Criterion upgrades one of my favourite DVD editions of theirs, Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which features both the 1946 version directed by Robert Siodmak, and the 1964 version directed by Don Siegel. Both are presented in their original aspect ratios of about 1.33:1 and share the same dual-layer disc. The ’46 version is taken from a 2K scan of a 35mm fine-grain master positive, while the ’64 version comes from a 2K scan of the 35mm interpositive.
I found myself disappointingly underwhelmed, the 1946 version especially. In both cases it looks like Criterion is using newer transfers as they don’t look a thing like what was found on the original DVD release, with the 1964 version looking very similar to what was found on the Arrow edition released in the UK (I haven’t yet seen Arrow’s release of the 1946 version, so I cannot comment on that). For the 1964 “remake” colours are easily its strongest aspect and the biggest improvement over the DVD. The DVD looked a bit washed but the Blu-ray’s colours are far richer, especially Reagan’s maroon jacket and the various blues and reds that pop up. The image is sharp and detailed and textures are rendered adequately. Black levels are fairly decent, though some crushing occurs in darker scenes. Film grain is present and is nicely rendered, but there are moments (more than likely making use of stock 16mm footage) where grain gets substantially heavier, and the rendering of these moments aren’t as strong as the grain looks a bit blocky.
In both cases the prints are far cleaner than their DVD counterparts: the ’64 version has some minor damage here and there while the ’46 version presents more faint scratches and marks, but again is much cleaner than the old DVD. In all both versions are better and the new transfers here both offer noticeable improvements, but I can’t help but feel that maybe they could have been better. 1946: 7/10 | 1964: 8/10 | Overall: 7/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s original 2-disc DVD edition for the various adaptations of The Killers was one of my favourites from the company, loaded with some great material on the making of both films and offering some strong insights into the process of adapting for film (as well as making remakes). Disappointingly Criterion hasn’t ported everything over from that DVD, dropping a number of interesting material.
The previous DVD presented each film on its own disc with its own set of supplements. Criterion loads everything on one single Blu-ray disc, dividing the two films and their supplements at the menu level: when you first pop in the disc you must first select which version of The Killers you want to view, and from there you then get the sub menu for the supplements.
The 1946 version starts with an interview with film historian Stuart Kaminsky, who talks about film noir, how the term was coined (possibly) and what makes a film “noir” (not necessarily a genre, more a style more than likely owed to German directors like Siodmak) and then talks about both versions of The Killers. One thing that always intrigued me was how Don Siegel was first considered as director for Lancaster/Gardner version, but they were unable to attain him because of his contract with Warner Bros. The 18-minute interview jumps around but offers a decent amount of insight into both films, the original story, and the style of film noir.
A sub section called “Source and Adaptations” offers three other features. The first is Hemingway's Short Story, an audio-only supplement featuring actor Stacy Keach reading the story (it comes from an audiobook release of Hemingway’s short stories). I probably would have preferred a booklet featuring the story (though that was probably prohibitive cost wise) but getting it in some fashion is certainly welcome. What’s surprising is how close Siodmak’s opening matches it (Siegel’s remake comes nowhere near, other than the basic premise), at least in terms of dialogue.
Criterion then includes a radio adaptation from the Screen Director’s Playhouse, performed June 5th, 1948, and featuring Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Tony Barrett, and William Conrad. It’s an adaptation of the Siodmak film, jumping right in to when Nick goes to tell the Swede (again played by Lancaster) that two killers are after him. We then get first person narration from a police detective investigating why the man simply let the two killers get him. The adaptation then quickly moves through the key plot points of the film, compressing the 102-minute film into less than 30-minutes. In terms of radio adaptations it’s not one of the stronger ones I’ve come across but it’s still a fascinating historical document.
We then get what was one of the previous set’s best features, Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of The Killers, a student film made in 1956. The film was codirected with two other students (Alexander Gordon and Marika Beiku) but Tarkovsky directed the bulk of it, specifically the two sections that take place in the diner. Despite some unfortunate dated elements (an actor in blackface for example) it’s a strong adaptation of the story, creating some great mood and atmosphere, despite the fact the killers sort of look like they’re wearing their fathers’ clothes.
Though the print is in very rough condition (it’s littered with scratches, marks, stains, frame jumps, and more, plus the audio is scratchy with plenty of pops) many will be pleased to know it gets a new high-def presentation here, in 1080p/24hz, that looks to be more than just an upscale: detail is improved and it has a more filmic quality to it. Like the previous DVD edition this is the crown jewel of this edition.
This feature is also the only one to carry over its respective text notes from the DVD, giving more details about the short film.
Criterion then carries a collection of Siodmak’s trailer, which includes Son of Dracula, Cobra Woman, The Killers, Cry of the City, and Criss Cross. In total they run about 10-minutes.
The 1964 version sort of gets the shaft in terms of supplements (similar to the DVD) though does provide a great interview with actor Clu Gulager who reflects on the production, working with Don Siegel, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and the other actors for 19-minutes. Filmed by his sons John and Tom (and edited together rather annoyingly) it’s probably one of the stronger features to be found in this release as a whole. Gulager talks about some of his hesitations (particularly some of the other actors who, he shamefully admits, he thought were lesser performers initially) and then his complete admiration for Marvin and Siegel. He recounts a few humourous anecdotes from the set (Marvin told him that Dickinson couldn’t act so Gulager ended up being a bit rougher with her, only to realize during the scene in question that Marvin, who had worked with Dickinson before, had pulled one on him), how the makers were able to convince Reagan to play the villain (the only bad guy role in his career), and then talks a bit about the film being pulled from television (though not before having his performance completely cut out apparently, in hopes of making the film less violent for TV) and then released theatrically. It’s a very personal interview with the actor and a solid addition to the set.
Don Siegel on The Killers is another audio-only feature with Hampton Fancher reading an excerpt from Siegel’s autobiography A Siegel Film. This excerpt (which actually appears in the booklet of Arrow’s Blu-ray edition) goes over in incredible detail (and I really mean “incredible detail”) the film’s production, from being initially handed the project, casting, shooting the race scenes, and so on. It’s a very through supplement, making up substantially for the lack of much else about the film. (This does appear to be the same recording found on the DVD edition, though interestingly the DVD credits the narration to actor Wolf Wolverton. I thought it possible Fancher and Wolverton were the same person but a Google search doesn’t reveal this, so I’m admittedly unsure.)
The disc then concludes with the original trailer for the film, which amusingly really pushes the limited racing aspect to the film.
Like the DVD edition this release also features two inserts, one for each film. The insert for the 1946 version features a short essay by Jonathan Lethem going over the film’s impact in film noir, as well as how it works as an adaptation. The second insert, for the 1964 version, features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that goes over its differences from the original while admiring Siegel’s direction and sense for casting.
Arrow had a number of unique features on their respective releases for the films, though sadly they’re missing here. Also lacking is the alternate widescreen presentation for the 1964 version.
But this release doesn’t have the same impact for me that the original DVD did. Criterion has dropped a number of galleries and text features, a common occurrence with Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrades. Production galleries are gone, as are a number of bios for the cast and crew. Also missing are Paul Schrader’s notes on film noir and then, one of my favourite features on the DVD, a selection of memos and letters involving the 1964 version, including reactions to some of the bad reviews the film was getting, and various issues that came up during production. It may not seem like a lot but these text features really offered a lot to the previous edition and I do miss them here.
Despite those omissions the supplements are still fairly strong, the addition of the Tarkovsky short making the release a must on its own. 8/10