DVD Review: The Killers (1946 and 1964) - The Criterion Collection

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The Criterion Collection recently issued a double-feature containing both the 1946 and 1964 versions of the film noir classic The Killers, loosely based on a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway. Each film is a classic in its own right, so kudos to Criterion for resisting any temptation to release them separately. On top of it, they've included director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 adaptation, a 20-minute short produced while Tarkovsky was still attending the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography.

Robert Siodmak directed the 1946 version, which boasts the screen debut of Burt Lancaster. Here Lancaster plays "the Swede," a target of hitmen Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw). The odd thing about the Swede is that he seems resigned to his fate. Through a series of ingeniously-staged flashbacks, we learn the full story of the Swede's background and how he came to be targeted. Siodmak received an Oscar nomination for Best Director (he lost to William Wyler and The Best Years of Our Lives) and it was well deserved given the economical storytelling that makes the film's 103 minutes seem to glide by a faster pace.  
Killer Criterion (269x380).jpgWhile I did screen the '46 The Killers on Criterion's standard DVD edition, it was still clear the transfer (struck from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive) looks absolutely stellar. Actor-turned-cinematographer Elwood Bredell (who shot some of the lesser-appreciated, though brilliantly atmospheric Universal chillers, including The Mummy's Hand and The Ghost of Frankenstein) was the DP for The Killers and his work is certainly done proud here. Bredell was somewhat surprisingly snubbed by the Oscars that year, but composer Miklós Rózsa was nominated for his score (sadly for Rózsa, The Best Years of Our Lives struck again). His music sounds fantastic in this remastered mono mix (which I can only imagine must sound even better in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 on the Blu-ray edition).

Extras relating to the '46 version include, as previously mentioned, the 1956 Tarkovsky-directed short film. There is an additional text-only feature to further elaborate on Tarkovsky's adaptation. Screen Director's Playhouse gives us a 30-minute radio adaptation from 1948 (featuring the voice acting of some of the film's cast, including Burt Lancaster and William Conrad). We also get the original Hemingway short story, as read by Stacy Keach (culled from an audiobook). Via a 2002 interview, we hear from Stuart Kaminsky, a screenwriter (though not of The Killers) who is obviously quite knowledgeable about film noir. Lastly, there are several trailers for Robert Siodmak films (including The Killers). 

Killers Seigel (380x272).jpg
Legendary director Don Siegel (most famous for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry; previously honored by Criterion with their edition of Riot in Cell Block 11) remade The Killers in 1964. This one was initially intended as a made-for-TV movie, but it's level of violence was deemed inappropriate for network broadcast at the time. While the first The Killers marked the beginning of Burt Lancaster's screen acting career, the '64 version marked the end of Ronald Reagan's. The future POTUS was cast against type as a ruthless mob boss—and no less than Angie Dickinson plays his mistress. In this version, it's Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) who play the hitmen who must take out Johnny North (John Cassavetes), a man apparently unafraid of meeting his maker. "The Forgotten Gene" L. Coon (so named due to his often unheralded contributions to the original Star Trek series) penned the screenplay. Very different in terms of overall tone and due to the approach taken by its cast, Siegel's gritty The Killers is a fascinating, worthy companion to the Siodmak original.

Richard L. Rawlings' cinematography is presented in open-matte 1.34:1, as it was originally shot for television broadcast. Criterion's new transfer looks very good on DVD, though I'd love to see if the color reproduction is even more vivid on the 1080p Blu-ray edition. The mono soundtrack is clean, nicely showcasing a score by John Williams, very early in his career.

Special features pertaining specifically to the 1964 version include a 20-minute audio piece that finds filmmaker Hampton Fancher (writer-director of 1999's The Minus Man) reading from Don Siegel's autobiography. From 2002, we get a 20-minute video interview with actor Clu Gulager, who looks back on various aspects of the production of The Killers.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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