Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers is an enticing but perplexing candidate for a feature film adaptation. It’s as spare a narrative as you’ll ever see, a simple chronicle of waiting. But a wealth of background is suggested in under three thousand words. Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film of the same name faithfully transcribes the events of Hemingway’s tale and then spends the bulk of its running time exploring the backstory of Ole Andreson, identifying all the pieces that needed to fall into place before he got gunned down in his room by a pair of hitmen. In 1964, Don Siegel made another version of The Killers, without using the specific scenario or dialogue from the short story. In fact, the later film possesses only a skeletal resemblance to the original, with the main characters fitting into the same archetypes. In each film, a large sum of money is stolen, and by the end, nobody gets it. This is film noir.
Both films seize upon what might be the most fascinating aspect of the story. Although for most of its length Hemingway focuses on the killers, waiting for their target in a diner to no avail, it’s the brief closing scene that resonates the most. Nick Adams, Hemingway’s alter ego, escapes the diner and finds Ole Andreson, lying on his bed in the dark. Adams warns him about the hitmen, but Andreson shrugs him off. He’s resigned to his fate. He says, “I’m through with all that running around.” This is the kernel that the filmmakers allow to burst into a larger narrative. Why is this man ready to die? Who put out the contract on him? The films are structured as an investigation, via flashbacks, into these questions. In the Siodmak, it’s an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) who becomes increasingly fascinated by the twisty tale of Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster). In the Siegel, it’s the killers themselves (played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) who start asking questions.
All Hemingway offers as explanation for Andreson’s death is that he was “mixed up in something” and “double-crossed somebody.” The only biography provided is that he “had been a heavyweight prize-fighter.” Adding these pieces of evidence together, the simplest explanation, gleaned from a cursory knowledge of pulp fiction (and Pulp Fiction), might be that he threw a fight. The screenwriters don’t go that route, however. Andreson’s career as a boxer (or, in the remake, as an auto racer — the character rechristened Johnny North and played by John Cassavetes) is merely a prologue, the glorious prime of the man’s life abruptly ended by an injury. That the innocent characters in the story only know him as a boxer points up the emptiness of everything that followed. It’s not as simple as throwing a fight, but it isn’t very complicated either: Andreson/North falls in with a group of thieves planning a heist. They’re successful, but jealousy and distrust make everything fall apart in the aftermath. A double-crossing dame is the sticking point.
Structurally, the films both rely on the same basic technique, inspired by Citizen Kane. The main character dies at the beginning, and the narrative is filled in by flashbacks representing the memories of different characters who knew him. These fragments are plot-oriented as opposed to the more character-oriented jumble in Kane. The multiplicity of perspectives mostly works to give the films momentum. Everything is solved in a linear fashion. Unlike the faceless Thompson in Kane, the investigators in these films are active participants in the story. The insurance man in Siodmak’s film pursues the case over the objections of his boss, nominally hoping to save his company some money but really just trying to solve a mystery for its own sake. Siegel’s hitmen operate under an antihero’s code of ethics, doing their job and then punishing those who hired them.
Emblematic of the times in which they were made, the films take different aesthetic approaches. The nocturnal world of the 1946 film is shot through with smoke and shadows, nightclub shootouts, boxing ring anguish, prison cell ruminations. German Expressionism is given a subtle nod in a pair of shots that cleverly employ canted angles. As Andreson sits in the corner of the ring, a low-angle shot makes the ropes appear to rise up diagonally to meet him. Later, at a nightclub, a shot of a wall-length mirror that’s tilted forward at its top causes the room to appear skewed. Siegel, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on any visual subterfuge. When he wants a crooked angle, he just tilts the camera to watch the hitmen walking down a hall as they descend upon their prey. The 1964 film is in garish color, and a good deal more blood is spilled in Siegel’s brutal update of the story. There’s the hint of a common cultural theme of the 1960s, the distrust of authority, in the fact that the thieves disguise themselves as police officers. In the Siodmak film, the thieves dress like factory workers. Their vengeance is against the Great Depression, not “The Man.”
The performances in the 1946 film are marked by silky insinuation. Lancaster and Ava Gardner both broke through to stardom on the strength of their doomed chemistry here. William Conrad and Charles McGraw perfectly embodied the cold sardonic spite of Hemingway’s killers, and although the characters reappear later in the film, the screenwriters wisely didn’t give them any more lines after the diner scene. Jack Lambert, as one of the thieves, had the right kind of harsh, soulless mien for the milieu, and low-angle lighting does wonders with him. For the 1964 film, the performances have a harsher edge. Marvin was at the height of his powers, but Gulager nearly steals the show from him with his more eccentric take on an assassin’s psychopathy. Angie Dickinson, in the Gardner role, doesn’t play a willful femme fatale so much as just a mercenary social climber. She’s not very memorable, and the film doesn’t supply any showstopping details like the slit of light across Gardner’s eyes in her first scene or the kittenish pose on the bed when the heist is planned. Then, of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, in his final film role, taking advantage of the rare chance to play a villain, giving the pretentious criminal he plays a kind of cold menace. The assortment of actors in the 1964 film is undeniably stranger than in the original, and it’s a marvelous treat to see them bounce off each other.
Comparing these films not only with each other but with the source material, it’s easy to wonder if Hemingway gets lost a little bit with the additions. The short story is all about the remorseless grasp of fate, whereas the films take on a common noir theme: a man flushing his own life down the toilet in service to a hopeless dream. These are great stories, to be sure; it’s just that they seem oddly grafted onto Hemingway’s template. They do have their affinities, though. The romantic reverence for dangerous sports is entirely appropriate. And the central event is handled perfectly in both movies, with the main character looking death squarely in the face and not flinching. That by itself says everything.