The Killers vs The Killers

Two films based on the same story (by Ernest Hemingway), released in 1946 and 1964. Textbook examples of how different approaches to the same narrative yield substantially different results. 

THE STORY: Two bad guys show up and kill a guy. Someone wants to know why, and an investigation is launched. We learn about the life of the deceased, Citizen Kane-style, through the dead guy’s friends, enemies and associates. A tragic tale of downfall and redemption, crawling with noir characters — ruthless hitmen, big-hearted lugs, fiery-eyed femmes fatale, honest cops and cold-hearted Messrs Big. In both cases, the utterly predictable plot is rescued by the unconventional presentation. Criterion (who else) has helpfully put them in the same box for you.

THE DIRECTORS: The 1946 version is directed by Robert Siodmak (who I’d never heard of before); the 1964 version is directed by Don Siegel, whose work I’m very familiar with.

THE PHOTOGRAPHY: The 1946 movie is filled with enough inky shadows and expressionistic lighting to make Frank Miller go weak in the knees. The 1964 version is lit like an episode of Marcus Welby, MD. (No wonder, it was shot, for TV, on the Universal lot. So when the killers pull up to a house, it’s literally next door to Marcus Welby’s and Beaver Cleaver’s, etc, etc.) It has other things going for it, but is also flat, bright and desperately uncinematic.

THE BIG TWIST: In the 1946 version, the investigation is launched by a tough-talking, hard-knuckled insurance investigator whose brief is to make sure his company’s money is being handed over to the proper beneficiaries. This task is accomplished around the end of Act I, which leaves the insurance investigator with a good half-hour of pointless investigation to go before he stumbles onto a second reason to be doing any of this — the dead guy was also a robber of another one of his company’s clients! By investigating the robbery, he’ll be saving his company’s clients up to a fraction of a penny on their future premiums! Apparently, the insurance industry was big, exciting news back in the 1940s — the subtlety’s and vicissitudes of the insurance game also form the spine of Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity. “Grab your coat honey, there’s a new insurance thriller playing at the Bijoux!”

The big idea for the 1964 remake is that the investigation of the dead guy’s murder is undertaken by the hitmen themselves — they know there’s money to be found somewhere in this mystery and they’re going to find it, even if it means killing the guy who hired them. This is a brilliant innovation that plunges an already amoral story into darker, uglier territory and does a lot to ameliorate the fact that it looks like an episode of Marcus Welby, MD. It also opens with a startling sequence involving the hit men bullying their way through a school for the blind, which has to be new record for hit-man bullying.

THE KILLERS: The dialogue between William Conrad and his accomplice in the 1946 version is just smashing as they taunt the utterly helpless inhabitants of a small New Jersey town. The moment one realizes the movie isn’t going to be about the hit men is a sad moment indeed, especially when their sneering thuggery is replaced by the adventure of a foursquare insurance investigator. So it makes perfect sense to replace the investigator with the killers themselves in the remake. And Lee Marvin is utterly Lee Marvin-like in the William Conrad part. The problem is that he’s been paired with TV mainstay Clu Gulager, who grabs the part of “second hit man” in his teeth and shakes it into a kitten. He sneers, he giggles, he plays with toys, he glowers, he menaces, he’s got his engine firing on all cylinders. Thing is, he’s miscast, looks like he should be playing the nice young doctor on Medical Center, and he’s cast opposite Lee Marvin, who gets out of bed looking like he’d kill you for stealing his newspaper. So a typical hit-man scene will be Clu Gulager chuckling and giggling and sneering and pouncing around the room, and Lee Marvin just sitting there commanding attention.

THE BIG LUG: The Killers is a tragedy about a sports figure who loses his touch and is forced into a life of crime in order to keep his femme in furs. A young Burt Lancaster is a boxer in the 1946, and he’s just amazing. Not bright at all, completely baffled by the world he’s entered into, sweet and meaty and un-clued as to why he’s so unhappy, he’s like Lenny if Of Mice and Men had been a gangster picture. For the 1964 remake, the producers had the idea to make the big lug a racecar driver who falls from grace and ends up as a getaway driver. The character arc is still the same but the casting is disastrous — John Cassavetes is obviously far too intelligent and canny to play a man in over his head. To compensate, the screenwriter has given him drive (get it?) instead of brawn as his motivating factor, but still the viewer has no choice but to sit there and say “Hey, you’re John Cassavetes, why you makin’ these bonehead choices?”

THE DAME: Ava Gardner smolders and seduces indelibly in 1946, but you know what? the surprisingly fierce Angie Dickinson kicks ass in the remake. A-plus in both cases.

THE BIG CHEESE: Perfectly okay Albert Dekker serves as an adequate Big Cheese in 1946, and for reasons unrelated to acting talent is overshadowed by Ronald Reagan in 1964, who at the time was a genial b-list lead on the downhill side of a long career. The part requires him to be cold, heartless and cruel, qualities he would go on to effortless personify in American politics, but to which he is utterly unsuited as an actor. The producers must have suspected that hewasn’t going to quite hit the mark as a ruthless gangster, so they have made his right-hand man hapless weasel Norman Fell, whose job seems to be making his boss look tough in comparison. “We gotta blow this joint babe, Ronald Reagan is here, and he’s got Norman Fell with him!”

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22 Responses to “The Killers vs The Killers”
  1. ratmmjess says:

    A surprising number of detectives in the pulps and heroes of novel series were agents of insurance companies. Something in the air, I guess.

    • Todd says:

      My grandfather was in the insurance game, he got off on the adrenaline and intrigue, the acid thrill of discovering fraud and the jolting, heart-pounding high-wire act of mailing a claim check. But the insurance racket was soft potatoes for my father, who was drawn into the inky, half-light world advertising, a world of big money, high living, socko dames and stretch limos.

      Me, I’m a screenwriter on the wicked streets of Santa Monica, with a mortgage and a Prius and a porcelain molar. The name’s Alcott and I tell stories.

      • ratmmjess says:

        I touch on the some of the highlights of the pulp age here, including Popular Engineering Stories, Six Gun Gorilla, and the zombie sheriff vs Fu Manchu.

      • Anonymous says:

        About Insurance Investigators…

        Noir and crime fiction gets pretty redudant with cops and private eyes, so once in a while a writer will try to spice things up with a new trade. Unfortunely, there’s not a lot of careers that really call for someone to investigate crimes. Basically, it was down to insurance claim investigators or postal investigators. I think they made the right decision.

      • teamwak says:

        If that isnt the best Voice Over for the wierdest noir ever, I dont know what is? Its like the opening to Hart to Hart on acid!

        lol 🙂

  2. r_sikoryak says:

    I can’t recall what movie I saw on TCM that Siodmak directed– but it was appropriately inky. Seems he had a good run in the ’40s.

    • Todd says:

      I see now that he also directed Criss Cross, which Steven Soderbergh later turned into his least favorite movie, The Underneath.

      • craigjclark says:

        I must admit I actually have a certain fondness for The Underneath. I think it has a lot more going for it than Soderbergh did at the time and would like to see him do a commentary track for it at some point in the future.

        Of course, I’d listen to a Soderbergh commentary on just about any movie. He’s terrific on the recent Criterion edition of The Third Man and his commentaries with Mike Nichols and John Boorman (for Catch-22 and Point Blank, respectively) point up just how much of a student of film he is.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I like the 1946 / 64 last 2 digits inversion theory for remakes. Criterion should start a series based on that! I bet it would bring together some surprises in remakes out there, like, say, 1937 / 73 or 47/74… 58/85…

  4. Anonymous says:

    For more information on Ernest Hemingway, visit this great web site:

  5. Anonymous says:

    “A young Burt Lancaster is a boxer in the 1946, and he’s just amazing.”
    He’s the only thing I remember about the movie. Why is that?
    Time to see it again.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You’re now the alpha VB geek. Congrats!

  7. I got a good double-DVD set that includes both versions, as well as a short film adaptation (basically just the opening sequence with the diner) that Andrei Tarkovsky made when he was at film school.

    The Tarkovsky thing is interesting, but I wouldn’t say you should rush and buy the set just to see it.
    I seem to remember reading somewhere that the 1964 film, as well as featuring some of the worst back-projection I’ve ever seen, was the first made-for-TV movie. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose.

    Actually, I think the 1964 film would be a lot more enjoyable if the ’46 one didn’t exist. But in comparison… well, I’ve watched the Siodmak film a lot, whereas I watched the Lee Marvin version once when I bought the DVD, mainly because the time I saw it on TV I missed the beginning.

    • Todd says:

      The Tarkovsky movie is interesting, if only to see these very American types being portrayed by these very Soviet actors. His casting is also intriguing, because everyone in the movie looks ten times tougher than the killers, who are a couple of baby-faced youths.

      The rear-projection for the ’64 version is, like, Elvis-movie bad, but while the movie was made for TV, TV took one look at the finished product and said “uh-oh, no way,” leaving us with a complex, amoral story shot in a very flat, clumsy, obvious way.

      • craigjclark says:

        I’ve gone ahead and borrowed this set from the library. (I’ve been meaning to for a while, but whenever I checked it was never in.) I’ve seen the 1946 version before, but never got around to Don Siegel’s remake until now.

        Coincidentally enough, a local bar was playing Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers tonight, so I decided to catch that first — and I’ll probably pick up Philip Kaufman’s remake of that tomorrow.

        • Todd says:

          Given its popularity at the box office, you should be able to pick up the Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig remake tomorrow too.

          • craigjclark says:

            Don’t think the thought didn’t cross my mind. (Strangely enough, it’s still playing at a theater about 18 miles from my house. Somehow I doubt I’ll be making that trip.)

  8. Anonymous says:

    With regards to the notion that the characters are breaking out of their cycles of failure, did anyone else get the notion that the scene after the credits showed Rusty starting to take some charge of his life? Even if it only a small improvement, he seems to be actually going through his bills and notices, where before (if the date of the Monarch’s package is any indication) he had simply ignored them as they accumulated.