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Introduction
Ernest Hemmingway’s short story The Killers is a piece about the power of fate.  When a pair of killers enter a diner looking for a man they intend on “hitting” they unravel his past to find out who he is and what he's done to become so complacent about dying.  The Criterion Collection presentation brings us countless versions of this tale from two feature movies, a short-film and several readings with which the world of Hemmingway’s story is explored.

Killers, The: Criterion Collection
Movie Part I- The 1946 Version
Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is a fantastic study in film noir.  The mystery begins in the first scene where the killers in question announce their plans to kill “The Swede”.  The diner where the killers make their appearance is frequented by The Swede (Burt Lancaster).  On this night, however, he is not in attendance.

The Swede is alerted to the killer’s presence in town, but appears unfazed and accepts his fate without question.  The killers make their way to his room and, it appears, hit their mark.  What begins is one man’s search for the truth.  The Hemingway story takes place in the diner, with the killers revealing why it is that The Swede welcomes his own death.  Siodmak, however, diverges from the source material to build up a taught (although not groundbreaking) thriller involving gangsters, murders, guns and the femme fatale.

Jim Reardon is an investigator for Atlantic Casualty and Insurance Company.  He has been charged with unraveling the mystery of The Swede’s murder.  Along the way, he learns of The Swede’s background in professional fighting, his less-than-exciting job in a small town and his criminal background.  The search involves Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in the plot.  She begins popping up more and more in places unexpected.

The Killers has been called the Citizen Kane of film noir.  Aside from the convoluted narrative structure and the ranting during a man’s final moments, I fail to recognize much of a comparison.  There are flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks and abundant symbolism for the attentive viewer (keep your eye on the beds).  As noir goes, this story has everything.  It takes place almost exclusively at night and the excellent black and white cinematography is wonderful.  There are more twists, turns and back stabbings than can be counted.  Kitty Collins is our femme fatale and there is more to her than can initially be foretold.  

Killers, The: Criterion Collection
The movie is conservatively filmed.  Siodmak has no surprises in store for the viewer when it comes to camera technique.  He saves his magic for the excellent adaptation of a tightly wound script.  The acting is excellent across the board.  Burt Lancaster makes an excellent debut and Ava Gardner is easy on the eyes and shows a deep connection to her character.

The Hemingway story was a story about fate, and, while Siodmak’s film necessarily diverges enough to flesh the story out, the movie takes a plunge into the mystery genre.  While the conclusion may come as a surprise, the ultimate meaning of the events is clouded.  What we have is a portrait of a man that welcomes death and accepts his ultimate fate.  The movie, however, clouds the mystery with too much mystery.  The thrill is there, but the meaning comes close to being lost.  Ignoring the source material, though, this is a stand-up example of what good noir can achieve: a taught mystery movie that keeps the viewer guessing.  

Movie Part II- The 1964 Version
Don Siegel’s 1964 version of The Killers struck me, at first, as being terribly violent.  It opens with the killers in question descending on a school for the blind.  They proceed to terrify a blind receptionist and proceed to kill a man.  This man, a teacher named Johnny North (John Cassavetes), does nothing to stop the killers and accepts his fate.  After the hit, the killers, played by Lee Marvin (The Wild One) as Charlie Strom and Clu Gulager (The Last Picture Show) as Lee, find themselves taken off guard by the man’s willingness to dies.  They proceed to investigate the man’s life.  Unlike the 1946 version, the killers are the protagonists here and are responsible for moving the story forward.

Through a series of interrogations, Strom and Lee begin to unravel Johnny North’s life.  Very early on, they hear of Johnny’s relationship with Sheila Farr played by the lovely Angie Dickinson (Ocean’s Eleven, 1960).  Johnny and Sheila’s budding relationship begins to cause strains with his friendships.  Ronald Regan (former U.S. president) plays Jack Browning, the gangster mastermind that brings Johnny North into the familiar heist plot that follows a similar structure as the 1946 version.  The flashbacks here are more sequential than in the 1946 version and are easier to follow.  However, it makes for less mystery.

Killers, The: Criterion Collection
The acting here is hit and miss.  Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are superb as the killers with Marvin shining as the crowning performance of the entire movie.  John Cassavetes turns in a lukewarm performance that is, at times, excellent and others, typical TV fluff.  Angie Dickinson’s Sheila Pharr is well played and is, in contrast, the smart version of Ava Gardner’s helpless sex goddess in the 1946 version.  Ronald Regan phones in a plastic performance.

It is no secret that the movie was originally developed as a made-for-TV movie.  In fact, it would have been the first.  In light of President Kennedy’s assassination, the movie (which contains sniper scenes) was kept off TV and released theatrically.  Unfortunately, the movie is obviously made-for-TV with a mainly static camera, a TV gloss and unimpressive sets.  The movie uses only the idea of a man accepting his fate from the short story and springs off into an adventure of its own.  There is not a single line of dialogue present from the short story, though the back and forth bantering between the killers is very reminiscent of Hemmingway’s dialogue style.  Car racing features prominently, but behind this thin veil, the story is basically the same as the 1946 version.
 

Video
Siodmak’s version of The Killers is full screen black and white.  The print is noticeably old, but is the best presentation to date.  There are frequent scratches noticeable in the transfer.  The contrast is slightly off, but does not detract from the wonderful lighting that has been crafted.  Overall, it’s extremely watchable, but doesn’t impress.

Killers, The: Criterion Collection
TV is the keyword for Don Siegel’s version.  This version is in bright color.  While Siodmak’s version takes place almost exclusively at night, Siegel’s is almost totally set in the daytime.  This makes the imperfections in the transfer that much more noticeable.  The print is highly grainy and, simply put, merely adequate.

Audio
Both versions are presented in mono.  The dialogue is always clear and the sound effects are used well.  There is the option to listen to the movies with effects only.  I count this, however, as a throwaway feature as the sounds are not prominent features.  The music is standard and the only real surprise is the killers theme in the 1946 version.  It would later go on to be fleshed out for “Dragnet”.

Extras
First up, on disc 1, we have a video interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminksy (Enemy Territory, Woman in the Wind).  He reflects on every aspect of The Killers including the short story, the stage adaptation and each film adaptation.  He covers everything from narrative structure to technical aspects of the films.  The talk almost makes up for the lack of any sort of audio commentaries.  

There is an entire section called “Source and Adaptations” which covers The Killers in several ways.  First up is a reading of Ernest Henigway’s original short story by Stacy Keach (TV’s “Dynasty).  Keach keeps the reading interesting.  The decision could have been made to have a text version, but this presentation is much more delicate on the eyes.  We are then given Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Solaris) student film version of The Killer.  This is basically a word for word adaptation of the short story source and is in German with English subtitles.  Because the action takes place in a diner, there isn’t much to look at, but it is interesting to see the first work of a director who would go on to direct a highly important film.  There is then a “Screen Director’s Playhouse” reading of the story with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters.  This is an old radio program with excellent reading.  There is a short written introduction and a brief interview with the 1946 version director Robert Siodmak provided as bookends to the featurette.  He is brief, funny and, sadly, less than informative.  It is, however, worth checking out.

We get some extensive notes on film noir broken up into several “chapters”.  I won’t lie, but I’m not a huge fan of onscreen text.  Here, however, the text is big, crisp and white set against a black background.  There is a wealth of information and should be checked out only by the hardcore fan.

There is a selection of trailers of Siodmak movies that include Son of Dracula and, of course, The Killers.  In total there are 5 trailers.

Killers, The: Criterion Collection
Rounding out disc 1 are biographies for all involved with the 1946 production.  There is a section called “Exploitation” that covers the publicity for the film.  It includes publicity stills, production still, behind-the-scenes photos with caption, the original press book, and original advertising (posters and billboards).

Disc 2 features begin with “Reflections with Clu Gulager”, co-star of the 1964 Don Siegel version.  This interview is one of the highlights of the entire set for me.  Gulager tells stories very well and organizes his thoughts.  He tells some very revealing stories which I will not spoil here.  My only gripe about this feature is the filming.  It switches constantly between two cameras for a wide shot and a close-up.  It became so annoying I had to close my eyes to enjoy it.  Also, be warned that this is not a family feature.  Gulager has a dirty mouth and he is not afraid to curse profusely.

Next we have a chapter of Don Siegel’s autobiography (the chapter dedicated to The Killers) read by actor Wolf Wolverton.  Wolverton reads in a conversational tone and the talk is broken up into 12 chapters.  There is a wealth of behind-the-scenes information here and is a welcome addition.

There’s also an extensive set of notes following the pre-production of the 1964 version that include notes written by Siegel himself and notes from NBC.  There’s some hidden tidbits in these notes and, again, the onscreen text, while not always welcomed, is crisp.  Rounding out the second disc is biographies of all involved in the 1964 production and a section devoted, this time, to all the publicity surrounding Don Siegel’s version.  There are also brief essays about the films included on two separate inserts in the DVD case.

Looking at the long list of features one may be initially impressed.  However, for a Criterion Collection package, I was less than awed.  The lack of any commentary tracks at all was the first thing to annoy me.  Secondly, although I have stated that it was clear and easy to read, there is, without a doubt, far too much onscreen text.  A fine job has been done collecting every conceivable version of The Killers but I’m left with the feeling that more could have been done to flesh out the set.

Overall
Criterion has compiled an impressive case study on the history of The Killers.  Through 3 filmed versions and 2 readings, the story is explored on many levels.  The 1946 version stands out as the most thrilling and, while Tarkovsky’s student film most accurately follows the source material, Siodmak’s successfully adds depth to the story while still genuinely trying to maintain the overall theme.  The video and the sound on both versions is dated with only minimal cleanup.  The extras look plentiful, but the truth is, they lack enough polish and detail to make the presentation more than a simple look at all the version presented across the two discs.  Fans of film noir and Hemmingway, though, would be smart to grab a copy of this collection as it is the most complete study of the The Killers that exists.


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