The Killers Times Three

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Nobody will be surprised to learn that I really love the Criterion Collection. I’ve had some people try to tell me they’re not all that, but this gets the same response as telling your great-aunt Emily June that Obama isn’t a Muslim: a few seconds of blinking uncomprehension, then renewed screeching. Yes, I am aware they put out Armageddon and The Rock. I am also aware that angel investors have to be rewarded.

176_box_348x490_originalA few months back, when visiting my parents, I discovered that someone had offloaded a bunch of older Criterion DVDs at the local Half-Price Books. That day I could afford only one, even at half price. When we returned a few months later for Christmas, I had made sure to bring more money, and this time I managed six. And one was a really fun concept package containing three versions of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”.

For those of you who did not have the privilege of being English majors, “The Killers” is considered to be a classic of American literature. Here’s a link to a PDF of the story as it originally appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. Go ahead, read it, it’s short. I’ll wait. (One of the extras on the Criterion set is Stacy Keach reading the story and doing a bang-up job. It only takes 17 minutes.)

So anyway, for the tl;dr crowd (and I pity you), it’s the story of a small town diner terrorized by the title characters, two gangster types who are in town to “kill the Swede”, who always comes in at 6:00 to eat dinner. When the Swede doesn’t show, the two killers leave – leaving the diner’s occupants alive, to their relief – and one of them – Hemingway’s guy, Nick Adams, runs to tell the Swede – and the Swede refuses to escape or call the cops, saying it would be no use.

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

One of the three versions of the story in the Criterion set was made in 1956, and it’s the exam film of several students at the Soviet Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, one of whom was Andrei Tarkovsky, later the director of movies like Solaris and Andrei Rublev. It is the most literal version of the three, basically translating the short story directly onto film. It’s also only 19 minutes long. It’s worth seeking out just for that; there are a couple of minor film school flubs, but it’s remarkably assured filmmaking, otherwise.

The-Killers-PosterOur first movie chronologically, however, is the 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak. It starts with the Hemingway story, practically verbatim, though this time when the killers leave and Nick goes to the Swede – whose name is Ole Anderson, just in case you didn’t read the story – in his boarding house room, it’s barely ahead of the killers. We find out that the Swede is also Burt Lancaster (in his film debut!). He still refuses to run, because he’s tired of running, and “I did something bad.” So the killers bust in and kill him.

Yep, we’re only 19 minutes into a 105 minute movie.

So we leave Hemingway behind and meet Joe Reardon (Edmond O’Brien, increasingly a go-to guy for film noir post-WWII), ace insurance investigator. It seems the Swede had a life insurance policy through the gas station where he worked, and Joe sets out to find why someone would want to employ overkill methods on a grease monkey.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

The rest of the movie plays out like a noir version of Citizen Kane as Reardon slowly puts together various people’s testimonies to fill out Anderson’s life: a prize-fighter with a career-ending injury, he falls in with the wrong people, falling for in the case of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, who plays a poison dame like you wouldn’t believe). Anderson even takes a rap for her, serving three years in the pen. When he gets out, Collins’ once and present sugar daddy, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker, six years removed from Doctor Cyclops) recruits Anderson for a big job that will net them a quarter of a million dollars.

Now Reardon is really interested, as that job – stealing the payroll of that most necessary of noir establishments, a hat factory – was covered by his company. Anderson shows up after the robbery and hijacks all the dough and escapes, not being seen again until Big Jim spots him at that gas station (and after last week’s movie, Out of the Past, I now know not to work at a gas station if I’m hiding from a crime boss). There are too many things that don’t add up for Reardon, and he knows that if he’s going to solve this case, and find that money for his insurance company. he’s going to have to find Kitty Collins. I would say, “even if it kills him,” but that’s a pretty safe bet.maxresdefault

vlcsnap-2192371The 1946 Killers is pretty good noir, full of interesting characters and guys with suspenders carrying pistols and lit cigarettes. That opening sequence (remember, back when we were still doing Hemingway?) is a little masterpiece of noir camerawork and lighting, our two killers walking in and out of pools of darkness, finally splitting up and approaching opposite ends of the well-lit diner, like an Edward Hopper painting gone wrong, dark and violent.

the-killers-1964-movie-posterCompare this to the last version in the collection, made in 1964 by Don Siegel. Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted Siegel to direct the ’46 version but the studio nixed the then-fledgling director. Siegel now steadfastly refused to do a remake, and set out to make a movie as markedly different from the ’46 version as possible, and proceeded to filing off the serial numbers.

The movie, as shot, was to be titled Johnny North. North is the Anderson character, played by John Cassavetes. The killers are Lee Marvin and Clu Gulagher. They track North to a school for the blind, where he’s teaching auto mechanics to a group of blind men. Although warned the two men are coming, North simply stands there and lets them shoot him down, and that – along with the fact that somebody paid them more than twice their usual fee to kill a shop teacher – really bothers Marvin.

assassinsSo our two killers take the place of the insurance investigator in the earlier film, and find out North was a pretty good race driver who fell in with a sports groupie, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, whose career keeps intersecting my interests). She’s also the property of a shady character named Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, in his last movie, and playing a bad guy, which he hated).

imagesNorth has a crash that breaks his leg and screws up his vision, ending his racing career. Sheila later finds him working at a drag strip, and Jack needs a good driver for a big job. There are no more hat factories, so they are going to waylay a mail truck that has the weekend’s receipts from “all those resorts on the coast.” All goes according to Reagan’s evil plans, until Johnny slugs him and takes off with the loot.

As you can guess, now the killers have to find this Sheila dame and… well, let’s just say it doesn’t have quite the happy, tidy ending of its 1946 predecessor (although there are no loose ends). And they still wound up calling it Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, leading to a lot of critical drubbing, as this is a homeopathic version of the Hemingway story: there’s a molecule or two of the story, floating around in there, somewhere.

28The title change likely came about because, while it was being shot, it was going to be the first two-hour made for TV movie. When it was judged too violent and too amoral for TV, it was released theatrically, and the name change was likely thought more marketable. The TV origins do work against it, I feel. It feels too brightly lit, and several of the dialogue scenes drag. It has an amazing cast though; I haven’t mentioned Claude Akins as Johnny’s old mechanic, or Norman Fell as Jack’s stooge.

John Cassavetes acted in other peoples’ movies to make money to make his own. That’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood, but the thing about Cassavetes was he always gave value for the dollar. He always gave more in his roles than was necessary.

"HERE'S one for the Gipper!"

“HERE’S one for the Gipper!”

He was damned good, is what I’m saying.

And in The Killers, he gets to slug Ronald Reagan. I’m good with that.

The Killers box set on Amazon

After Ebert: More Movies

If there is one thing I have learned about doing movie-watching challenges – these crop up on the Letterboxd social site – it’s that a month of watching a movie a night and then writing it up causes my mental gears to start smoking alarmingly as the month comes to an end, and I wind up taking a break. This one was lengthier than the last, I admit. I was engaging my brain in other activities, like reading (Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine) and giving Facebook casual gaming another go. The gaming was numbing, the reading wasn’t: perfect combo.

But I did still watch the occasional movie. “Occasional” has ballooned to an unwieldy number, so it’s time to start cleaning out that bin.

shootistThe Shootist was on The List, and it seemed a good cornerstone to merge the quality of the Ebert Great Movies with the stream of movies I usually watch: good quality intersecting with pop culture. The Shootist came out in 1976, the year I entered college, when movie watching took a back seat to education and mere survival. I recall I had a shot at seeing it at the student cinema for 50 cents or a dollar, but I probably had rehearsal that night. Such is the life of a theater arts major. So I went for decades without seeing it.

The Shootist features John Wayne as J.B. Books, an aging gunslinger who moseys into town at the cusp of the 20th century, visiting an old doctor friend to get a second opinion, and the news isn’t good. Books has advanced prostate cancer (apparently distressingly common among men who rode horses all day long), and is given less than a month to live. Books checks into a nearby boarding house and sets to preparing to die, knowing that a man of his notoriety will not be allowed an anonymous death. He grows close to the widow running the boarding house (Lauren Bacall) and her troublesome son (Ron Howard). He finally elects to not die a prolonged, painful death, but sets to cleaning out some accounts with a final, arranged four-way gunfight.

1360084977_2Based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel of the same name, The Shootist was nearly not as awesome a movie as it eventually became. During pre-production, it was generally felt that John Wayne was the logical choice to star, but was too ill to actually make the movie. He had been cancer-free since 1969 – at the cost of a lung and several ribs – but his 70th birthday was staring him in the face, and time takes its toll, no matter the spirit of the man. George C. Scott was preparing to play the role, and he would have been predictably amazing, but when the Duke caught wind of the project – well, everything just fell in line. I love Scott, but Wayne brings with him the weight of an entire career, as we see flashbacks of a younger Wayne in older movies. The degree to which this movie is enriched by that true fictional past cannot be underestimated.

Wayne’s casting had the effect of attracting a phenomenal cast – we’ve already mentioned Lauren Bacall, but also Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, and Hugh O’Brian, who reportedly offered to do the movie for free just so he could be in it. This high caliber of personnel also extends to the other side of the camera, including absolutely the best director for the project, Don Siegel. Siegel was never a terribly flashy director but he was always a rock solid, engaging storyteller, the perfect choice for a character-driven Western.

So yeah, I liked it. Kind of surprised it wasn’t on Ebert’s list; it’s rare to see such a perfect coda to an actor’s career. Maybe he just hadn’t gotten around to writing it up.

I watched Star Trek Into Darkness, as required by Nerd Law. I was entertained while it was running, but had some burning questions afterward. That link takes you to those questions on another site, sort of the ultimate spoiler space.

215px-RussianarkEarlier in the year, I had taken in Mark Cousins’ multi-part Story of Film on Netflix, and one of the movies that was excerpted, which I had heard only vague things about and was immediately inspired to put on the watchlist was Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Ark follows a strangely timelost narrator (our subjective camera) and a disagreeable French diplomat from the 19th century, as they wander about the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and meet historical figures like Catherine the Great and Czar Nicholas (and Alexandra and a young Anastasia) as well as some contemporary Russians. Even the constantly bitching Frenchman is an historic figure, the Marquis de Custine. There are some astonishing setpieces and astounding costumes on display.

What makes the entire thing remarkable is that it is shot as one take – 96 minutes long! – as the Steadicam glides through its various vignettes. That is a feat which required months of rehearsal, but sadly only pays off occasionally. Much of the time it seems like a taped museum tour (but what a museum!), though the final half-hour, recreating a grand ball just before the Bolshevik revolution, is simply incredible, especially when the camera leaves with the richly costumed partygoers and goes down a massive staircase, finding itself confronted by hundreds of people in perfect period costume. It is jaw-dropping, and well worth the effort to see.

Pretty sure Tillman Buttner, the DP who was operating the Steadicam, and his poor boom operator were exhausted afterwards. Especially since I recall reading they did two takes.

wreckit_ralph_ver16_xlgOne weekend I went to pal Dave’s because he had not yet seen Django Unchained and that needed to be remedied. But we also caught up on Wreck-It Ralph – yes, it was a sublime, bizarre double feature – and I loved it unreservedly. I’m not sure I would have loved it as much if I hadn’t been able to identify all the Roger Rabbit-style video game cameos, but that becomes a minor cavil when you consider the well-constructed story, full of heart and great characters. Disney has learned well from Pixar, and Wreck-It Ralph is the result.

I went back to The List for the next weekend and Around the World in 80 Days, not the Disney-fied 2004 Jackie Chan vehicle but the 1956 David Niven/Cantinflas road show monster. It’s a movie of parts rather than a whole, which rather echoes Jules Verne’s adventure novel, which was also episodic as hell. In case you don’t have a rudimentary education: David Niven is Phileas Fogg, a wealthy punctilious Englishman who makes a wager at his gentlemen’s club that he can, as the Daily Telegraph claims, travel around the world in a mere 80 days. He sets out on this the same day with his new valet, Passpartout (Cantinfas) and a carpet bag full of money. Adventure ensues.

around_the_world_in_eighty_days_ver2Around the World was largely conceived as a delivery vehicle for producer Michael Todd’s Todd-AO Vision, a process that delivered Cinerama-width spectacle while using only one camera (the previous year’s Oklahoma! was the process’ debut).  The movie is rife with splendid sunsets and some instances of things-rushing-at-the-camera that bring to mind the roller coaster in This Is Cinerama, and some grand landscapes… though spoilsport literalists will point out that most of the movie was shot on backlots, not on location around the world, as the producer would prefer us to think.

This is the movie that coined the term “cameo role”, and there are a ton of them, especially once the movie hits San Francisco, the center of a cluster of them: Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine and Buster Keaton in the space of ten minutes. But Todd’s real coup was Cantinflas, at the time the wealthiest, most beloved actor in Mexico. Known as the Mexican Chaplin, the comedian had never made an English language movie, his success was such that he probably didn’t feel the need – yet somehow Todd prevailed upon him.

around_the_world_in_80_days_11Watching Around The World unfold, you start suspecting how Todd managed it; though Fogg is supposedly the hero, all the movie’s action devolves onto Passpartout. There is an entire segment in Spain that does not occur in the novel, involving Passpartout in a bullfight. That is strictly there for Cantinflas, who had no small amount of bullfighting experience himself. Passpartout is the agent for change throughout the movie, while Niven is generally playing whist or dallying with young Shirley MacLaine, oddly cast as an Indian princess. Cantinflas did finally attempt another English language movie in 1960, Pepe, which sadly flopped at the box office, despite having almost as many star cameos as Around the World.

I’ll just mention that the scene between Cantinflas and Red Skelton in San Francisco was obviously cut short, which is a shame. Two great comic talents playing off each other, and it could have gone on much longer.

Around the World in 80 Days is interesting primarily as a relic of that bygone practice, the Road Show Engagement. Its value as entertainment is going to depend on the level of your yearning for such fare, gently satiric (S.J. Perelman gets a screenwriting credit), with adventure scenes that are rarely as pulse-pounding as they seem to wish to be.

Though I was left with a yearning to see The Great Race again… Hm.

Okay, one more, and we will be halfway done.

600full-lady-terminator-posterLady Terminator has been in my possession for ages, and I finally put it on The List to force the issue of seeing it. This is an Indonesian movie by H. Tjut Djalil, the director of Mystics in Bali, perhaps the finest penanggalan movie ever made.  That was in 81, by 1989 Djalil had a larger budget, better equipment, and the ability to show naked breasts. These are all ingredients for a grindhouse hit.

As with Mystics, Djalil capitalizes on an Indonesian legend, the South Sea Queen, who lives in a palace at the bottom of the ocean and keeps killing her male consorts during sex. Finally, one heroic fellow satisfies her, but literally pulls a snake out of her lady zone, which she screeches is her “inner essence”. The snake turns into a dagger, and when our curiously anglo fellow declares he will not give it back, and her murdering days are over, the Queen proclaims she will avenge herself on his great-granddaughter, and vanishes in a puff of smoke.

ladyterminatorIn the present day, a beautiful anthropologist gets too nosey while scuba diving and gets possessed by the Queen, turning her into an unkillable leather-clad aerobics instructor with a taste for automatic weapons and, yes, killing guys during sex, apparently by biting off guys’ junk with her hoohah. (The lady is serious about her kegels).

Lady Terminator is serious about its title, reproducing two and a half scenes from The Terminator, even that eyeball surgery scene, although it makes little to no sense. LT is determined to kill the granddaughter, a rising pop star, and she has no time-traveling soldier to protect her, so she has to make do with the only Caucasian cop on the Indonesian police force. I’m reduced to bullet points here to detail the awesomeness:

  1. Indonesian security guards carry Uzi pistols.
  2. We establish early on that bullets have literally no effect on LT, yet the cops will continue to use them for the next hour or so.
  3. Due to this, by the end of the movie, our Caucasian is apparently the only cop left alive in the entire country.
  4. If you’re the Caucasian’s Rambo-esque American pals, called in to help on short notice, you can bring all sorts of ordnance into the country, no problem.
  5. Yes, the granddaughter has the dagger, and could have saved hundreds of lives by just stabbing the bitch, but then we wouldn’t have a movie.

ladyterminator2Indonesian movies have a very high fun content. There is just a whole lot of determination to simply entertain, and if the action gets repetitious, it makes the completely over-the-top climax even more welcome. This is eventually going to make it as a Crapfest entry, and I don’t know what higher accolade I can give it.