Criterion: The Killers 46/58/64

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:23 pm February 6, 2008

Reagan as the Bad Guy

I’ve been a fan of the Criterion Collection DVD series for some time, ever since I saw a friend’s copy of their wonderful remastered version of Charade – perhaps the best Hitchcock not directed by Hitchcock – whose VHS version, when you can find it, is notoriously grainy and washed out, even to the point of eliminating the dimple in Cary Grant’s chin, which Audrey Hepburn points out as she asks, “How do you shave in there?”

If you haven’t seen one of their other films, the Criterion folks pull together a film-school session in a DVD package – a full range of supplemental materials, commentary, interviews, and background info – coupled with some excellent design perks. They all cost about twice as much as a normal DVD, but if it’s for a film you really enjoy and will watch over and over again, it’s worth it.

That brings us to the Criterion edition of “Ernest Hemingways’ ‘The Killers.’” The set includes three films – all share a title, two share the same opening scene, and little else is common between the three.

The least known and shortest film is the 1958 version of The Killers, which was put together by a famous Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, as a student film project. It’s chilling and stark, but it also is the most true to the fatalism of Hemingway’s original story – about two hired killers who come to town in search of a target, a man they don’t know named “The Swede.” But when the man is warned of the fact, he greets the news of his oncoming death with a calm resignation. He is not interested in running. When he originally wrote the story, Hemingway is said to have changed the title from “The Killers” to “The Matador” and back again. The idea of the man who stands as the bull charges is very Hemingway, yet it’s the Russian who seems to best summarize this idea in a simplistic three-scene film.

The 1946 Robert Siodnak version of The Killers is an apotheosis of film noir, all characters in darkness emerging into pools of light. Siodnak opens with the scene in Hemingway’s story transferred to a small New Jersey town, which is full of ominous wit. But that’s only the first reel of the film – after The Swede is killed (Burt Lancaster in the role that really launched him as a star, even at the old Hollywood age of 32), the film invents a reason to delve into backstory.

What’s interesting about the ’48 film when viewed today is how much of the plotline and characters have been imitated and duplicated since, even to the point of relatively recent films. Busted caper films really are limited in their form, and there are only so many ways to change it by inventing new venues or twists. And while the packaging may be dark, the film’s actual message is less so – the villains get what they deserve, the everyman hero figures out the mystery, and the femme fatale (Ava Gardner) is reduced to begging the dying husband she doesn’t love to clear her name. The film actually ends on a joke, one that feels more appropriate for a radio serial. This is old-school noir – a great model of a film that deals with the darkest corners of human existence, while still being essentially a family-friendly enterprise.

Not so for the 1964 Don Siegel version of The Killers, which is famous for a couple of reasons: it’s got the best performance of Lee Marvin’s storied career; it was supposed to be the first honest-to-goodness major made for TV movie (NBC ultimately passed on it because of the violence); and it has the last performance of Ronald Reagan, as the villain. The ’64 film is noir without the shadows. It has no darkness in it – even every death is in broad California daylight, which somehow makes it more disturbing. There’s no diner scene in this, no Hemingway (a fact that led to much critical disfavor at the time), and the Swede has turned into a modern race car driver, but the violence – particularly that directed at Angie Dickinson, all legs and hollow promises, who gets smacked around by half the men in the picture – is surprisingly raw for the time, and it tells us a lot about how much Hollywood has changed in less than 20 years. A movie like this obviously pales next to Reservoir Dogs, but it’s obvious that they’re on the same visceral coninuum.

Marvin really is very good, driven and undeterred and a murderous student of human nature. His death scene over the last few minutes of the film is chillingly great. Sidekick Clu Gallagher’s performance as the younger yet more heartless hitman serves as a rebuke for every snotnosed brat packer who’s tried a similar role with less dedication. And Reagan, though he hated the film, and only did it as a favor to a friend, is steadily great. “I approve of larceny,” his character says, “Homicide is against my principles.” The best moment for Reagan comes at the end, as Dickinson weakly tries to lie her way out of death. Reagan glances at the ill-gotten cash in his hand, and gives her a sideways look that hints at quiet disgust. Dickinson’s doe-eyed act, which worked on so many others – including the audience – doesn’t buy her any mercy from Marvin. “Lady,” he spits, “I don’t have the time.”

The dark hitman drama is one of Hollywood’s standbys, and films like Collateral continue in the tradition of the ’64 Killers. Yet there’s little joy in such inhuman protagonists, and limited story to boot. There are elements passed on from these older films to the revenge flicks like Man on Fire, Road to Perdition or The Limey – yet it’s illuminating to realize that the more enduring films are ones like Leon (The Professional), where the redemptive power of human relationships drives the emotional attachment to storyline.

The novelty of a flawed criminal or violent killer as a protagonist was a part of the ’46 picture; it was all of the ’64. Now there’s no novelty left. And what you really see here is actually a darker story: how, from 1945 to 2005, we got to a point where we have more antiheroes than actual heroes at the movie theater.

(Originally posted March 2005)

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