The Killers 1946 and The Killers 1964 are available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray.
Continuing the Cinerama Noirvember tradition, this year I am comparing two classic film noirs made 18 years apart, based on the same story. Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story The Killers has been adapted many times, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film from 1956; some say it even inspired Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. In this article, I will explore two of its most successful and well-known adaptations: Robert Siodmak’s version from 1946 and Don Siegel’s from 1964.
Hemingway’s story concerns two hitmen, Max and Al, who arrive at a diner in Summit, Illinois, to kill Ole Andreson, an ex-heavyweight Swedish prizefighter. However, Anderson never shows, and the men leave. But having heard their conversation at the diner, a local man, Nick, informs Anderson what is about to happen, but Anderson seems unconcerned and tells Nick not to do anything as there is nothing to be done.
Hemingway wrote The Killers in the 1920s during Prohibition when organised crime was at its peak across the United States. Having spent time in Chicago, Hemingway was clearly knowledgeable about the structure and operation of organised crime. Hemingway once said: “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.” Given the elliptical narration and the missing elements, the story is a great basis for a gritty crime drama. Therefore, it’s no wonder the story has generated so many adaptations over the years as filmmakers seek to fill in the gaps and provide background to the events leading up to the opening scene in the diner.
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Robert Siodmak’s version from 1946 and Don Siegel’s from 1964 open with the scene described in Hemingway’s short story, using a Citizen Kane-like narrative structure to reveal the events leading up to the assassination. Don Siegel was initially hired to direct the 1946 version but was fired before filming started. He eventually made his version in 1964, originally intended as a made-for-tv movie.
While the 1946 version’s opening scene is a word-by-word adaptation of Hemingway’s story as the two hitmen (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) arrive in a rundown town before murdering the Swede (Burt Lancaster). The 1964 version, however, takes a liberty with the source material by placing the opening scene in a school for the blind as the two hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) assassinate their target, Johnny (John Cassavetes), in cold blood.
The 1964 film marks a turning point in American cinema as it embraces a style of violence not seen previously on screen. Here Siegel’s version is among the first movies to have its main character killed in broad daylight while controversially placing this in the safe environment of a school. As a result, Siegel’s adaptation would forever change the rules of classic film noir, where violence was something that only happened in dark alleyways far from the general public.
THE KILLERS (1964)
In the 1946 version, we have life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tracking down and interviewing the Swede’s friends and associates, piecing together the story from different perspectives. Meanwhile, in the later version, the two hitmen explore Johnny’s past – essentially cutting out the middleman character of Reardon, an objective persona not directly related to the events.
The relationships in the 1946 version are undoubtedly more nuanced and compelling, with the character’s motivations and backstories more developed. Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) is remarkable as the rotten-to-the-core femme fatale, even though she is not given enough screen time to truly shine. Meanwhile, The Swede is a perfect noir character; a regular guy who gets involved in a crime by chance and loses everything as he falls into a fatal spiral of violence and self-destruction through a payroll robbery masterminded by the crime boss Colfax (Albert Dekker).
The former boxer is a recurring character in many film noirs of the period, including Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949) and Champion (1949). At the same time, later gangster films such as The Godfather would also offer a place to the retired boxer. Here the boxing profession acts as a metaphor and foreshadows the character’s fate by drawing a parallel line between the duck and dive of the ring and the violent politics of the mob.
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In comparison, the 1964 version is uncomplicated and straightforward. Johnny had been a race car champion before leaving the profession due to an injury. His affair with Sheila (Angie Dickinson), the local mob boss’s mistress, leads him to take part in the robbery of a postal truck. Here the 1964 film lacks the boxing parallels of the 1946 version, and Johnny’s profession adds no other layer to the story besides his excellent driving skills. The crime itself feels basic, even ad hoc making Siodmak’s version the superior of the two. That doesn’t mean the 1964 adaptation of The Killers isn’t an enjoyable watch, but its smaller-scale production and less intriguing backstory signpost that this was a tv-movie production.
Siodmak’s version was made at the peak of the classic film noirs, with 1946 offering us, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, and Humoresque. Here The Killers (1946) beautifully showcases the fundamental stylistic elements of noir with its tilted angles, contrasting lighting and dramatic shadows. It is an embodiment of its genre, both stylistically and narratively. Hemingway genuinely admired it, saying: “It is a good picture and the only good picture ever made of a story of mine.” Meanwhile, Siegel’s version was made on the verge of the Classical Hollywood era collapse when films dared and were allowed to portray violence more directly. But while it might not be as aesthetically significant as its predecessor, it does have John Cassavetes punching Ronald Reagan, and let’s face it, that makes up for almost everything this version otherwise lacks.