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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New on Video: Hardcore Hemingway (and Ronald Reagan!) in The Killers

Posted By on Wed, Jul 8, 2015 at 2:00 PM


Why can't Hollywood come up with any original ideas, amirite? Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" is a slip of a tale, a mere 10 pages depending on where it's printed (that's what it clocked in at in the Judd Apatow-edited I Found This Funny, where I first read it), and it's since been turned into two different movies, first by Robert Siodmak in 1946, and later by Don Siegel in 1964. If there was an internet at the time, no doubt the news of Siegel's film would have been greeted by a chorus of "noooo!", just like always happens these days when a remake is announced, because people on the Internet get upset about very important things.

But in spite of the 1964 version obviously being a totally unnecessary remake that goes to show that Hollywood has run out of ideas (because every story should only be told once, period), the Criterion Collection is releasing them together on a single-disc Blu-Ray this week.

This is actually the second time Criterion has released them together, the first being a DVD-only set back in 2003. (C'mon, Hollywood! Stop doing that!) But, of course, they've never looked quite this shiny before.

The 1946 version of The Killers starts with a faithful telling of Hemingway's short story, about a pair of hired guns who terrorize the patrons of a café while searching for their intended target, while the target himself makes no attempt to save himself from his fate. It then spends the rest of its 100-minute running time investigating via flashback why the target, Ole "The Swede" Anderson (Burt Lancaster), didn't try to save his own life. With perhaps only Double Indemnity beating it to the punch, The Killers is one of the first true film noir flicks, with every pretty much every trope we now associate with noir: the hard-boiled dialog, the dark, dark shadows, men in those big coats with their pants hitched up practically to their nipples, and a very femme-y femme fatale, in this case Ava Gardner, introduced wearing one of the most iconic dresses in film history. You know the one; it even made it onto the cover of her autobiography, not without reason.


If the 1946 Killers is prototypical, then Don Siegel's 1964 version is quite the opposite, a truly odd duck.

It has some superficial similarities, as a pair of killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) find and kill a man (John Cassavetes) who doesn't put up a fight, and the rest is told in flashback as we learn why their target was ready to die. Beyond that, they couldn't be more different, especially in that even though the title is officially Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, it doesn’t even bother with recreating Hemingway's short story.

It was also originally shot for television, and thus has the flat-lit look and feel of early-1960s TV, more now than ever in high-definition; the sets look terribly cheap, and the rear-projection work is some of the worst I've seen outside of an Elvis movie (and I've seen all the Elvis movies).


After the Kennedy assassination, it was deemed too violent for television and was released to theaters instead, though even if Jack had dodged that bullet, there's just no way this movie would have passed muster on the networks in those days. Director Siegel is now best known for directing Dirty Harry several years later, and the script for this version of The Killers was written Gene L. Coon, who would go on to be the true creative force behind the original Star Trek series, creating both the Klingons and Khan, and writing some of the show's best episodes ("Devil in the Dark") and some of its less-best ("Spock's Brain").

But any discussion of The Killers necessarily leads to its most important element: Ronald Fuckin' Reagan.


This was old Hollywood's Worst Actor's final film before he went on to become California's Worst Governor, and then America's Worst President. (Hi, Ricky Maddow and Federale!) And man oh man, is he lousy in it, which of course makes him far more entertaining to watch than if he'd had a lick of talent.

This was the Gipper's first time playing a villain (and last, unless you count his political career, zing!), and as I may have hinted, he's hilariously terrible. Also, he shares many scenes with Norman Fell, which, I just can't even.


That would almost be enough right there, but The Killers is best remembered, and rightfully so, for the scene in which Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson (boo!) and then gets punched right in his stupid face by John Cassavetes (yay!). And how stupid is Reagan's face? It looks like this before it gets punched.


Advantage: the 1964 Killers. Not that it's a competition, and while both films have their virtues, any movie in which Ronald Reagan gets punched right in his stupid face (did I mention that he gets punched right in his stupid face? Because he does, and it's the BEST) automatically kills the competition.

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Sherilyn Connelly


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