The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946/Don Siegel, 1964)
The Killers has long been one of the most intriguing entries in the Criterion Collection, packing together two brilliant films from different eras adapted from the same Ernest Hemingway short story. Both get the actual adaptation part out of the way in the opening scene, then evolve into rather different takes on the same material based on the sensibilities of the filmmakers and the crime movie conventions of their time. It’s like a little masterclass in film adaptation in a box and a fascinating look at the evolution of big screen crime fiction. Available on DVD for years, Criterion finally went ahead and gave the set a Blu-ray upgrade, so now all of you lucky so-and-sos can dig in and appreciate it in HD.
The 1946 version is classic noir through and through. Following the opening sequence adapting Hemingway’s story in which two contract killers show up to murder a man who accepts his fate and doesn’t fight back, the tale unfolds in flashbacks. Edmond O’Brien plays an insurance investigator who gradually pieces together the tale that led to the murder. It’s very clever, but your standard noir stuff. Burt Lancaster made his screen debut as the departed “Swede,” a failed boxer tangled up in a crime tale by Ava Gardner’s femme fatale. The dialogue snaps with hardboiled one liners (thanks in no small part to uncredited writing contributions from John Huston), while German export director Robert Siodmak fills his frames with expressive shadows. Sure, it’s essentially film noir 101, but also one of the undeniable early masterpieces of the form hitting all the beats with style, grace, and some nasty 40s genre sting. A genre pillar that demands to be seen by anyone with a sweet tooth for noir.
While most people consider the original film to be the highlight of this set, I’ve got to admit that I’ve always preferred Don Siegel’s 1964 version. Once again, the opening sequence is essentially the same and then the main plot unfolds through flashbacks as we learn about some poor sucker (this time it’s John Cassavetes playing a racecar driver) being manipulated by a dastardly dame (Angie Dickinson). However, this time The Killers themselves are the protagonists asking the questions. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play a pair of fast-talking and oddly charming murderous anti-heroes long before that was the norm. There’s a harshness to the violence that breaks up an otherwise snappy and jovial tone that feels very much like precursor to the wise ass crime movie genre ushered in by the likes of The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.
Don Siegel’s The Killers was initially shot for television before getting shifted to the big screen due to a combination of (at the time) shocking violence and better-than-expected quality. At times the humble production origins are a problem (like the horrendous rear projection during racing sequences), but it did unexpectedly give the film a blindingly vibrant color design designed for low-lit 60s TVs that gives the movie an intriguing poppy/pulpy aesthetic. Toss in one of Lee Marvin’s greatest performances, Don Siegel’s characteristic punchy pacing, and a surprisingly strong villainous turn from Ronald Reagan (in his final big screen appearance) and you’ve got a rather brilliant, unique, and darkly comedic 60s crime movie gem that feels like Siegel’s snarky answer to all of those smarty pants French New Wave reinterpretations of American genre filmmaking.
Regardless of which version of The Killers you prefer, the films both look stunning in HD. The deep focus shadows of the 1946 version and blindingly bright primary colors of the 1964 reinterpretation were made for Blu-ray and Criterion have truly gone the extra mile to ensure the B-movies movies likely look better than they ever did in theaters. The special features have all been ported over from the original disc, but given how good they are it’s hard to complain. First up, there’s a delightfully gravely reading of the original Hemingway short story by Stacey Keach to put the set in perspective, along with a student film adaptation by the great Andrei Tarkovsky (a fascinating inclusion no doubt, but given the film school origins don’t expect it to live up to the other two adaptions).
To supplement the 1946 version there is a radio adaptation of the film, a nice interview with Once Upon A Time In America screenwriter Stuart M. Kaminsky about the legacy of The Killers, and a trailer reel of the career highlights of unfairly forgotten director Robert Siodmak. The 1964 edition gets an interview with Clu Gulager about his experience making the film and a reading of the section in Siegel’s autobiography about his version. So, it’s a nice collection of special features to support two brilliant crime films from very different eras. If you’ve never seen these films and are a sucker for crime fiction, just buy this thing already and have your mind blown. If you’ve already seen them, you likely already have the DVD, but you’re still going to need to pick this thing up for the new transfers. It has to be done. You’ll see.