Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ernest Hemingway's The Killers (1946)

Two hit men stroll into a small-town diner, taunt the owner, his cook, and a customer, and hold them hostage while waiting for their victim, a palooka who comes by regularly for the dinner special. When the man doesn't show, the customer rushes over to his house to warn him, only to find him awaiting his own death with mysterious passivity. So ends the tenuous connection between Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" and both of its feature-length adaptations, which used the Hemingway name to sell tickets, but diverged radically from their source and from each other. Both films take the idea of a passive victim as a jumping-off point into investigating the past, with flashback structures that piece the man's life together, but otherwise, they're a study in contrasts. German expatriate Robert Siodmak's 1946 noir staple plods lethargically through its double, triple, and quadruple crosses, but its marvelously expressive black-and-white photography puts the story's despairing tone in purely visual terms. In response, Don Siegel's cheerfully sadistic 1964 model takes the story into broad daylight, with splashy colors, fast cars, cheap process shots, and gratuitous acts of violence, including an infamous bitch-slap by the 40th president. Both versions have merits and flaws that complement each other in interesting ways, but seen together on a new two-disc DVD, packed with illuminating supplements, they're a great lesson in creative adaptation and the art of the remake, worth considerably more than the sum of their parts. Lifted note-for-note from the Hemingway story, the classic opening scene of Siodmak's film sings with the high tension, sharp dialogue, and grim humor that's conspicuously absent from the rest of Anthony Veiller's mediocre screenplay. Taking a page out of the Double Indemnity playbook, Veiller has insurance adjuster Edmond O'Brien investigate after the murder takes place, but it's never really clear why he's so passionate about the case. A lean block of muscles and little else, Burt Lancaster stars as the hapless victim, an ex-boxer who was unwittingly roped into the criminal underworld and the even more dangerous gaze of Ava Gardner, a memorably sultry and duplicitous femme fatale. The story plays strictly by the crime-genre rules, including a $250,000 payroll caper, but Siodmak (Criss Cross, The Spiral Staircase), a director from the German Expressionist school, sustains a fatalistic tone with the atmospheric touches that define noir, favoring stark lighting effects that throw his post-war world into shadow. Originally slated to direct the 1946 version, Siegel (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) finally got a crack at Hemingway's story when NBC commissioned it to be the first made-for-TV movie, but his taste for frank sexuality and low-down viciousness kept it off the air. Though it's generally considered the lesser of the two films–a fact that Siegel blames, rightly, on the studio's decision to class it up by putting Hemingway's name above the title–1964's The Killers is the more resourceful and inventive, a great example of the remake as criticism. In their boldest stroke, Siegel and screenwriter Gene Coon scrap the surefire Hemingway/Siodmak opening in favor of a much nastier scene at a school for the blind, where hired hands Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager terrorize the students and faculty without tact or pity. Their target is John Cassavetes, a former racecar driver who got mixed up with crazed sexpot Angie Dickinson, whose association with crime boss Ronald Reagan led Cassavetes to participate in a million-dollar mail-truck heist. In contrast to the original film, Marvin's bafflement at Cassavetes' strange passivity leads him to conduct the investigation himself (and perhaps recover the missing million to boot), which makes for a much stronger character piece. Siegel pads the material with silly racing footage and a haphazardly plotted heist sequence, but his version is the livelier and more vividly trashy of the two, with the Marvin-Gulager team serving as a funny precursor to the John Travolta/Samuel L. Jackson dynamic in Pulp Fiction. The two DVDs are loaded with fascinating supplements, most notably a three-scene student film co-directed by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky that may be the most faithful adaptation of the Hemingway story, if not the most inspired. Better still are a series of correspondences for the 1964 version, including hilarious script notes from the NBC censors, a reassuring letter from Siegel to Dickinson apologizing for the vicious reviews, and a brilliant essay from Siegel to the studio brass that picks apart the original with stunning precision. Though Siegel's The Killers dispatches Hemingway after six unfaithful minutes, its roundabout treatment seems truest to his spirit.


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