Actors: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Lee Marvin
Directors: Robert Siodmak, Don Siegel
Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Criterion Collection (Direct)
Release Date: July 7, 2015
Ernest Hemingway’s short story was adapted into two very different films, though both somehow manage to capture the essence of the narrative while maintaining stylistic individuality from both the source material and each other. First was Robert Siodmak’s classic 1946 black-and-white adaptation, which is now considered an iconic example of the post-World War II film noir genre. Producer Mark Hellinger originally wanted to borrow Warner Brothers director Don Siegel to direct this early version, but he eventually made his own adaptation in 1964 as the first planned made-for-TV movie. While the first is a classic example of the shadowy style that noir is best known for, Siegel’s version became a gritty adaptation in full color and violence in broad daylight. Both have distinctly different approaches to the same material, making for one of the few narratives with both adaptations fittingly paired together in one package.
Siodmak’s film remains loyal to Hemingway’s source material, opening with a couple of hired assassins walking through a small town and entering a sandwich cart in search of a man they were sent to kill. Burt Lancaster plays their target, Ole “Swede”
his debut film role. Even after being warned about the arrival of the killers,
Swede makes no attempts to escape his fate. The remainder of the film becomes a
detective mystery, with insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien)
determined to find out why the man was killed and what kept him from running
away from the assassins. Each piece of the puzzle is told through flashbacks as
Reardon interviews various people from the Swede’s past, eventually uncovering
his transition from successful boxer to an accomplice in an infamous hat factory
As is the case with nearly all noir, there is a femme fatale at the center of the narrative, played by a smoldering Ava Gardner. Reardon pursues the truth about the hit on Swede and where the money from the heist ended up, even though it is mostly his personal curiosity driving him for the answers. This film has often been referred to as the Citizen Kane of film noir, and the mystery behind the man who didn’t run from death is The Killers’ ‘rosebud.’ John Huston collaborated on the screenplay with Anthony Veiller, though he went uncredited, and they made the wise decision to keep sections of dialogue nearly the same as they were written in Hemingway’s story. This paired with a solid cast of veterans and newcomers makes The Killers a significant film as well as a great one.
It is quite clear from the beginning that Don Siegel’s version is very different from Siodmak’s. Cleverly written ominous dialogue is cut short, replaced by unabashed violence. There is also an interesting twist in the morality of the film with the removal of the insurance investigator role. Instead it is the hired killers who dig for the truth, seemingly trying to answer the same question about a man willing to face death. This time the victim of the first hit is a former racecar driver named Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who is found working in a home for the blind.
Uncertain why North met the bullets with ambivalence, the two hit men (played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) do their own investigation. While Reardon thoughtfully probed with questions, these two use violence to seek out the same answers. They trace the reasons for the hit back to a heist full of double-crosses, with Ronald Reagan playing the villain in his final film role, and Angie Dickinson as the temptress femme fatale. Its brash and bold, and though it was originally made for television, the content was deemed to violent for the small screen.
Both films are included on one Blu-ray disc, with a new high-definition digital restoration for each of them. There are also plenty of special features for both of the films, even including Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film adaptation of the short story from 1956. There is also an audio recording of Hemingway’s story, read by Stacy Keach from a 2002 recording, as well as the 1949 radio adaptation starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters. Also from the 2002 DVD release is an interview from writer Stuart M. Kaminsky about both of the films. From the second film is an interview with actor Clu Gulager and audio excerpts from Don Siegel’s autobiography, read by Hampton Fancher. Both films also have individual inserts, with essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Entertainment Value: 8.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10
Historical Significance: 10/10