Two adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, The Killers, available on one disc from Criterion Collection, are rare examples of how movies can expand or radically alter their literary source and still get it right. The 1946 version, starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, won even Hemingway’s grudging approval, a near-miracle in itself since the author (though he liked the money) notoriously hated what the movies did to his books.
Since he died three years before the 1964 version, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, it’s hard to imagine what Hemingway might have thought of this brighter, glossier (and ultimately grimmer) take on his tale, but the film’s reputation has only grown over the decades – despite the undeniable classic stature of its noir predecessor.
Producer Mark Hellinger defied all odds in ’46, casting former acrobat, ex-GI Lancaster (nearly 33 years old) in his first film role. Sharing top billing with the unknown hunk was 24-year-old Ava Gardner who, though she’d been in Hollywood six years, had only one starring role to her credit, opposite George Raft in a B-movie called Whistle Stop. Before The Killers, she was better known for her two ex-husbands – Mickey Rooney and popular bandleader Artie Shaw.
With a brilliant script by Anthony Veiller (and an uncredited John Huston), director Robert Siodmak used a palette of light and shadow to reveal the murky story of treachery, love, betrayal, and (of course) a femme fatale behind the death of the Swede which opens the film (and constitutes the substance of Hemingway’s very short story). Through a series of flashbacks, instigated by the dogged research of an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien), we see the Swede’s doomed relationship with the bad girl, his participation in the heist, and then the double-cross, which sets him up for his execution at the beginning.
While the film made stars of its two leads, the real genius of the production is German émigré Siodmak, whose lighting and design underscore the very essence of noir at its best. Looking back, the film is also notable for its score by Miklos Rozsa, whose musical motif for the two hired guns (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) would be immortalized as the theme for Jack Webb’s Dragnet.
Director Don Siegel (who, ironically, was Hellinger’s first choice for the ’46 film) helmed the ’64 film, which was supposed to have been the first made-for-TV movie. Deemed too violent for the small screen, The Killers, according to Siegel, graduated to its rightful medium, the big screen.
Where Siodmak’s film is a study of contrasts in black-and-white, Siegel’s production is bright and colorful, befitting its origins in ’60s television. The screenplay by Gene L. Coon utilizes the same narrative approach as the original (flashbacks instigated by narratives of supporting characters), but cleverly has the two killers (Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager) take the place of the first film’s investigator as they try to discover the reason why their initial target (John Cassavetes) refused to run from their guns.
In terms of looks, Cassavetes couldn’t be more different from Lancaster but, predictably, he’s convincing as the doomed shmuck (this time, a race car driver instead of Lancaster’s boxer). And Angie Dickinson is physically quite different from Ava Gardner, but still fits the femme fatale role nicely. The real casting surprise is Ronald Reagan, in his last film role, the only time he played a villain. Ahead lay the presidency of the United States, but not before he slaps Angie Dickinson silly and then gets plugged by Marvin.
Two very different gems from one short story, both versions of Hemingway’s tale are killers in their own right.