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The Killers

The Killers(1946)

Remind Me

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Home Video Reviews

Ernest Hemingway's hardboiled short story The Killers has been filmed twice by Hollywood, and both versions are now available on a lustrous Criterion Collection double DVD. You get so many engrossing extras with this release, the movies themselves might become secondary considerations before you're through. But don't let that happen - both of these pictures will enthrall even the most discerning crime movie fan. Robert Siodmak's superb 1946 version stands as one of the finest achievements of the film noir tradition, and Don Siegel's exceptionally brutal reworking boasts a terrific performance by Lee Marvin.

Apart from using Hemingway's story as a jumping off point, the two features have very little in common. (Actually, after the first few minutes, they have very little to do with the source material.) A similar thread runs through both versions, but the narratives soon take entirely different paths.

Siodmak's sinister earlier installment features Burt Lancaster, in his debut performance, as The Swede, a doomed filling station attendant who's being pursued by a pair of vicious hired killers. The reasons for The Swede's almost sacrificial acceptance of his own death are pieced together by an obsessive insurance agent (Edmund O'Brien) who's also investigating a hat factory heist. Ava Gardner is on hand as well, as a drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale. The story is told through a complex series of flashbacks that reflect the influence of 1941's similarly structured Citizen Kane, and the dialogue crackles from beginning to end.

Siegel's 1964 TV-movie version - it was finally released in theaters after being deemed too violent for the tube - also has a lot going for it, although it features crisp, bright lighting in place of Siodmak's expressionistic shadows. The hit men in Siegel's film (Clu Gulager and Marvin) ruthlessly stalk a teacher for the blind (played by John Cassavetes.) When Cassavetes' character makes no attempt to run before his violent death, the killers want to know his story. The trail leads to a glamorous woman he once loved (played by Angie Dickinson), and nasty, suit-wearing crime lord (Ronald Reagan, in his final performance before later playing the President of the United States.)

As already stated, Criterion didn't scrimp on the extras:

* Bold new digital transfers that clarify both the shadows and the light

*Director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 student film version of the story

* A Screen Director's Playhouse 1949 radio version starring Lancaster and Shelley Winters

* Stacy Keach reading Hemingway's short story

* Writer-director Paul Schrader's seminal 1972 essay, Notes on Film Noir, which introduced many Americans to the numerous specifics of noir

* Publicity material for both pictures, including stills, rare behind the scenes shots, press books, and newspaper ads

* A video interview with Clu Gulager, in which he specifically hails Marivn's death scene

* Excerpt from Don Siegel's autobiography, A Don Siegel Film

* A video interview with Siegel's biographer, Stuart M. Kaminsky

*Production correspondence from the 1964 version, including memos from Siegel and broadcasting standards reports

For more information about the DVD special edition of The Killers, visit The Criterion Collection web site. To order The Killers, visit TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara