The Killers (1946) / (1964) Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: An Intriguing Double Feature

Like taking a comparative literature class, The Killers from the Criterion Collection offers a great opportunity to see how artists and craftsmen handle the same material and obtain different results. In this instance, the source is Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which first appeared in a 1927 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.

An audio version of the story read by Stacy Keach is available as an extra and it tells of two hitmen who go to a diner looking to kill Ole Andreson, a Swedish boxer who frequents the place. When Ole doesn’t show, the men leave. Frequent Hemingway character Nick Adams goes to tell Ole about the men but he is unconcerned about the news and is resigned to his fate, leaving Nick puzzled. Just from a few scenes, two film crews expanded the story of “The Killers” into feature-length crime dramas.

First up is the 1946 version, a taut film noir by director Robert Siodmak with an Oscar-nominated script co-written by Anthony Veiller and uncredited scribes John Huston and Richard Brooks. They use most of Hemingway’s story about two men coming to a town to kill former boxer Ole “the Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster in his film debut), which they do.

The screenwriters then provide a backstory to Hemingway’s work when life-insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) enters the picture and attempts to learn more about the Swede before paying off a $2500 death benefit. The film becomes reminiscent of Citizen Kane as flashbacks inform the viewer about the Swede’s life, such as his time as a boxer and the trouble he gets into falling for a dame, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). When Reardon learns the Swede was involved in a robbery of a hat factory’s payroll his company paid on, he, and the viewer, are informed about the Swede’s death as well, which is a result of the robbery not panning out as expected.

The 1964 version was made for television but was considered too violent for NBC so it went to movie theaters. Directed by Don Siegel, who was intended to direct the ’46 version but was contracted to another studio, and with a script by Gene L. Coon that uses more from Siodmak’s film than Hemingway’s story, this version of The Killers opens at a school for the blind with two violent men, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), in pursuit of a teacher, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). When North is resigned to his fate and makes no attempt to run, Charlie is puzzled and takes on the role of investigator.

Coon takes the deceased and makes him a racecar driver rather than a boxer, but he gets into trouble falling for a dame, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) in this instance. Johnny also gets involved with a robbery (of a U.S. mail truck) that doesn’t go as according to plan. Learning of it, Charlie wants to find the stolen loot but doesn’t plan on turning over like Reardon intended.

It’s very interesting to see the different styles and choices in the two films but the original film is superior in many areas. The ’46 version has a better plot and contains moments of subtlety to the story where the ’64 version is almost too direct at times. The Swede is double-crossed but may not be sure of the full extent. Johnny is also, but he is told by those responsible. Reardon is doing the right thing and the Swede is sympathetic so there’s a rooting interest in seeing Reardon succeed and Swede’s killers punished. Charlie and Lee are sadistic jerks, just about the worst of all involved, so there’s a rooting interest in their failure. .

The video for The Killers (1946) has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC that is displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The liner notes reveal “this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master positive.” The blacks are very inky and the whites are bright. The contrast is strong and the shadows are dark. The film has noticeable grain and fine object details. The scene where the robbers enter the hat factory has some scratches.

The video for The Killers (1964) has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC that is displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The liner notes reveal “this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm interpositive.” The colors appear in bright and brash hues. The image has great clarity, which is a benefit most of the film except during the rear-projection scenes of racing, which look very phony. Film grain looks natural. Oddly enough, a scene during the robbery, shot from a chopper through the hills, has traces of dirt.

The audio from both films has been treated the same way. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.” The music on the ’46 version is slightly compressed while the ’64 version score by Johnnie Williams is more dynamic. The dialogue from both films is clean and clear throughout.

Supplements for the ’46 version are:

  • “Stuart Kaminsky” (1080i. 18 min) – Recorded in 2002 for Criterion, screenwriter Kaminsky talks about film noir, Siegel, contracts, and the different styles of the two features
  • “Source and Adaptations” has three menu items. “Hemingway’s Short Story” (audio only, 18 min) – Stacy Keach reads for the Simon & Schuster audiobook Ernest Hemingway: The Short Stories.
  • Screen Director’s Playhouse (audio only, 30 min) – this radio adaptation was originally broadcast on June 5, 1948. It stars Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Tony Barrett, and William Conrad, and it features an introduction by and a concluding interview with director Robert Siodmak.
  • “Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Killers” (HD, 21 min) – Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, co-directed with his classmates Alexander Gordon and Marika Beiku in the autumn of 1956 while they were students the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). Shot in three scenes, Tarkovsky directed the first and the third. A screen with text offers “More About Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Killers.”
  • “Siodmak Trailers” (HD, 10 min) – this is a great to get a sense of a director’s work. They are: Son of Dracula (1943), Cobra Woman (1944), The Killers (1946), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949).

Supplements for the ’64 version are:

  • “Reflections with Clu Gulager” (1080i, 19 min) – Recorded for the 2002 Criterion release by his sons who oddly choose one camera to be set up so it shoots between a couple of vases or knick knacks. He’s quite outspoken and offers honest assessment about Marvin (calls the most paranoid actor) his other cast mates (some of who he didn’t think much of before working with them), and the director.
  • “Don Siegel on The Killers” (audio only, 20 min) – actor/director Hampton Fancher reads excerpts from Siegel’s autobiography, A Siegel Film.
  • Trailer (HD, 3 min)

If the films were available separately, I would highly recommend picking up the ’46 version of The Killers alone. Together, they make an intriguing double feature worth exploring.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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