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THE KILLERS
Special Edition Double Disc

Review by Michael Jacobson

1946 1964
Stars:  Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien
Director:  Robert Siodmak
Length:  102 Minutes
Stars:  Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Ronald Reagan
Director:  Don Siegel
Length: 94 Minutes
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Release Date:  February 18, 2003

"We're here to kill the Swede."

Film:
1946 ***
1964 ***1/2

Why would a man welcome his own murder?  That’s the question asked by Ernest Hemingway in his magazine short story “The Killers”, which became a quintessential film noir offering in the 40s, and the first ever made for TV movie in the 60s.  Both versions are presented here in Criterion’s double disc offering…a real treat for film students who can compare and contrast to their hearts’ content.

Interestingly enough, a young Don Siegel was slated to direct the first filmed version of The Killers, but he was under contract to Warner Bros. at the time, and Jack Warner refused to release him to Universal for the job.  He got a second chance 18 years later when Hemingway’s story would be retold as the first motion picture made for television (though television rejected it for its violent content).  Instead, the first movie was directed by the German American Robert Siodmak, who crafted a stark, expressionistic black and white film that combined all the darkness of noir with the flashback through supporting characters narrative of Citizen Kane.

Two killers arrive in a small, unassuming town to carry out a contract on a man named Ole Anderson, better known as the Swede (Lancaster).  Though he gets early warning, he chooses not to run, instead accepting his fate with a solemn resolve.  A $2500 insurance policy he owned brings in an investigator, Jim Reardon (O’Brien), who soon, step by step and piece by piece, begins to put together the story of the Swede, and how he ended up accepting his own death and why. 

It’s a fascinating tale that moves from the end of his once promising boxing career to falling in love with the wrong woman, Kitty Collins (Gardner), to taking part in a heist that goes terribly awry for reasons not fully understood until the end.  The movie and story were the perfect fit for American cinema of the 40s, as well as its attitudes toward women, criminals, and the adamant resolution for all who make tragic mistakes.

Fast forward the aforementioned 18 years, and Universal is ready to revisit The Killers as an ambitious project for television.  Don Siegel is once again asked to helm the movie; only this time, he’s no longer a promising novice, he’s an established veteran.  The film he would make would bear little resemblance to the Siodmak version, or the original Hemingway text:  no names were re-used, for one, and for two, this time around, the story earned the title by making the killers the investigators, not some neutral third party involved for entirely other reasons.

Those killers are Charlie (Marvin) and Lee (Gulager), who show up at a school for the blind and horribly gun down Johnny North (Cassavetes), whom again, waits for his demise with no protest.  Only this time, it’s one of his murderers, Charlie, who wants to investigate why a man would face his death without trying to run, and why such a large amount of money was offered for the hit of such a seemingly unimportant target.

As Charlie and Lee go back through the clues, we start to learn the story of one time racing prospect Johnny, the troublesome girl in his life Sheila Farr (Dickinson), and how he ends up as driver in a daring mail heist staged by criminal mastermind Jack Browning (Reagan, in his last film role). 

Opinions differ as to which is the better film; for my vote, I’d have to pick Siegel’s version, even though the Siodmak offering is more stylish and thoughtfully constructed.  Don Siegel’s film is a bit stripped down, a little uneven (sometimes chaotic), but it has a more tightly wound structure and a better sense of urgency, not the least of which comes from making the main character a racer instead of a boxer.  This opens up the movie for more fast paced scenes, a more exciting crime climax, and a quicker path to resolution.

The color photography in the Siegel version is beautiful, and strikingly bright, proving that noir could still exist outside of the shadows and the grayness of expressionistic cinema.  One could even consider the Siegel version of The Killers as a logical progression between classic noir and the noir of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which proved that shady characters are still shady even in broad daylight.

Both films also serve as examples of how cinematic stylings can change to reflect the moods of the time.  Like most early noir, Siodmak’s World War II era film crafted it’s heroes and villains in specific ways and with predetermined outcomes; Siegel’s turbulent 60s and post-Kennedy assassination America made for a darker film, even if it was colorful and brightly lit.  You could be forced to spend an hour and a half with a killer as your story guide…and maybe in the end, nobody wins, good or bad.

One fact is indisputable…it’s certainly great to have both versions together in a single release.  Whether you prefer Siodmak or Siegel, all the material you need to argue your case is right here.

Video (both) ***1/2

Two films from different eras make for two terrific restoration jobs and presentations from Criterion.  The 1946 version is as clean and pristine a black and white print from that era as I’ve yet seen.  The contrast levels are striking, the whites are pure and the blacks are deep, with every tone of grayscale in between giving the imagery life, depth and superb detail.  Very, very little in the way of marks or scratches are evident…well fewer than a level I’d consider acceptable for such an old movie.

The 1964 version is as good a color presentation as the 1946 one is a black and white one.  It too is a clean and clear print, with colors looking as deep and rich as a more modern film might.  The sharpness and levels of detail in both close and wide shots is simply remarkable…every little piece of screen composition stands out.  A few pieces of stock footage used here and there don’t fare as well…in fact, given the excellence of the transfer, they really stand out…but apart from that (which doubtless couldn’t be helped), this is a reference quality offering for a classic film.

Audio:
1946 **
1964 ***

Both mono offerings are good…the original film offers less in the way of dynamic range and exceptional cues, relying instead on modest music and good clear dialogue…it demands nothing more.  The 1964 version gets slightly higher marks simply because the action and racing give the track a little more punch and a better sense of aural texture.

Features ****

In discussing the Siodmak and Siegel versions of The Killers, I haven’t even mentioned that, as a bonus, there’s a third version here!  It’s on Disc One, with the 1946 offering, and it’s a 1956 student film by Andrei Tarkovsky, who would later make great Russian films like Andrei Rublev and Solaris.  It’s an interesting 20 minute piece, fairly faithful to the Hemingway text (and thus closer in nature to the Siodmak version), and a treasure in and of itself.

The first disc also includes a terrific video interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky, who discusses in some detail the specific differences between the two versions of The Killers.  There is also a radio adaptation version (a Criterion specialty), starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters, a reading of the original Hemingway short story by actor Stacy Keach, a whole section devoted to advertising, publicity stills, press book, behind-the-scenes photos, actor bios and more, trailers for 5 Siodmak films (including The Killers), an isolated music and effects track, plus a printed essay in booklet form.

Disc Two, with the 1964 version of the film, includes a video interview with star Clu Gulager, who tells some good stories about Marvin and his fellow actors, and why he thinks the Siegel version of The Killers holds some significance.  There are audio excerpts from Siegel’s autobiography pertaining to the making of the film (very good stuff), a collection of production correspondence to and from Siegel regarding the television production, another gallery of stills, advertising, bios and more, a trailer, an isolated music and effects track, and another printed essay (there are two booklets included in this set; one for each version).  Another triumphant extras package from Criterion!

Summary: 

Criterion continues to be the best friend of the cinema student with this "killer" release.  Two prolific versions of The Killers are here, each with its own supplements and materials, each ready to be analyzed, enjoyed, and argued over with great happiness.