Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition:

The Killers
d. Robert Siodmak (1946)

The Killers
d. Don Siegel (1964)

Spine: #176
Blu-ray Release Date: July 7, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray discs, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image. Once again, because I still haven't had a chance to replace my Blu-ray drive, I've availed myself of Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver, who has kindly granted me permission to use stills he posted on his website DVD Beaver (here) until I get my drive fixed.

In 1927 Ernest Hemingway published a short story called “The Killers” in Scribner’s Magazine. Hemingway’s places his often used protagonist Nick Adams in a little diner, just before 6:00 p.m. However, in “The Killers” Adams is more or less a side character who happens there when two men come in asking about the Swede. These men, after intimidating the three men in the diner, have no problems telling them that they’re there to kill the Swede, though not because of anything he did to them: “He never had the chance to do anything to us.” We wait and wonder when the Swede will show up and what will happen when he does. But he doesn’t. The two men, confident they have nothing to worry about from the three scared men in the diner, leave. Nick runs off to warn the Swede, but what does he find? A man lying on his bed and who is not interested in the warning, other than to offer a genuine thanks for the concern. The Swede tells Nick not to do anything. Nothing can be done.

Hemingway doesn’t explain why the Swede accepts his fate in this manner, resigned and withdrawn, as if he’s already dead. The open question is one of the story’s most compelling features, though the intimidating killers of the title, with their cruel comedy, are compelling as well. To the killers, this is just a job. The Swede accepts that and has no wish to stop them. Why?

There are two film versions that open the story up and give us protagonists (or killers) who track the answer to their own wretched ends. Both titled The Killers, the first is Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir, starring Burt Lancaster, in his debut, and Ava Gardner; the second is Don Siegel’s 1964 crime drama, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan in his final film. Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing an upgrade of their great double feature disc, so you can now watch each film on Blu-ray.

The Killers Cover

While both films are great on their own — indeed, Siodmak’s version is one of my favorite films noir — there is a lot of value in watching them side by side as well, for they take similar material and express a similar narrative in strikingly different styles, making this double feature a wonderful examination of how style affects the story.

Each takes as its starting point the basic premise of the Ernest Hemingway story: a man is confronted by two killers and does nothing to stop them (in fact, Siodmak’s opening is incredibly faithful to the short story itself, giving us, and then completely disregarding, the Nick Adams character). In Siodmak’s version, an insurance investigator, who is looking into the Swede’s life insurance policy, just has to know why the Swede did nothing to escape his fate, though his boss keeps telling him it’s simply not worth it from a business perspective. In Siegel’s version, the killer himself, played by the menacing Lee Marvin, is perplexed that the man he was hired to kill did not run — indeed, did nothing to escape the gun, perhaps welcomed it. What follows in each film is an investigation, leading to several key witnesses and their accompanying flashbacks, all because we just have a hard time accepting that a man values his life at zero.

The Killers 1

The killers, Charles McGraw and William Conrad.

Rendered beautifully in black and white, the 1946 version gives us Burt Lancaster as a washed out boxer succumbing to his demons in the shadowy opener.

The Killers 2

The victim, Burt Lancaster.

A particular demon, we come to learn, is a relationship with Eva Gardner’s femme fatale, who has links to the criminal underworld, links on a chain that unfortunately lead to a possessive ring leader named “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker).

The Killers 3

The woman, Ava Gardner.

Edmond O’Brien plays the insurance investigator who tries to put the pieces together and figure out just what happened between all of these characters, all in an effort to understand the final actions of a dying man. Because of this quest, it has been called the Citizen Kane of film noir (though Citizen Kane itself has been called a film noir.

Siegel’s version is not a film noir. Rather, it is a sunny film filled with cool.

The Killers 4

The killers, Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin.

I was surprised to learn that this version was initially meant to play on television but that it was so violent it was sent to the movie theater instead. Honestly, simply having Lee Marvin on screen is an exercise in violence. Every time the man intimidates a character one cannot help but squirm.

But, again, there is one man who is does not fall back. This is John Cassavetes as the race-car driver Johnny North. When the film begins, the two killers enter a school for the blind at which Johnny teaches. They track him down, he’s warned they’re coming, and he just waits.

The Killers 5

The victim, John Cassavetes.

Hitman Lee Marvin, feeling like something is up since this is not the usual protocol, starts shaking people down, uncovering a story of greed and corruption that leads him to Ronald Reagan’s only role as the outright villain, pulling the strings of Angie Dickinson’s Sheila Farr, who courts Johnny at the race track.

The Killers 6

The woman, Angie Dickinson.

These are two fine films, coming together nicely in one package and for the price of one spine number.

Besides the two films, the disc comes with a number of supplements, though reportedly not as many as were found on the original DVD:

  • First is an 18-minute interview with Stuart Kaminsky, a film historian who talks here about film noir and Siodmak’s role in forging a genre. He also talks about Siegel’s version, though, and it’s particularly interesting to note that Siegel was initially considered to direct the 1946 edition. I wonder with others just what that edition would have looked like with Siegel at the helm.
  • Next we get an audio recording of actor Stacy Keach reading the original Hemingway story. When I got the Blu-ray I wondered if it might come with a booklet featuring the story. Alas, we don’t, but this is a nice way to include the story itself.
  • The 1946 film was itself adapted into a radio show from the Screen Director’s Playhouse, featuring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters. As with all of these radio adaptations, it is fascinating to listen to just to see how they compressed the plot down to a half hour show. It’s a lot of fun to hear this ephemera from my dad’s day.
  • Next is my favorite feature of the set: Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of Hemingway’s story, made in 1956 when Tarkovsky was a film student. It’s not a masterpiece, by any means, but it is a film with Tarkovsky’s finger prints. It’s short, only adapting the story itself without trying to explore the underlying questions.
  • This section of the Blu-ray, attached to the Siodmak version, also contains a bunch of trailers of some Siodmak films: Son of Dracula, Cobra Woman, The Killers, Cry of the City, and Criss Cross.
  • The section attached to the Siegel version begins with another audiobook recording, this time of Hampton Francher reading an excerpt from Siegel’s autobiography, A Siegel Film. It runs for about 20 minutes and includes a great deal of detail.
  • We then finish the disc with the trailer for Siegel’s version of The Killers.
  • Included in the package are two standalone inserts, one for each film. Novelist Jonathan Lethem writes about Siodmak’s version while critic Geoffrey O’Brien writes about Siegel’s.
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