The Killers, the titles of the 1946 and 1964 versions, share a similar plot in its most basic form. A young man is assassinated as he refuses to run away from his fate. Through flashbacks we learn of a once successful young man in a high risk career, who later is wounded, leaving him unable to perform. He falls in love with a woman who bamboozles him into performing a high stakes robbery while unwittingly involved in a double cross that costs him his life. Although at first this may sound like a very specific plot with little interpretation, both film adaptations are wildly different in both story and style.
When comparing and contrasting these two works it is very important to draw distinctions and similarities. One of the first things I would like to do is to name our characters. The protagonist is the man who is murdered and whom we see flashbacks portraying. The killers are the men who kill the protagonist. The love interest is the one who feigns love for and double crosses the protagonist. All of these characters have different names in the two versions of the movie, and so therefore can be hard to keep track of when discussing the stories closely.
The introduction to the 1946 version of the story stays true the story told by Hemingway. “The 1946 “Killers” uses its brilliant opening scenes to dramatize the complete Hemingway story almost verbatim, with the hit men terrorizing the diner, and the Swede (Burt Lancaster, making an impressive movie debut) awaiting death. The rest is largely invented back story, as the movie veers into the land of noir with a hard-bitten insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) researching the murdered man’s life to solve the mystery of his fatalism” (New York Times 2015). Although the introduction is certainly a concession to the brilliance of Hemingway’s writings, a short story cannot be turned into a feature length film without more material.
Characters and plot points were added to the 1946 film. The driving storytelling force in this film was an Insurance Investigator. The protagonist had taken out a life insurance policy and the recipient was surprised to be the one receiving the money. This strange occurrence led to more investigation, leading all the way up to a big heist and a double cross.
The film is classic noir, set in bold black and white with very intentional shadowy shots in order to convey ominous feelings. Noir’s use of light and shadow gives us less than subtle hints about how we ought to be feeling about a specific situation or character and this movie is no exception. The investigator is another keystone of the Noir film style, giving us an excuse to exposit the story in a way that might have otherwise made making a mystery movie more difficult. Flashbacks are another classic noir tool to help with this expository dilemma. The 1946 film lasted a little over an hour and half, but the pacing was done in such a way that I could have easily watched another forty-five minutes.
In contrast, the 1964 version has some major changes made to it. One of the first changes is to the film style. Although some people might call it “neo-noir,” largely for its content, it strays far from the cinematic styles that brought actors like Humphrey Bogart to the spotlight. One of the biggest mood changes from the old version to this version is the shift away from murder mystery into crime thriller. Because of this, much of the character development fell short of what the original had masterfully brought to life. One quote summarizes this well:
“Our recollections of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 movie The Killers are apt to center on three primary elements: Ernest Hemingway’s story, so literally brought to the screen in the film’s opening scenes; Ava Gardner, carrying the full weight of that late-forties sense of female sexuality as enveloping power, pervasively narcotic if not downright supernatural; and finally, the impression of dreamy spectral density evoked by Siodmak’s Germanic camera play and the luminosity of Woody Bredell’s black-and-white cinematography. All these elements are notably missing from Don Siegel’s remake.
The 1964 incarnation of The Killers—or, to give it its somewhat inappropriate official title, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”—appears to jettison everything that made for the suggestiveness of the original. Of Hemingway’s story only the faintest traces survive; Angie Dickinson conveys not so much the myth of the femme fatale as the early sixties ideal of very high-priced arm candy; and where Siodmak’s film conjured up nocturnal shadows and emotional depths, Siegel brings us into the harsh light of a casually violent and unrelievedly mercenary day. All the gestures and situations that the forties made poetic and mysterious are here stripped of whatever made them glisten” (Criterion.com 2015).
Too many things had undergone a “modernist” surgical extraction. In order to try and update the story with thrilling car chases and a higher stakes robbery, the dynamic of mystery is lost and character development is sacrificed. This is truly unfortunate when you have stars such as Ronald Reagan who seems to carry the movie and is sadly not even a very large part as the mob boss.
I believe that the director of the 1964 remake on the classic “The Killers” became too ambitious with his use of new technology. The ability to film quality high speed car chases was certainly the thrust of the action and thrill in the remake. Until around this time period, most scenes in movies that took place in cars looked like a child put a picture of their home road in from of a bouncing windshield. Although charming in old films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” those filming styles can distract from the hyper-realistic feel of the newer film technology. I reiterate that I believe that the director and producers of the movie were too fascinated by their ability to shoot these types of scenes that they neglected some of the script writing.
I do not want to be too bleak, as there were some good notes for the new version. One of those pieces of good news that I noticed was the increased budget and ability to make areas or situations seem more likely and realistic. In the 1964 version when our protagonist and the love interest decide to go out, they go go-karting among other things. The bigger budget for films also allowed for some large movie stars and realistic effects, such as the car roll scene.
If I had to pick a winner between these two, I would not hesitate to choose the version made in 1946. I find the film style more appealing in several ways, and in addition to that I also find that the film style fits the mood and type of script that was used. My negative feelings towards the later version are mostly held in the liberal application of Hemingway’s story and lack of any kind of character development. The Killers are not meant to be the story driving force, attempting to solve a mystery that has no bearing on their paycheck.
If this movie were made today, I could see a version being adapted by Quinten Tarantino. The 1964 version having the narrative driven by the killers themselves had a type of “Reservoir Dogs” feeling to it. Although I don’t think anything will touch the original, I do think the story and added plot of the original 1946 version of the movie are compelling and definitely entertaining by today’s standards. Certainly it was worth watching.