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Sleuthathon Post: “The Killers” (1946 & 1964)

March 17, 2014

This post is my entry in the Sleuthathon, hosted by Fritzi from Movies Silently. Enjoy!

We all know adapting novels into movies, 99 times out of 100, is an art of compression (which is one reason why many people prefer the novel over the movie); in order to turn a 400 page novel into a 2 hour movie, some parts will have to go (or, alternatively, what worked on the page doesn’t always work on screen). On the other hand, in general, adapting short stories into films is the art of expansion; expanding the plot, the characters, mood, or any number of elements. Each story presents its own challenges, however, and a good example of that is Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “The Killers”. First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927, and featuring his recurring character Nick Adams in a minor role, the story tells the simple tale of two professional hitmen who come to a diner in a suburb of Chicago one evening to find a man, known as “The Swede”, so they can kill him. It’s both a minimalist tale (as usual, Hemingway’s writing is spare, without many adjectives or descriptions) and an existential one, as Ole Andresson, the Swede (inspired by a boxer Hemingway knew), doesn’t run away when he hears the killers are there for him, but instead accepts his fate. The mystery, of course, is why, and whatever their differences, both Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version and Don Siegel’s 1964 version attempt to answer that question.

The title characters (from left, Charles McGraw and William Conrad) at the diner owned by George (Harry Hayden).

The first 10 minutes or so of Siodmak’s movie more or less replicate Hemingway’s story (though the location is changed from just outside Chicago to Brentwood, New Jersey). Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad), the killers, come to the diner, ask the diner owner, George (Harry Hayden) when the Swede (going under the name Pete Lunn) is going to come in, and when he doesn’t show, tie up Nick Adams (Phil Brown) – who happens to be eating in the diner at the time – and Sam (Bill Walker), the cook, in the back and go to kill him. George unties Nick (who works with the Swede at the gas station), and he goes to warn the Swede, but the Swede is curiously accepting of his impending fate (when Nick asks him why they’re after him, he replies, “I did something wrong – once”). Siodmak doesn’t show the actual killing – just Ole staring in the dark in his room, the killers bursting into the room and shooting, and Ole’s hand gradually sliding down the brass bedpost.

The character who asks why, in the movie, is James Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an insurance investigator for Atlantic Casualty. Because the police chief (Howard Freeman) has determined the killers are from out of town, he feels the case is out of his hands. Reardon, who finds out two curious things about Ole – he had a green handkerchief with a golden harp at its center, and the beneficiary on his account is Mary Ellen Daugherty (Queenie Smith), who works at a hotel in Atlantic City – decides to stay on, and even convinces his boss the case is worth looking into (“This isn’t a two-for-a-nickel shooting. Two professional killers show up in a small town and put the blast on a filling station attendant. A nobody. There was no attempted robbery. They were out for only one thing. To kill him. Why?”). After finding the connection between Daugherty and Ole (he tried to kill himself after yelling, “She’s gone!”, and Daugherty stopped him), Reardon follows the trail to Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a detective who followed Ole’s career as a boxer, fell in love with Ole’s ex-girlfriend Lily Harmon (Virginia Christine), and busted Ole when Ole took the fall for Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), a “hostess” and moll of then-imprisoned gangster Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). At Ole’s funeral, along with Reardon, Lubinsky and Lily (now Mrs. Lubinsky), is Charleston (Vince Barnett), a small-time crook and Ole’s old cell mate, who reveals Reardon was part of a notorious “hat factory” heist. Because Atlantic Casualty insured that company, and they were out $250,000 (how much the robbers took), Reardon convinces his boss to let him keep investigating. Eventually, he gets to the bottom of not only the robbery, but why Ole allowed himself to be shot and killed.

Kitty (Ava Gardner) seduces Ole (Burt Lancaster).

Though Anthony Veiller is the credited writer of the film, John Huston also did much of the work on the film (since he was under contract to Warners at the time, and the film was made by Universal, he wasn’t allowed credit). According to Gene D. Phillips’ Out of the Shadows; Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, Huston most likely modeled the character of Reardon on Sam Spade (from Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon), and you can see that in the relationship Reardon has with his secretary Stella (Ann Staunton) – which has the similar flirtatious undercurrent found in Huston’s film between Spade and his secretary – and in the dialogue, as when Reardon says he wished he could have known the “old” Kitty Collins. Reardon isn’t quite the maverick Sam Spade was – for starters, he works more closely with the police than Spade did – and his code is more conventional than Spade’s, but he knows how to handle himself. O’Brien doesn’t deliver his lines like Bogart did as Spade, but he does convince us of Reardon’s restless intelligence, which is something else he has in common with Spade.

Of course, Siodmak’s film is as much film noir as (amateur) detective story, with familiar elements such as the dark, black-and-white photography (by Elwood Bredell, who had previously worked with Siodmak on Phantom Lady and Christmas Holiday), the femme fatale (in the form of Kitty), and the unsuspecting dupe in over his head. What’s slightly unusual about this film is that character is only seen in flashback (there’s 11 of them in all, but Siodmak and editor Arthur Hilton work them in seamlessly), and the hero of the film is basically a decent sort who doesn’t give in to temptation (though he pretends to with Kitty near the end). The combination of the detective story present and the film noir flashbacks may sound strange, but Siodmak, Veiller and Huston pull it off.

Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) meets with Kitty.

This was Lancaster’s first film role, and while it doesn’t show off the joy or energy he usually brought to his performances later in his career, he does use his physicality well. This doesn’t just come off in the boxing scenes, or scenes where he confronts Colfax, but also when he’s told the two men are after him; it’s like he shuts himself off (Lancaster wasn’t an actor you usually thought of as subtle, but he is in the opening). If Gardner is a little too obvious as a femme fatale, she does come off as bewitching, and she does hide well just how evil she really is. And Levene, mostly known for his stage work (he was Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of Guys & Dolls) is dependable as always as Lubinsky. The Killers was also the second hit in a row for Siodmak (after The Spiral Staircase and before The Dark Mirror), who was well-respected back in the day but doesn’t seem to be remembered much today, which is a shame, as he was a terrific director, and if not quite as good as Hitchcock in his usual genre (thrillers), came pretty close. It also turned out to be Hemingway’s own personal favorite movie version of one of his works. The movie stands as both a classic film noir and an interesting twist on the detective story.

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Interestingly enough, Siegel was the first choice of producer Mark Hellinger to direct the original version of The Killers, as Hellinger had been impressed by his debut as director, the B-movie Star in the Night, but when Warner Brothers (where Siegel was contracted at the time) refused to lend him out without cost, Hellinger turned to Siodmak. Siegel’s film version came out nearly 20 years later (Gene L. Coon, who became best known as a writer/producer on the original Star Trek, was credited for the script, based on a script Siegel himself wrote), and while it was originally meant for TV, it was considered too violent for TV (this being not long after John F. Kennedy was assassinated) and released theatrically instead. It is more violent (though tame by today’s standards) and blunt than Siodmak’s version, and also more obviously existential.

Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin as the title characters, Lee and Charlie.

The “detective” in this case is one of the killers himself, Charlie (Lee Marvin). Along with his partner Lee (Clu Gulager), Charlie goes to a school for the blind to find Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who currently teaches there (Christine, the only actor to appear in both American film versions of the story, plays the school’s principal). Though the setting and dialogue are completely different (complete with what became Charlie’s classic response to most situations; “Lady, I haven’t got the time”), the results are the same; when Johnny is warned what’s going to happen, he accepts his fate rather than run away, and after he drives his pupils out, he’s shot and killed. While Lee considers it just another job, Charlie is puzzled at why Johnny didn’t run away, and decides to figure out why, especially when he remembers Johnny was connected to a mail truck robbery of $1 million (Lee agrees to help when he hears about this). This leads them to Earl (Claude Akins), Johnny’s former mechanic (he was a race car driver until an accident killed his career), who tells them about Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), the woman who captured Johnny’s eye (and, in Earl’s opinion, killed his career) and Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), the mob boss who was Sheila’s boyfriend.

Siegel uses fewer and longer flashbacks in his version; the only ones come with Earl, Mickey (Norman Fell), one of Browning’s crew, and Sheila when Charlie and Lee finally catch up to her. Also, as befitting the blunter tone and characters of the film, the look (from cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings and editor Richard Belding, both of whom worked almost exclusively in TV) is more bleached out than most color films of the period; even Sheila, who is always made to look more glamorous to contrast her with the other characters, is less exotic here than Kitty was in the original. It’s easy to dismiss the look as cheap (especially compared to today’s films), yet it helps set the harsher tone Siegel seems to be going for, and gets.

Johnny (John Cassavetes) finds out his number is up.

It also suits his star. Though Siegel reportedly had a tough time with Marvin on the set, due to Marvin’s drinking, the reward was one of his best performances. Marvin was still at the point of his career when he was being both underestimated and typecast as a thug. But he had given memorable performances playing bad guys in film as disparate as Fritz Lang’s  The Big Heat, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock and John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Unlike many of his earlier films, Marvin doesn’t raise his voice much here, but conveys complete menace just the same, especially when he’s being charming. He also convinces us of the curiosity that leads him to wonder why Johnny doesn’t run, as well as the instincts that let him eventually figure out why. This isn’t my favorite Marvin performance (I’m more partial to the ones he gave for John Boorman in Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, and for Sam Fuller in The Big Red One), but it’s one of his best. Gulager, known mostly for his TV appearances (this was his feature debut), is cocky and sure of himself as Lee, and makes a nice contrast to Marvin in that regard. Cassavetes, of course, mostly acted in other people’s films so he could raise the money to make his own (he went on to co-star with Marvin in The Dirty Dozen), but he gave his all to his performance here, and plays Johnny’s romanticism, his sense of betrayal, and toughness well (he also looks the part of the race car driver). And while Sheila is, in the end, just as much a sociopath as Kitty was, Dickinson is less obvious about it than Gardner was; you actually believe early on Sheila is falling for Johnny, instead of just using him.

Along with Marvin’s performance, Siegel’s version of the film is probably best remembered today for featuring the then-unknown John Williams as composer (he was known as Johnny Williams then), and for being the last theatrical film of future governor and President Ronald Reagan. It was the only time in Reagan’s career that he ever played a bad guy on screen, and he reportedly hated the experience and the film, but he actually works better here than he normally did in other films. His voice had developed a rasp at this stage in his life, and he uses it effectively to convey power and toughness. The easygoing image he tried to project on screen also works better here as a contrast to his bad guy character. If I had to choose between the two, I’d say Siodmak’s film works better than Siegel’s, but both of them are terrific, and both offer a nice spin on the role of the amateur detective.

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6 Comments
  1. Fascinating. I recently rewatched the 1946 film and it went up in my estimation, and it was already top-notch, but I haven’t seen the 1964 movie in ages. However, I do remember well the emotional kick in the gut I got from it, so it made an impression. I look forward to seeing it again after reading your article.

    • Thanks, Patricia! I recently watched both of them again as well, and they were both better than I’d remembered.

  2. Thanks for your fascinating examination of both versions! I always enjoy comparisons of originals and remakes but you did a spectacular job of showcasing the strengths of both versions. Thank you for joining the Sleuthathon!

  3. That was great. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two movies compared. I like the first one better, but the second one has always stuck with me since Reagan was elected Governor of California just a few years later. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

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