'The Killers' DVD Is a Double Whammy

by Sarah Boslaugh

28 July 2015

Criterion brings two film versions, one a classic and one a misfire, of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers".
Robert Siodmak's version 
cover art

Ernest Hemingway’s the Killers

Director: Robert Siodmak, Don Siegel
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson

(Universal, Universal)
US DVD:

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” is a model of simplicity, and a superb example of Hemingway’s characteristically minimalist style.

In the story, which takes place during Prohibition in a small town in the United States, Nick Adams (a recurring Hemingway character) witnesses two hit men arrive at a diner and wait for their intended target to arrive; when he doesn’t show up, they leave. When Nick goes to warn the intended victim, an ex-boxer nicknamed “the Swede”, he shows no interest in fleeing or doing anything else to prevent meeting his end at the hands of the killers. The diner cook, a friend of the Swede, is equally matter-of-fact in response to the possibility of his friend’s eminent demise.

Remarkably little happens in terms of conventional action in this story, which is told almost entirely through dialogue, and yet in it Hemingway creates a completely-realized world despite eschewing typical literary devices such as scene description or character development, and in spite of the fact that none of the characters express much in the way of emotion. 

Indeed, just about everything important in “The Killers” is left unstated, requiring the reader to be an active participant in the story. While that approach may work for popular fiction (the story was originally published by Scribner’s), in Hollywood movies and American television, the more usual approach is to put all the action on screen. The result is that the many potential narrative strands of Hemingway’s short story are reduced to a single, explicitly stated, version of events. You don’t have to decide for yourself (or get to imagine for yourself) what happened before and after the events stated in the story (with questions such as: Why do those guys want to kill the Swede? Do they get him? Why doesn’t he take steps to save himself?), because it’s all been decided by the screenwriter and director, and put up on the screen for you to view.

This approach works well in Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of The Killers, which utilizes much of Hemingway’s dialogue verbatim in the early scenes while spinning a web of interlocking flashbacks in classic film noir style. In the end, it’s less a film adaptation of Hemingway’s story and more an original film that uses the story as a point of departure.

Ava Gardner is positively smoldering as the femme fatale Kitty Collins, who draws the Swede (Burt Lancaster), an ex-boxer forced into early retirement due to a broken hand, into her web as surely as a spider capturing a helpless fly. A narrative framework involving an insurance investigation by Edmond O’Brien is faintly ridiculous (as O’Brien’s boss points out, there’s no point in sweating every dollar, because they can always just raise the rates next year), but it doesn’t matter because the rest of the film is so good. A number of good character actors also do their part to make this film effective, including William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hit men, and Sam Levine as a police lieutenant, and an atmospheric score by Miklos Rozsa and fine cinematography by Woody Bredell also help make this film an enduring classic.

Don Siegel's version

Don Siegel’s version

Some stories were meant to be shot in black-and-white, and shooting in color is only one of the many aspects of Don Siegel’s 1964 film The Killers that add up to a less-than-satisfying experience. Originally intended for television, it’s garish and bloody (too graphically violent for NBC, which declined to broadcast it, leading to a theatrical release instead) and leaves nothing to the imagination.

The focus in this film is on the hit men, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, whose intended victim is Johnny North (John Cassavetes), a racecar driver who once served as a getaway driver for a postal robbery. The love interest is played by Angie Dickinson, mistress of a mob boss played by Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan), while Claude Akins does some good acting as an automobile mechanic and loyal friend to Johnny. Hemingway’s influence is barely evident beyond the title, and the whole film is just too silly to watch without giggling. It’s bad enough that we are asked to Reagan seriously as a dangerous gangster, but it’s even worse that the racing subplot makes this film feel more like a companion piece to Viva Las Vegas than a worthy successor to Siodmak’s 1946 film.

The Criterion release of the two feature-length films of The Killers comes with a generous package of extras, which helps to make up for the lack of a commentary track for either film. The 1946 version comes with audio of Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s story (18 min., which gives you an idea of the story’s length relative to a feature film), a radio adaptation of Siodmak’s film for the series Screen Directors’ Playhouse (30 min.), starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1956 student film version of the story (20 min.), a 2002 video interview with author and screenwriter Stuart Kaminsky (18 min.), and trailers for five Siodmak films. The extras are a bit thinner for the 1964 film, but include a 2002 interview with actor Clu Gulager (19 mins.), an excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography, read by Hampton Fancher (19 min.), and the film’s trailer.

Ernest Hemingway’s the Killers

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