Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan, Clu Gulager
(Universal Pictures, 1946)
DVD release date: 2003 (Criterion Collection)
by David Sanjek
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Fate Waits For No Man
Producer Mark Hellinger (1903-47) played a key role in the development of the crime genre in Hollywood. He was one of the many hardboiled reporters in New York City who turned their knowledge of the mean streets into literature. The success of his play, Night Court, led Hellinger to be hired by MGM in 1932. While the studio typically gravitated to glossy star vehicles with glamorous sets, the management at the time hungered for material that could compete with the brisk, fast-talking films featuring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.
Unsurprisingly, Hellinger soon found his professional niche at Warner Brothers, the company that made its name by parlaying the public fascination with rough action and tough talk, shifty gangsters and their molls. Hellinger produced some of the best, including the Cagney vehicle, The Roaring Twenties (1939), and High Sierra (1941), the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star. Following service in WWII, Hellinger worked at Warners and then as an independent producer with Universal. His last film, released after his early death from a heart attack, was Naked City (1948), later the inspiration of a 1960s television series. Its dedicated delineation of the working lives of ordinary policemen set the template for other programs to come, like Law & Order and N.Y.P.D. Blue.
As David Thomson writes, “Where [Hellinger] is interesting is in treating criminals as real, vulnerable people, and not as monolithic stereotypes or subverted heroes.” Hellinger found inspiration for this approach in noteworthy crime and detective fiction of the day, like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), and James Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), as well as more “highbrow” literature.
One of his favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, had a phobic distaste for Hollywood, for he felt that on the few occasions the studios adapted his work, the results were gutted of any substance. He appreciated Hellinger’s 1946 transformation of his 1927 short story, “The Killers.” In it, Hemingway had distilled a number of his obsessions, most notably, “grace under pressure.” The taciturn Swede, hunted by the eponymous hoodlums, refuses to flee his fate or provide any rationale for his imminent demise.
In the Swede’s dignified response, one observes the sense of entrapment and isolation experienced by other protagonists in contemporary thrillers, as well as in the emerging (and as yet unnamed) genre of film noir. Hellinger initially proposed that Don Siegel (1912-91) direct his script. Best known nowadays for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), Siegel had made his reputation at Warners by directing second units and assembling montage sequences. Hellinger employed a number of the latter in The Roaring Twenties, and he recognized Siegel’s aptitude.
That deal fell through; yet, ironically Siegel would return to the material in 1964, for the first made-for-television film. And so, Hellinger hired the sophisticated German expatriate Robert Siodmak (1900-73). The visually astute director had come to the States by way of France in 1941, and over the next decade, made some striking noirs, including Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Criss Cross (1948). Siodmak delineated atmosphere through an acute understanding of setting and décor, how the rain-soaked, dimly light streets mirrored the psyches of his protagonists. Moreover, he helped to establish the careers and screen personae of a number of actors, most notably Burt Lancaster, who plays the Swede.
The Criterion Collection has recently released both Siodmak’s and Seigel’s versions of Hemingway’s story in a lavish new package. It includes stellar transfers of the films; production notes; a reading of the story by Stacey Keach; excerpts read from Seigel’s autobiography; interviews with Stuart M. Kaminsky, crime novelist and author of one of the first studies of Seigel’s work, as well as Clu Gulager, costarring with Lee Marvin as one of the assassins; and a true rarity, a student film adaptation of the story by the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86).
Contrasting the direction of Siodmak and Seigel allows one to observe their different approaches, but also how the transition between post-WWII and the period following the Kennedy assassination affected cinematic depictions of violence and corruption. Siodmak’s version offers a complex narrative. It opens with the dramatization of Hemingway’s story, then shifts to an investigation, as insurance agent Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) looks into the Swede’s demise. He interviews a number of the individuals from the Swede’s past, each recounting events leading up to the murder in 11 elaborate flashbacks. The shifts between times are seamless and multiple points of view contribute to our understanding of the Swede and his fate.
Siodmak also uses violence memorably. The episode in which the killers attack Reardon in a bar is crisp and to the point, showing how gunplay is often over almost as soon as it starts. By contrast, Siodmak draws out the suspense of the central robbery through a sinuous crane shot that delineates the crime in a continuous take.
The picture owes as much of its success to Siodmak as it does to Elwood Bredell, a house cameraman at Universal who also shot Phantom Lady. He exhibits equal facility with the glamour shots of Lancaster’s well-toned physique or the dazzling beauty of a young Ava Gardner as he does the scenes of action.
Like many other noirs, The Killers includes subordinate characters who do not simply move the plot forward, but have a vivid life of their own. From the hyped-up criminal Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey), to the astrology-obsessed melancholy of the Swede’s cellmate, Charleston (Vince Barnett), the subordinate roles are substantial. Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a cop who has known the Swede since childhood and married one of his discarded girlfriends, seems as if merits his own plotline. (One must add, sadly, that Corey and Levene would be at a loss for these kinds of opportunities soon thereafter, as both were caught up in the lamentable blacklist.)
If Siodmak captures both the romance and world-weariness of the post-WWII film noir with consummate skill, Seigel’s film takes a more concise approach. The world of crime in early 1960s cinema lacked the glamour that some noirs indulged, and the changes in U.S., since the Cold War and JFK’s assassination, resulted in a look that was a bit more squalid. Siegel’s script replaces the noble-minded insurance investigator with the killers as the central characters. They are simultaneously ordinary, in their business suits and sunglasses, and altogether alien.
Lee Marvin plays the aging hitman, Charlie Strom, with the sort of vacant hostility that became his trademark. Charlie is devoid of affect most of the time, treating a murder and a steak dinner as interchangeably unimportant. His sidekick, Lee (Gulager), handles their work with oddball quirks, like smiling as he torments one innocent. To make these two the center of interest is quite a test of the audience’s point of view. But Charlie’s desire to understand the Swede’s choice to die becomes almost a moral quest, compounding the film’s ambiguities. No wonder that when the studio brass looked at the result, they realized the picture could not possibly appear on network television, and sent it to theaters instead.
Siegel also dispenses with Siodmak’s visual flourishes. Admittedly, part of that effect is due to the demands of television; the lighting is flat and the compositions, more often than not, are centered. But this nearly drab look has an uncanny effect. It certainly makes the violence, already more excessive than in the Siodmak version, more assaultive on the senses, for it comes across as almost cruelly matter-of-fact. When Charlie and Lee enter a classroom in a school for the blind and eliminate the teacher (John Cassavetes), or hold the glamorous Sheila (Angie Dickinson), headfirst out a hotel window, the shot angles (while occasionally odd) are not spectacular, making the action all the more upsetting. In a number of his films, Siegel grants the everyday an out of the ordinary dimension, almost as if the pods in Body Snatchers had truly taken over, and everyone is just going through the motions. Here, killers’ idiosyncrasies are strangely full of life.
Last, there is the matter of the central villain, Jack Browning, played by Ronald Reagan. The former President made his final film appearance in this atypical part. Siegel had to talk him into it, for Reagan was dismayed by Jack’s slapping of women, robbing of armored cars, and killing of men. Honestly, he is quite effective in the role, particularly in meeting his fate, for Reagan’s lack of sympathy suggests the very acceptance of destiny that Hemingway celebrated in his prose.
Charlie’s repeated observation, “I just don’t have the time,” encapsulates how Siegel delineates an environment in which people act without calculation, love without passion, and steal only out of greed. The line between victims and violators is almost erased, now that playing by the rules seems little more than an antiquated affectation.