On Tuesday, July 7th, Criterion is releasing a Blu-ray featuring two very different yet similar film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 classic short story The Killers. Both films perfectly reflect the period and style of when they were made, the mid-’40s and the mid-’60s, respectively, and they both have a compelling lead character and a flashback structure to the narrative. But the differences are the interesting parts and why these films are as well-remembered as they are. It’s why they make a great double feature.
The Short Story
The Hemingway story was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. It featured recurring Hemingway character Nick Adams, sometimes a kid but in this story a young adult. In a small town in Illinois, Nick is at a lunch/dinner counter when two mysterious men come in, named Al and Max. They ask for things George, the proprietor, says aren’t ready yet, so they end up having to order pork and eggs. Quickly, the two men reveal that their true intention is to kill someone called “The Swede,” the nickname for Ole Andreson, a quiet and unassuming man who works at the gas station.
George tells them that the Swede usually comes in for dinner at 6, so Al goes and ties up the cook and Nick in the kitchen while Max sits up front with George, whom they’ve nicknamed “Bright Boy” for asking all the questions. Whenever a customer comes in, George has been instructed to say the cook is out sick. Finally, it gets to be 6’clock and George says if the Swede ain’t there by 6, he’s not coming. The killers ask where the Swede lives, and George gives them directions to the boarding house where the Swede is staying.
Once the killers leave, Nick runs a short cut to get there first to warn the Swede about what’s coming, only to find the Swede lying on his bed, not particularly interested in saving his own life, almost like he expected something like this to happen. He tells Nick he’ll think about what to do next, but really he’s resigned himself to his fate. Nick is troubled by this and goes to talk to George about it, who also suddenly doesn’t seem too interested. Nick is so aghast at everybody’s apparent lack of concern that he decides to leave town.
That’s a very minimalist story, and one that doesn’t really lend itself to a feature film; this is why both version we’re going to talk about use the short story only as the first act of the film, and yet in both, the protagonist remains Ole Andreson and are both an examination of why a man would allow himself to be murdered.
The Killers (1946)
Made right in the heyday of Film Noir, Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of the story changed the 1920s malaise for the disaffect, angry postwar attitude of the ’40s. It opens with a very faithful adaptation of the short story, if a little truncated, and Nick Adams, while present, is not the main character, even of this section. Burt Lancaster plays the Swede in his first screen role and is suitably heart-throbby. The first act concludes with the two killers (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) coming in and blasting the Swede to death.
From here, we’re introduced to Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), a life insurance investigator working for a big company. Insurance investigators were right up there with private investigators and cops in the Film Noir hierarchy of protagonists. They were almost always mysteries and every mystery needs a sleuth. Reardon, like all good hard-boiled detectives, has a gut feeling telling him to look into the case further; there has to be some reason a man would just allow himself to be murdered, especially when the beneficiary of his life insurance (of only $2,500) is a woman he met only once a year ago, a cleaning lady at a flop house.
This is how we’re introduced to who the Swede was, through Reardon’s investigation, told very much out of sequence. We learn that the Swede was a boxer, another of those go-to Film Noir occupations, who could have been something but busted his hand. The Swede’s best friend, Sam (Sam Levene), is a police lieutenant who tells Reardon about how the Swede eventually turned to petty larceny and racketeering following the end of his boxing career and, like anything he got embroiled with a dame (Ava Gardner) who was the girlfriend of a “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker). We learn about heists they all went on as we learn that, eventually, the dame convinced the Swede he was being double-crossed, so he should rob his partners and get away with the dough, with her, but then she leaves him high and dry without the money. The Swede was so distraught at losing the girl, he runs away and hopes never to be seen again.
This version is very much the typical Noir, with the lead character being essentially doomed from the very beginning, only in this case, we see him die and have to figure out why along with the investigator. It’s full of melodrama and wit, as was the case with most of Robert Siodmak’s Noirs, and also employs some pretty wonderful cinematography to show the darkness inside the Swede. It’s a pretty tightly-plotted detective story, all in all.
The Killers (1964)
Going a completely different way is director Don Siegel’s 1964 version. Originally intended to be the first made-for-TV movie, the level of violence precluded that and it ended up being a theatrical release, though it still employed the bright and colorful look of ’60s television. It keeps the same basic set-up of the ’46 version, with an investigation surrounding a tragic figure’s complete acceptance of death and turning up a heist and former partners and a woman our character loved, but that’s really where the similarities end.
In this version, the Killers are played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager. They, in suits and sunglasses, looking very hip and ’60s, go into a school for the blind looking for a teacher teaching car engine repair. After revealing what they’re doing to the blind receptionist, another blind man calls the classroom to warn the man (John Cassavetes), who similarly just tells his class to leave and stands there as the killers blast him with their silenced pistols.
Then the two movies really seperate. It’s the Killers themselves, specifically Marvin’s elder, more businessman-like hired gun, who gets curious about why a guy wouldn’t even look afraid when he finds out he’s about to die. They decide to figure out who hired them (they don’t know that; it was just a job) and why this man, Johnny North was his real name, would just stand there and get killed. They find out that North was a racecar driver (the sexy athlete, the 1960s equivalent of a boxer), and they pay his friend and former mechanic (Claude Akins) a visit where they learn about this movie’s dame (Angie Dickinson) for whom North fell exceptionally hard, but she too had a rich criminal boyfriend (this time played by Ronald Reagan…yes the future President of the United States).
This version of the story plays very much in order; though the Killers are investigating, we get huge stretches of the time spent within the flashback with Johnny North racing. Siegel, known as an action director, spent a lot of time on the car racing scenes, and especially on the specific one where North crashes, having spent much more time with the girl the week prior to the race. He becomes distraught, and eventually grows to resent her, since she’s still under the thumb of her rich beau. Unlike Gardner’s portrayal, though, which is icy and self-serving, we do get the feeling that Dickinson’s character does have genuine affection for Johnny North, but she just can’t get fully get away.
Siegel’s The Killers is a very violent film, and very much in keeping with the rather nihilistic post-Kennedy-assassination view of things — everyone’s out for themselves, it’s all about finding huge sums of money, and nobody gets away clean.
Criterion’s release of both of these takes on a single story makes for a very interesting watch. Yes, they’re ostensibly the same story, but they really do feel different, and you can forget they were even based on the same material. While Siodmak’s version feels more like you’re delving into someone’s life history, Siegel’s is really only one narrative, split up by Marvin and Gulager meeting and beating up the other characters in the plot in search for the ultimate prize. Highly recommended release.