Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, “The Killers,” inspired to varying degrees the 1946 and the 1964 screen versions of the same name. To varying degrees because the story is less than 3,000 words and essentially only covers the opening of the two films. A man—Ole “The Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster) in the first film, Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in the remake—is hunted down by two hired killers. Right before they shoot him, Ole and Johnny do something strange, or rather, they don’t do something they should: they don’t run, they don’t really move, they don’t even seem to care. Before Ole is killed, he admits he “did something wrong, once” (in film noir, that’s all it takes), and when Johnny is told two men are on their way to kill him, he responds with, “Oh, I see,” and says not to bother calling the cops. Why would this be? Why is this man, holed away working at a service station in the earlier film, teaching at a school for the blind in the later, so resigned to his fate and so accepting of his impending death? This is where the story ends. It’s where the films begin.
Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of The Killers takes this impetus and follows along as claims investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) attempts to piece together the puzzle of Ole’s past. His initial interest in the murder is primarily professional, as an odd insurance beneficiary triggers his investigation. In Don Siegel’s 1964 version, one of the killers, Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin), sets off on his own inquiry, with partner, Lee (Clu Gulager). He looks at the effortless hit as a professional anomaly, unnerved by Johnny’s acceptance. What both searches reveal is that Ole and Johnny, decent men to start, each took part in a robbery, and in each case, they made off with money that should have been disbursed among the others involved in the heist. (The prospect of $1 million being out there somewhere also appeals to Charlie.) Also in both films, entangling Ole/Johnny in this uncharacteristic life of crime is a woman, a classic femme fatale: Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in 1946, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) in 1964.
Despite these basic similarities, Siodmak and Siegel and their respective casts and crew integrate distinct divergences in story, style, and characterization, as much influenced by their corresponding years and conditions of production as by their unique directorial approaches.
The German-born Siodmak brings to his version an expressionistic touch derived from the groundbreaking silent films of his homeland, a form to which film noir, his most proficient genre, was heavily indebted. His The Killers is noir through and through, with immensely vibrant light and shadow contrast: deep, dark blacks and bright whites with little shading in between—this is a black and white movie. Most notable are certain shots where shafts of light or shadow seem to swallow characters whole, casting pronounced accents that illuminate or obscure their faces and bodies.
Siegel, whom 1946 producer Mark Hellinger originally wanted to direct (he was under contract to Warner Bros. and couldn’t take on the project), ended up not being a fan of Siodmak’s film. This primarily had to do with how Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with uncredited scripting by John Huston and Richard Brooks) picked up from the Hemingway story. So once Universal offered him the chance to produce and direct the remake, this time working from a screenplay by Gene L. Coon, he decided to do things differently. Siegel’s version, which maintains manynoir sensibilities, eases up drastically on the noir style. Originally conceived of as the first television movie (an idea scrapped when producers saw how violent the picture was), this film is much brighter, has a garish color scheme, and is only periodically heightened formally by Siegel’s bold strokes of unusual camera angles, quick movements, and surges of spontaneous action.
Given the nature of each film’s narrative—starting with the death of the main character—there are flashbacks aplenty. “It started Thursday, a week ago…” states Jim in the first feature, a standard verbal signal to one of an extraordinary number of back and forth recollections that reoccur throughout the 1946 film. There are far fewer such transitions in Siegel’s take; one of his big concerns when initially preparing the film for television was that the originally planned 22 flashbacks would disorient the viewer when coupled with commercial breaks. In any event, The Killers, particularly the 1946 version, covers checkered pasts, deceptively stable presents, and uncertain futures—the trifecta of noir narrative.
The depiction of the killers differs a good deal as well, obviously so as the 1964 film continues with Charlie and Lee, whereas the 1946 film basically leaves Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) once Ole is dead (though they will reappear). All four men, however, are smart, cool, crass, and utterly careless in their regard for any degree of decency. They wear their cruel streaks on their faces and act with a pitiless detachment. They are there to kill, to routinely kill, to kill for money—it’s a job, nothing more. Veiller’s screenplay gives Al and Max crackling chatter that is short and sharp, a tough-guy dialogue in tune with Hemingway’s writing. Distinguishing Charlie and Lee is a capacity for even more brutality. Al and Max talk tough; Charlie and Lee are downright vicious.
Then there’s the characterization of Ole and Johnny. As played by Lancaster, Ole is initially a down on his luck boxer, way down. As his story plays out, he goes from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to Brentwood, New Jersey. (Brentwood itself representing so many noir characters and plot devices, in that it’s a nowhere town that becomes ground zero for a history of violence it could never have saw coming.)
He’s a beaten down roamer with an equally roaming eye, which is what gets him into trouble with Kitty. He is pleasant enough for the most part, but he has an impulsive violent streak. Lancaster also imbues in Ole a personality that is both gallantly aggressive and pathetically unlucky. When we first see Johnny, on the other hand, he is a race car driver at the top of his game. It’s always hard to watch Cassavetes and not think of his naturalistic performances in his own films, but here he gives his character a melodramatically cocky swagger that is only bested by the appearance of Sheila. She’s pretty forward too, and he loves it. Unlike the Ole and Kitty relationship, which certainly has its obstacles, Johnny and Sheila seem to thrive on a challenging, almost combative, romance.
These male/female relationships form the crux of each film’s plot, though the 1964 film spends a considerably longer time on the romance between Johnny and Sheila (as well as on details of Johnny’s racing). In both stories though, it’s the women and their respective other men—the criminal masterminds in each of their lives—who lead Ole and Johnny to the eventual crimes and the ultimate consequences for all involved.
With enough similarities and differences to make each film stand apart in their own right, Robert Siodmak’s version of The Killers is better in almost every way. Siegel’s take might have the more interestingly eclectic cast, with the beautiful and confident Dickinson, Ronald Reagan in his final film role, Marvin stealing the scene every time he enters the frame, Gulager in an exceptionally malicious turn, and Cassavetes, who presumably used the paycheck from this film to partially fund his next directorial effort, the brilliant 1968 film, Faces (look also for Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel in a brief role). But Siodmak’s direction is better, the script is tighter, and Elwood Bredell’s cinematography is gorgeous. And while Lancaster and Gardner are both great, Sam Levene and O’Brien both give excellent supporting performances as well; O’Brien in particular is almost giddy in his investigation, motivated by earnest curiosity and professional duty, eager to solve this “double cross to end all double crosses.” Finally, proving Roger Ebert’s view on the timelessness of black and white photography, it’s the more recent film that also appears most dated, at least stylistically.
A side note: For a third—and by far the most faithful—variation on the story, see Andrei Tarkovsky’s short film adaptation, which is included on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray set of The Killers. This short was co directed by Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, when all were students at the State Institute of Cinematography in 1956, and it starts and stops just as the story does. Its dialogue, too, depending on the translation, seems to adhere nearly word for word to Hemingway’s text.