August 2015

Four Versions of Hemingway's Tale for the Price of One

The Criterion Collection 176
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment

Picture Quality

Sound Quality


Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" was first published in 1927, in Scribner's Magazine. It was made into a theatrical film twice, in 1946 and 1964. The Criterion Collection offers on this Blu-ray not only both of those versions, but also a 1956 student version by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as Hemingway's story, read by Stacy Keach. These sorts of bonuses greatly add to one's knowledge of the feature films, and are what make Criterion so worthwhile and popular.

The Killers

In Hemingway's story, two mobsters enter a diner and reveal, in conversation with the owner and customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown), that they've come to town to kill The Swede, a former prizefighter who now works in an auto garage. When they learn that their intended victim isn't coming for dinner, they leave, presumably to kill him at home. That's how the story ends: short, sweet, and provocative. Keach reads it brilliantly, and her characterizations are right on the money.

Tarkovsky's 19-minute black-and-white film sticks to the story fastidiously. In references to the black cook, the "n" word leaps out, but in this too, Tarkovsky's script is faithful to Hemingway.

The Killers (1956)

Robert Siodmak directed the 1946 feature version, which is also in black and white. The opening scene is like the story -- with the "n" word removed -- and William Conrad, playing one of the killers, is reserved and sinister. But Anthony Veiller's screenplay doesn't stop when the killers leave. We follow them to a humble flat, where they kill The Swede -- Burt Lancaster, in his first film role. Then, in flashback, we see the story of The Swede, a prizefighter who got involved with the mob and a femme fatale, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Though the 1946 film is still predominantly a crime drama, elements of the dialogue and lighting make it also a film noir, and one of the most brilliant ever made. The killers, offscreen for most of the film, return briefly at the end.

The Killers (1946)

In the 1964 version, directed by Don Siegel, Gene L. Coon's screenplay uses Hemingway's story merely as inspiration. It includes no dialogue from the story, and the character names have been changed. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are the killers, with Angie Dickinson as the femme fatale, Sheila Farr. Ronald Reagan, in his last film appearance, plays Jack Browning, the head villain. The Swede has disappeared, and the killers mow down former racecar driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in a home for the blind. Following North's murder there are flashbacks, this time from the killers' point of view.

The 1964 version was originally intended to be broadcast on TV, but this and a few other scenes were deemed so violent that it was instead released theatrically. It's not as good as the 1946 version, but it's still worth watching. Marvin is galvanizing as the head killer, and has one of the best death scenes in cinema. In her portrayal of Sheila Farr, Dickinson's beauty deceives -- she's willing to cuddle and purr, then turn and attack. Gulager's portrayal of the other killer is a bit nutso: a health-food nut who looks almost like the guy next door, he can dispatch a victim with frightening coldness. Reagan looks uncomfortable; he'd already ended his film career, and had agreed to take on this role as a favor. Just two years later, he was elected governor of California.

The Killers (1964)

Criterion is the master of digital restoration, and the transfers are served well here. Because the 1964 film was originally shot for TV -- small screens and, like the 1946 version, the Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) -- it's almost too bright and colorful. But Criterion proves it's up to that challenge as well.

For both feature films, the audio is good. The dialogue is easily understood, the sound effects are excellent, and the orchestral scores come across very well. Miklós Rózsa wrote the 1946 version's score, which begins with the nine-note theme that later became famous as the main theme for the radio and TV series Dragnet. It was claimed to have been written by composer Walter Schumann, and the ensuing litigation resulted in both composers taking credit and royalties for the theme. John Williams, billed here as Johnny Williams, wrote the hard-driving, tremendously effective score for the 1964 version.

There are even more good extras: an interview with American mystery author Stuart M. Kaminsky about both films; a Screen Directors Playhouse radio adaptation with Lancaster and Shelley Winters; and excerpts from Don Siegel’s autobiography, A Siegel Film, read by actor Hampton Fancher. The excerpts give fascinating insight into the daily operations of a film crew. The two booklets contain essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem (1946 version) and author and film critic Geoffrey O’Brien (1964 version).

Criterion has crammed a college course on The Killers onto a single Blu-ray Disc. This disc will provide fascinating and fruitful weekend entertainment for anyone interested in film noir, Hemingway's story, or these films and actors in particular.

Be sure to watch for: The beginning of chapter 8 (1946 version) shows a character walking down a long hallway, his bigger-than-life shadow following him along the wall. Iconic noir all the way.

. . . Rad Bennett