Sunday, September 26, 2004

Double Feature: The Killers '46 & '64 Directed by Siodmak/Siegel

The recently released (in the grand scale of things) Criterion version of The Killers makes it real easy to do one of these double-feature reviews. The whole endeavor of renting or buying the release becomes a buy-one-get-one-free type of transaction. In 1946, Robert Siodmak directed a film based upon Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers." Don Siegel turned around and did the same thing in 1964. Whether coincidental or not, the two films pretty much book-ended the whole period of Film Noir.

The Killers, 1946

Robert Siodmak's film bristles with noir: the shadows, the dialogue, the dame, and the god-forsaken futility of it all. The first twenty minutes of the movie are practically Hemingway's story verbatim. Two men (The Killers) walk into a cafe looking for a man called "The Swede." What are they going to do? Well, I'll tell you: they are going to kill the Swede. Why? That's bit trickier.

It seems that The Swede, a.k.a. Pete Lunn a.k.a. Ole Andreson, a former boxer, shanghai'd some money from a Job, a.k.a. larceny, he pulled with three other guys, seven years back. Not to spoil it or anything, but The Swede dies. That, in itself, lacks remark. What is impressive is that The Swede takes his death, literally, lying down. A little bird tells him that The Killers are on their way, but the Swede neither runs nor hides. This is the crux of Hemingway's story; the beauty of it being that the reader is left to infer why a man would resign himself to death without any sort of fight. Siodmak (and Siegel even moreso, in 1964) made a movie out of that idea.

The deus ex machina of the film is a life insurance claims investigator played by noir archetype Edmund O'Brien (of D.O.A. fame. Or is that infamy?) It seems that The Swede had taken out a $2500 insurance policy to be paid to a hotel manager. The reason: she inspired The Swede to abandon the idea of suicide during a three-day spell at the hotel. Like any good claims investigator, O'Brien chases down The Swede's back-story to find out whether the deal is legit or not. And there is our movie.

Now that the plot is out of the way:

The star of The Killers is really its era. Even though Burt Lancaster makes his first screen appearance, playing The Swede, the film goes far beyond what any one actor or actress could add to it. Or far below. Or something. The real point of the film is that it signified something new in America, something that the French called Noir. I don't want to get into the semantics of Noir again, but it is relatively safe to say that The Killers is one of the major films of the early Noir period. In and of itself the film is not terribly impressive. Entertaining and well made it is, a fine story it has - but there is nothing about it that blows away. Imperative is its importance to a time and place in the history of American Film. When Edmund O'Brien chases a story around the United States, only to find his actions rendered impotent and useless, Noir is born*.

*Ok ok, I know The Maltese Falcon came out in 1941 and all that, but this line is good, you know? I know it's incongruent with history, but cut me some slack, ok? Or, better yet, pretend this line applies to all film noir of the early to mid 40's, and O'Brien is Bogart, Robinson, and Mitchum all wrapped up into one All-American (but, like, second string All-American) icon. Yeah, that should do the trick.

The Killers, 1964

Basically the same plot as the 1946 version with some exceptions:

1. There is no claims investigator. Instead, The Killers themselves (played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) go on a mission to find out why they killed this guy, why he did not run, and, oh yeah, there is also chance they could get $1 Million out of the deal. Makes the title a bit more appropriate, does it not?
2. There is no opening sequence in the cafe, thus no reference to Hemingway's story. The actual title of this version is Ernest Hemingway's The Killers. Makes the title a bit inappropriate, does it not?
3. The Swede (played by John Cassavetes) doesn't look Swedish and he was a racecar driver instead of a boxer.
4. Ronald Reagan plays a rich bureaucratic thief. (Pardon my effacing the dead, but it does make you go, "hmmm," does it not?)

Now that the plot is out of the way:

First, a word of warning: I found this film entirely inferior to the first. The rear-projection shots seem dated and cheesy (not in the good way), the aesthetics of the film were flat, and the directing was entirely mediocre. Another word of warning: this film was originally intended for television, but released on the big screen due to the violence. Also, many claim that the flatness of the film was meant to convey the flatness of modern life. As far as I know, there are no excuses for the directing.

On the flip side, this seems to be a fitting end for what many consider the definitive Noir era. That might be pushing it, actually. A case can be made that Noir began in 1940 with Boris Ingster's Strangers on the Third Floor and ended in 1959 with Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow. So maybe this is the ushering in of a new era: Post-Noir.

As noted above, Director Don Siegel threw away several integral elements found in the first film. By titling the film Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, and not referencing Hemingway's story at all, Siegel is effectively saying, "I can keep the title, but change the story. This ain't Papa's genre no more." Same goes with The Swede becoming rather un-Swede like - it doesn't make sense, but that is a-ok because, you know what, life don't make much sense. And, finally, in Siodmak's version there is resolution. The raison d'etre is apparent - even though the journey turned out to be meaningless, at least an answer was found. In Siegel's version everyone dies and nothing matters and it all is pointless anyway, isn't it?

In spite of all the great overtones Siegel's version has, its execution leaves it stuck in the mire of mediocrity. Siegel seems aware of said overtones, but never fully develops them into themes. The matte finish on the film seems to hint at the banality of life, but is handled in such way that it just might be an accident. The rear projection driving shots are less Notorious cool and more Herbie Goes Bananas bad. Final coup de grace of so-close-to-being-right-the-crap-on-but-actually-very-off: the high points of the film are Ronald Reagan and a cameo by Seymour Cassel.

So, what was the point of all this?

Got me. Noir has its Post-Noir, now reviewing has it's Post-Reviewing.


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