Review by Michael Jacobson
|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: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Release Date: July 7, 2015
"We're here to kill the Swede."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
films from different eras make for two terrific restoration jobs and
high definition 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.
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.
uncompressed 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.
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 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.
is also 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.
There's 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. Another
triumphant extras package from Criterion!
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.