THE KILLERS (1946) – 5/5
The men drive into town and enter a small diner. One of them (William Conrad, who would go on to narrate the TV series THE FUGITIVE) announces he and his partner (Charles McGraw, 1944’s THE IMPOSTOR) will kill a man named Swede (Burt Lancaster, in his debut) when he arrives at 6:00. The Swede is warned, but refuses to run from the gunmen, saying, “I did something wrong. Once.” Moments later, he is riddled with bullets.
What Swede did wrong is revealed through flashbacks, with a series of events that involve his boxing career, a stint in prison and a femme fatale named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, who would later appear in another Ernest Hemingway adaptation, 1952’s THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO). Further details—partly in the present courtesy of the appearance of an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien, who would appear alongside James Cagney in 1949’s WHITE HEAT)—include a robbery and a $250,000 payout.
This first adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story is directed by Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE). Collaborating with cinematographer Woody Bredell (whose next feature would be Michael Curtiz’s THE UNSUSPECTED), screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with uncredited work from Richard Brooks and John Huston) and a supporting cast that also includes Albert Dekker, Sam Levene and Jack Lambert, Siodmak has concocted one of the essential film noirs: the film is exquisitely shot, with Bredell creating the shadows and depths that the genre thrives on; Veiller expands on Hemingway’s short to development the characters and story while avoiding bloating; and the cast lives the characters as if they believe every word.
THE KILLERS was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Music. It lost all four to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
THE KILLERS (1964)
The men enter a school for the blind. One of them (Lee Marvin, who earned a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor) announces he and his partner (Clu Galager, who would appear in Peter Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) wants to see a man named Jerry. Jerry, who is really a man named Johnny North (John Cassavetes, who had three director credits at this point), is warned, but refuses to run, saying, “It’s all right. I know them.” Moments later, he is riddled with bullets.
The hired hitmen wonder why North didn’t flee when he had a chance and so launch an investigation into their job. Flashbacks reveal a series of events that involve North’s racecar career, a sexy dame named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, four years after winning the Golden Globe’s New Star Actress of the Year Award) and her mob boss lover (Ronald Reagan, in his final film).
While the basic outline is there, Don Siegel’s (1956’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) take on Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story is drastically different than Robert Siodmak’s. This version was originally intended to be the first made-for-TV movie, but was deemed too violent for the idiot box. Indeed, although a brightly lit production, THE KILLERS is stark and plays on the sort of sensibilities that were fitting for the story as told in the 1960s.
THE KILLERS falters at times with its dated effects (the rear projection is laughable) and unexciting race sequences, but moves at a steady pace and boasts one of Marvin’s best turns, making it an overall strong film that breathes a fresh dose of gasoline into the story.
Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec for both films.
THE KILLERS (1946): “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master positive.”
THE KILLERS (1964): “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm film interpositive.”
Both films look quite nice on this Criterion Collection, with excellent details, stellar black levels (more so in the 1946 version) and bold colors (exclusively in the 1964 version). While grain is present in both, purists will be pleased that the filmic quality is preserved.
Audio: English Mono for both films.
THE KILLERS (1946): “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.”
THE KILLERS (1964): “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit froma 35 mmm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.”
For both, the dialogue has no issues and the respective scores come through without any detectable flaws.
THE KILLERS (1946)
Stuart Kaminsky (17:46): Screenwriter Kaminsky (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) discusses the original short story, the film noir genre, differences between the 1946 and 1964 versions and more.
Sources and Adaptations: Housed here are three pieces: Hemingway’s Short Story (17:43), which features actor Stacey Keach reading the short; SCREEN DIRECTOR’S PLAYHOUSE (29:41), which is a 1948 radio adaptation of the film, featuring Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Tony Barrett and William Conrad; and Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE KILLERS (20:38), the Russian director’s short story adaptation.
Siodmak Trailers: SON OF DRACULA (1943), COBRA WOMAN (1944), THE KILLERS (1946), CRY OF THE CITY (1948), CRISS CROSS (1949)
THE KILLERS (1964)
Reflections with Clu Galager (18:46): In this 2002 interview, Galager (who played Lee) discusses the work of Lee Marvin, the film’s release, Don Siegel’s style and more.
Don Siegel on THE KILLERS (19:32): Actor and director Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote BLADE RUNNER) reads from portions of Siegel’s autobiography to offer a glimpse into his views on the film.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release are essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey O’Brien.