The following is posted as part of Furious Cinema’s Scenes of the Crime Blog-a-Thon. It originally appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Noir City.
One short story, Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which appeared in 1927, two film versions. Robert Siodmak directed the first in 1946. Don Siegel helmed the later in 1964. Both films begin with the premise of Hemingway’s 2951 word piece; two anonymous professional killers hired to murder a man, but in most other respects are completely different.
Siodmak’s movie opens, to the accompaniment of Miklos Rozsa’s brassy jazz score, with the arrival of the killers in a small town. It’s night and all we see are their silhouettes backlit by streetlights. First they check the filling station. Finding it closed, they cross the road, go into Henry’s Diner. You can tell they’re professionals, each enters a different way, cutting off any possibility of their quarry escaping.
In the space of a few minutes, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad), establish a sense of menace and disorientation as good as any classic noir cinema has to offer. After rubbishing the diner’s food and the customer’s small town ways, they tell George, the man behind the counter:
“I tell you what we’re going to do, we’re going to kill the Swede.”
“What are you going to kill him for? What did Pete Lund ever do to you?”
“He never got a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.
“He’s only going to see us once.”
One of the town’s people bursts into Swede’s room minutes later to warn him of his impending fate, and asks, “Why do they want to kill you?” Wrapped in shadow, Swede replies in a voice dripping with existential exhaustion, “I did something wrong once.” Moments later, the two killers enter and pump him full of lead.
The first image of Siegel’s version is the stony countenance of Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) reflected in the dark sunglasses of his off sider, Lee (Clu Gulager). The camera pans back to reveal the two men as they walk in the front gate of the Sage Home for the Blind.
The blind middle-aged female receptionist tells them the person they want to see, Johnny North (John Cassevetes), is busy teaching. Without hesitation, Strom leans in close to the woman and utters the line he’ll use to great effect for the remainder of the film: “I’m busy lady, we don’t have the time, where is he?” Lee looks on smiling, a man who clearly loves his work.
One of the elderly residents (real blind people were used as extras) rings the classroom where North is teaching to tell him the two men are coming. North gives the same fatalistic, resigned response as Swede. Strom and Lee barge in. They don’t even wait for the blind classmates to disperse before they shoot. The only concession they make to the fact that what they are doing might cause a scene, silencers on their pistols.
The foil used by Siodmak for Swede is noir stalwart Edmund O’Brien as Jim Riordan, an insurance investigator with Atlantic Casualty. Riordan’s curiosity is aroused when the beneficiary of the dead man’s $2500 insurance policy turns out to be a hotel room cleaner called Queenie. “The man in 1212,” is all she remembers, that and she had to talk him down from the window ledge he was about to jump out of as he shouted, “She’s gone, she’s gone.”
Riordan soon becomes obsessed. Why someone would put a hit out on a small town filling station attendant? Siodmak intertwines Riordan’s experience tracking down and interviewing Swede’s friends and associates with flashbacks of the dead man’s past.
Ole ‘Swede’ Andreson had been a professional boxer whose career was cut short by a hand injury. Running short on options to earn a living, he gets mixed up with a gangster, ‘Big Jim’ Colfax (Albert Dekker). Soon he’s dumped his wholesome girlfriend, Lily, and is swanning around town in gangster chic, working the numbers racket for Colfax.
Swede becomes infatuated with Colfax’s girl, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). He’s fallen hard. So hard, he doesn’t hesitate to take the fall for Kitty when she’s discovered holding stolen jewellery by Swede’s childhood friend, now a police lieutenant, Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who subsequently becomes a partner in Riordan’s quest.
Tracking down Swede’s prison bunk buddy, Riordan discovers that after his release Andreson immediately rebooted his underworld associations and was soon recruited by Colfax top take part in a pay roll heist at a hat factory. Colfax wants the cash. Swede is more interested in rekindling his relationship with Kitty. Their reunion is a memorable scene, the heist gang assembled in some sleazy hotel back room, the air crackling with male tension, and all Swede can focus on is Kitty lounged across the bed in a tight fitting sweater.
The night before heist, Kitty convinces Swede to double cross Colfax and take the money so he and Kitty can be together. The heist and subsequent double cross go down without a hitch. Kitty and Swede meet up in Atlantic City, where she eventually cuts out on him with all the money.
Shifting to the present, Riordan has been watching the boarding house where the Swede lived. One of the gang members from the hat factory heist turns up looking for clues about the whereabouts of the money. Riordan braces Colfax, now a successful building contractor and lies to him, saying he has evidence that implicates Kitty in the Swede’s death. Riordan’s attempt to flush her out works. She meets him in a nightclub. However in the confusion caused by a gun with the two killers who murdered Swede in the film’s opening, Kitty escapes.
Riordan and Lubinsky head to Colfax’s mansion but they are too late to prevent him and the surviving gang member from heist killing each other. Colfax admits he sent the killers to eradicate Swede to tie up loose ends on the payroll heist and dies before he can exonerate Kitty about her knowledge of his criminal activities.
While the structure of the 1964 movie is similar, a journey through a character’s life via stories and flashbacks, Siegel makes Strom, the lead killer, the one obsessed with finding the truth.
Strom and Lee are on a train departing from the town where they carried out the hit. Strom is playing with a deck of cards and drinking whisky, Lee is doing exercises with a handgrip and sipping carrot juice. Strom has got to thinking, they’ve just been paid $25,000 to whack North. More than they’ve ever been paid for a hit in their lives. Why would any one pay that much money to hit a washed up racing car driver, unless it was connected with a mail van robbery North was involved in which reportedly netted a million dollars.
“Lee, you’re 27 years old,” says Strom. “You’ve got a lot of muscle, great brains, you’re going to go a long way in this business. But me, I’m getting old. My hair’s turning grey, my feet are sore and I’m tired of running. Now if I had half a million bucks, I wouldn’t have to run.” Strom adds: “I’ve got to find out what makes a man decide not to run. Why all of a sudden he’d rather die.”
They track down North’s former mechanic, Earl (Claude Atkins), get him drunk and shake the story out of him, how North threw away a promising career after he met Sheila (Angie Dickinson) at a Florida racetrack. If Sheila’s overt come on to North is not enough to sign post her wicked intensions, the presence of Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) and his off sider Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), two obvious gangsters, in the crowd watching North’s big race, reinforces the point.
North has been so busy carousing, he’s too exhausted to race properly and crashes. He wakes up in hospital, where Earl has been keeping a bedside vigil over him. North is more upset about the fact that Sheila never visited than the news that the crash has damaged his eyes and he’ll never race again.
Next is Farmer. He tells the two killers, he and Browning found North racing stock cars and sent Sheila to recruit him as a driver for their planned heist. It’s a wonderful flashback, North in his shabby hotel room, the neon sign outside his window flashing red light on his face, trying to reconcile his duelling emotions of lust and anger towards Sheila. As in the 1946 version, the femme fatale cuts a side deal, convincing North to pull a double cross and take the money so they can be together.
It’s a trap, of course. Browning is waiting at the motel where Sheila and North plan to spend the night before fleeing the country. Browning shoots and wounds North, who manages to escape, heart broken and without a cent.
Farmer tells Strom the only other survivor of the mail heist was killed in a botched liquor store robbery. That leaves Sheila and Browning as the only people who might know where the money is. Browning kills Lee and wounds Strom who then hunts them down and kills them. The film ends with Strom dying on the carefully manicured front lawn of Brown’s house, cocking a finger pistol-like at the approaching police.
Siodmak’s film was a critical and commercial success. It’s a denser, more multi layered movie, with an at times bewildering array of viewpoints. As Riordan describes it to his boss at Atlantic Casualty, it’s a “double cross to end all double crosses”.
No doubt reflecting its made for television origins the 1964 movie has a simpler plot, but it makes up for this by the addition of another layer of criminal texture, the backstory of an ex-racing car driver, fringe criminal, unearthed by an aging hit man and his young protégé.
As was common for movies of the era, while Siodmak’s plot contains transgressive elements, bureaucratic capitalism in the form of alliance between Riordan’s insurance investigator and Lubinsky’s cop, has no trouble winning the day. Riordan’s boss even mocks him at the end, saying thanks to all his efforts the basic rate at Atlantic Casualty will drop by an estimated one tenth of a cent.
Siegel’s film is turbo charged piece of pulp, its visual harshness in stark contrast to the luxuriant, almost tactile feel of the black and white version. It has all the hallmarks of what Geoffrey O’Brien’s in his essay for the Criterion release called, “the great no-frills master of post war American film making”. O’Brien nails it when he says it’s a new form of theatre, garish, bright colours, made for TV. Unfortunately, NBC deemed it too violent to air and it was repackaged and released in movie theatres, first in the US, and only in US theatres many years later.
Audience tastes and film making technology was not the only thing that had changed in the period between the two films. America’s circumstances had changed radically. The country’s superiority was being challenged abroad and it was about to be dragged into the war in Vietnam. At home, the counter culture and civil unrest were brewing. Filming had to be stopped for several days half way through by news that John F Kennedy had been assassinated. The harsher feel is reflected in the film by everything from Strom and Lee’s casual brutality to the final bloody shoot out.
Both films were influential. The earlier version helped shape the cinematic canon known as film noir. It launched the careers of Lancaster and Gardner, as well as featuring a wonderful supporting cast, actors who would put meat on the bones of noir film for the next half decade. Edmund O’Brien, Charles McGraw (who would eventually get a lead role four years later in Richard Fleisher’s wonderful 1950 heist movie, Armored Car Robbery), Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey, as the other members of Colfax’s gang and, of course, Albert Dekker as Colfax.
The cultural significance of the 1964 film is less obvious. As the calculating, driven old school criminal in search of his money, Strom pre-figured Marvin’s role in John Boorman’s 1967 classic, Point Blank. And listen to the banter between Strom and Lee, and it’s impossible not to believe it was not an influence in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
For a ‘B’ movie, albeit a high concept one, Siegel amassed an impressive cast. Marvin, fresh from M Squad, who owned the picture from moment he opened his mouth, Dickenson, Gulager, Atkins, Cassevetes and Reagan, in his last cinema appearance before he entered politics, playing a role he reported detested.