Max and Al and Charlie and Lee: The Killers
“Once, I did something wrong”…twice
It’s 1946. Two men, Max and Al, drive into the town of Brentwood, NJ in the dead of night. Against the backdrop of a lone street lamp the two cast shadows along a path as they approach a gas station that’s closed for the day’s business. Max and Al settle on Henry’s Diner, which sits directly across the street from the gas station. Clearly the two have more on their minds than a menu, but they peruse the list anyway and place an order. As they wait for the food they start asking questions of the owner who’s behind the counter. Also present in the diner, sitting several stools away from Max and Al is a local patron minding his own.
Max and Al are menacing figures not shy about sharing the details of their visit to Brentwood, “We’re gonna kill the Swede” they say without batting an eye. After realizing the Swede, who’s real name is Ole Andreson, is not coming to Henry’s on that particular night, the two set off toward the housing complex where Andreson lives. Once the killers leave the diner, the local patron runs through the back alleys to warn the Swede. He finds Andreson lying in bed in the dark and as the news is relayed to him he all but shrugs his shoulders, resigned to accept his destiny. It’s clear that although this man still breathes his life has all but ended before this moment. Andreson awaits his fate, which comes by way of a barrage of bullets.
Nearly two decades later…two men, Charlie and Lee, walk into the Sage House for the Blind in the full light of day. With few words uttered the two enter the building and terrorize the blind receptionist until she tells them where Jerry Nichols is. Nichols is the alias of Johnny North, the man the two have been hired to kill. North teaches an auto mechanics class at Sage and is in his classroom when he receives the warning by way of a phone call. Two men are on their way up to kill him. Resigned, North replaces the receiver, dismisses his class and awaits his fate, which comes by way of a barrage of bullets.
Just described are the openings of both film versions of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” which first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927.
The 1946 film, directed by Robert Siodmak is true to the Hemingway story depicting, nearly word-for-word, the entire original source in the film’s opening sequence, which comes to a total of about ten minutes of material. Screenwriter, Anthony Veiller, with uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks, expanded the story to a 90-minute film and earned an Academy Award nomination for the effort. Veiller’s script allows for a slow, methodical yet suspenseful tale replete with shadowy figures and beautiful black and white photography enhanced by a gorgeous score by Miklos Rozsa.
Top billed in the 1946 film is Burt Lancaster making as great a film debut as one could muster. Lancaster’s Swede is a brooding, intense man who manages to convey both danger and innocence in the dark world he lives in. The Swede is an ex-boxer who falls hard for Kitty Collins, played by Ava Gardner who was on loan to Universal from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Killers would be one of Gardner’s finest films even though she was just starting to make her mark in Hollywood at the time. And one of the marks she makes by way of The Killers is showcasing her beauty, which is perfectly matched with Lancaster’s roughness making it simple to buy into the fact he so easily falls prey to the double-cross that ruins him.
Despite memorable appearances by both Lancaster and Gardner, however, much of the accolades must go to Edmond O’Brien for his portrayal of the insurance investigator who drives the story. As Jim Riordan, O’Brien is shrewd and relentless yet believably likeable, which is why all the players in the Swede’s life so easily open up to him. Riordan visits with each while trying to get to the bottom of the murder in hopes of recovering money for the insurance company.
There are also a number of other great, character actors that round up the impressive 1946 cast – Sam Levene plays Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky, a childhood friend of the Swede’s who assists Riordan with the investigation. Albert Dekker plays Big Jim Colfax, the nasty thug who’s ultimately responsible for the murderous goings-on in Brentwood. And among several other memorable players are William Conrad and Charles McGraw who play the killers.
Before moving on to two different killers who walked into the Sage House for the Blind nearly two decades after Brentwood we have to stay in 1946 because there is a connection beyond the story. Former New York theater critic/columnist turned producer, Mark Hellinger left Warner Brothers Studios to form his own independent production unit at Universal-International. Upon arriving at Universal, Hellinger immediately began work on an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Killers.“ From the onset Hellinger planned on giving directing duties for the project to a fledgling, but eager director under contract with Warner’s at the time, Don Siegel. However, Warner’s asked too high a price for the loan so Hellinger went with the proven talent of Robert Siodmak who was just coming off directing The Spiral Staircase.
The Siodmak choice to handle The Killers in 1946 proved to be a match made in noir heaven, or the making of noir history, or one of noirish proportions. Or…you get the picture. It’s an inspired film he helmed. But, lo and behold, Don Siegel would get a crack at directing an updated version of the Hemingway story almost two decades later and he was up to the challenge. If one is so compelled to remake a masterpiece, then let it be so.
Now it’s 1964 – the shadows and suspense are gone, as are patience and tact. In their place are 1960’s color, swagger and brutal violence. Unlike Siodmak’s film, which mixes the mystery of the killers to the thrill of the hunt, if you will, the 1964 film goes for the jugular with a slap-in-the-face kind of brutality. Originally slated to be the first ever made-for-TV movie, The Killers 1964 was released theatrically instead after NBC deemed the film too violent. In fact, among the most disturbing scenes in the film is the opening sequence described above, which sets the stage for what’s to come.
Don Siegel’s remake features an all-star cast and fine performances across the board. Leading the pack is Lee Marvin who gets extra points for playing a definitive hired killer. His appearance alone is enough to send this viewer scurrying out of the way. John Cassavetes plays race-car driver, Johnny North, a revamp of Lancaster’s ex-boxer, with Angie Dickinson taking on the role previously played by Gardner, only now her name is Sheila Farr. Astounding beauty is replaced by sheer sexiness. And Ronald Reagan in his last significant screen role is very convincing as bad guy, Jack Browning, the counterpart to Albert Dekker’s Big Jim Colfax in 1946.
The updated script by Gene L. Coon, has many similarities to the 1946 version with updates like character names and backgrounds that modernize the story to appeal to a 1960s audience. But there is one significant difference that alters the entire feel of the tale. In the Coon script the killers drive the story, which allows for no mystery or suspense because the threat of violence is ever-present in the actual form of the killers. Getting answers from witnesses in as brutal a manner as necessary is what the two men do for a living and comes quite naturally to them. If you’re used to the shrewd, but patient O’Brien you will miss him.
The 1964 story goes… upon murdering Johnny North at the onset of the movie, Charlie and Lee become curious as to why a job that yielded a hefty paycheck had been so easy. “I mean, the guy just stood there as if he’d known we were coming.” So, Charlie convinces Lee to start visiting the players involved with Johnny North in hopes of finding out what happened to the $1 million North is rumored to have stolen. (Note that the rumored amount is a sign of the time elapsed between film versions. The Swede was rumored to have stolen a quarter of a million.) In any case, the two men then set out to visit Johnny’s friends and associates who through a series of flashbacks lead them to Sheila, the femme at the center of all the duplicitous happenings. One double-cross begets another…and…two men walk into the Sage Home for the Blind.
So, pick your poison. Whether one is interested in a fast-moving, down and dirty 1960s crime film, or the best of noir, you can’t lose with either set of The Killers.
This write-up was my submission to the GIANT issue of the film noir newsletter, The Dark Pages dedicated to The Killers (1946). Trust me when I tell say you do not want to miss all the fantastic write-ups in the issue, of which this is the lesser. Every light and shadow of Siodmak’s noir masterpiece is discussed. Click here to order your copy.
I post this in honor of Lee Marvin, star of The Killers (1964) who would have celebrated a birthday today – (February 19, 1924 – August 29, 1987).