegel’s murder of the original.
Clu Gulager’s “rambling” interview extra was shot in 2006. Gulager was Not “near the end of his life” at the time, as he is still alive now and appeared in Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” in 2019. undoubtedly in part because of his role in The Killers.