With his “Iceberg Theory” laying the foundation for every college writing workshop, and his terse, conjunction-laden prose presenting a stark contrast to the verbosity favored by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway remains one of the most influential writers to ever use the English language, as well as one of the most polarizing. He wrote stories for and about men: The tenacity, and toxicity, of modern masculinity pervades his work the way whiskey laced his veins. You can taste it—that bitter flavor not unlike the amaretto sting of arsenic—in every story and novel; his depiction of masculinity, both positively and negatively, remains hotly contested among the kind of people who still debate literature.
The idea of masculinity is presented, and skewered, in vastly different ways in the three screen adaptations of Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” included on Criterion’s gorgeous new Blu-ray (two advertised, one an extra…more on that later). Perhaps his most-studied story behind only “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Killers” depicts, with the bare minimum of aesthetic and character details, a pair of cocky hit men who show up to a diner, where they plan on waiting for a man known as the Swede to show up so they can plug him. Why? Who knows? Doesn’t matter.
Starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, Robert Siodmak’s classic 1946 adaptation shrouds itself in the nocturnal air of noir. It tells the entirety of Hemingway’s story in eight minutes, racing through the narrative (accompanied by Miklós Rósza’s fantastic, super-tense score) before it finally settles down, taking its time to give us the shards of the broken plot. Lancaster plays the Swede, a boxer forced into retirement by a broken hand who subsequently gets cajoled into dirty dealings by a dame (of course). When we meet the Swede, he lies despondent on a ratty old mattress, waiting for the killers to arrive. And when they do arrive, he neither runs nor puts up a fight: He takes eight slugs in the torso and drops dead.
Lancaster can’t hide his emotions. His face reflects the joy and turmoil lingering just behind those eyes. He’s almost delicate, and at one point shows a disdain for punching women (hey, in 1946 that was a big deal), and there’s an innocence about him; by showing us the Swede as a husk of a man before flashing back to happier days, Siodmak makes the juxtaposition between the Swede pre- and post-heartbreak more upsetting. Expounding on the threadbare story, the film turns the Swede into a sensitive, love-afflicted boxer (in the story Hemingway never says definitively what, exactly, the Swede did or does), using his battered and bruised face as a metaphor for post-World War II life.
Twenty years later, Don Siegel was tapped to adapt the story into a made-for-TV movie. But the resulting picture, deemed too violent for TV, ended up on the big screen, however briefly. There’s no sensitivity here: This version’s inhabited solely by manly men who settle things with guns, fists, and machinery. John Cassavetes plays the Swede here, who isn’t a Swede anymore (his name’s Johnny North, so American), a race-car driver who, as usual, falls for the wrong girl. Like Lancaster, he gets burned by two hit men, and also like Lancaster, he just takes it. Whereas Siodmak uses an insurance salesman to investigate and, by proxy, tell us the story, a kind of play on Double Indemnity, Siegel’s film turns the hit men, played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, into the narrators. They’re a pair of unfathomably mean mothers who catch wind of a possible million-dollar haul, and they embark on their own investigation. But Marvin’s killer, called Charlie, has another motivation for going on the blood-splashed jaunt: In all his years of killing guys, he’s never seen anyone just stand there while they draw their guns. They always run. The big guy gets curious, though don’t expect any more character details than that. These killers pretty much exist solely to pummel people and bark out lines so hardboiled you could cut ’em up and serve ’em in a Cobb salad (not that men eat salad).
Despite the film’s violent reputation, Siegel’s film mostly lacks on-screen bloodshed. The hit that engenders the story looks like a child’s recreation of a better scene from a real movie, as Marvin and Gulager point their toy guns at Cassavetes, who falls over without a single wound. Trading in the smoke-suffused back rooms of the previous film for sunny racetracks and vibrant colors, it feels dragged out and stiff even at only 90 minutes, as diluted as a drink you sip for too long before the ice starts to melt. (Marvin, however, is mesmerizing as always, even as he dangles Angie Dickinson out a window.) The film remains fascinating for its myriad ties to Marvin’s subsequent performance in Point Blank (1967), one of the most audacious films ever backed by an American studio; and for the bizarre presence of Ronald Reagan, playing the film’s bad guy. In a now-notorious scene (which the eventual President of the United States later decried), he smacks Dickinson in the face, the only time he’s ever convincing in the whole movie. Still, seeing Lee Marvin tell Ronald Reagan to shut up is rewarding enough.
But the best film of the new Blu-ray set isn’t even featured on the main menu. It lurks in the bowels of the special features: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 20-minute iteration of The Killers, which remains, thus far, the best, most existential cinematic encapsulation of what made Hemingway a legend. That a Russian filmmaker transcribed the quintessential American author of the first half of the 20th century better than any American is either a testament to Hemingway’s universal appeal, or, far more likely, to Tarkovsky’s genius. With his careful compositions capturing all the vital details without drawing obvious attention to anything, the Russian filmmaker conjures up the moribund sorrow of Hemingway’s story. Stoic and pensive, it has an undeniable tension percolating just beneath the monochrome surface that the two feature-length films lack. The clock lingers behind the shopkeeper’s head like a halo, while the world beyond the glazed-over windows might as well be a Nietzschean abyss. The claustrophobic diner and the amateur actors (including Tarkovsky and co-director Alexander Gordon) chewing over Hemingway’s unnaturally stilted dialogue like so much stale tobacco lend the film the air of a dream deferred. Whereas Marvin’s hit man is basically a six-foot fist, the two killers here, neither of whom inflects (or acts) much, are genuinely menacing. They could be apparitions from another realm come to collect a bill—and they do collect.
The restoration of Siodmak’s film looks and sounds absolutely lovely. The picture is crisp, the images Citizen Kane-deep, and the blacks vividly inky. The camerawork and lighting are all-around ace, from the killers’ shadows stretching across the asphalt to the film’s standout sequence, a long crane shot that follows a heist from the second-story window of a building to a parking-lot shoot-out below. Siegel’s film looks good, too—especially for a movie originally intended for TV—with all the bold colors you’d expect from Criterion’s 4K treatment. That said, I can’t help but wonder if the weird red hue on everyone’s skin is sunburn or a weird color transfer.
The extras are mostly carried over from the previous DVD version. Some interviews, an audio recording of Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s story, a Screen Director’s Playhouse radio adaptation starring Burt Lancaster, and a, uh, killer essay by the great Jonathan Lethem, one of the best non-critic critics.