The Killers Times Three

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

The First Crap of Spring

So there were a bunch of us who had Good Friday off, for a variety of reasons. Enough of us – back in February, we did it with only four people, and frankly, it has been done with three. At any rate, it was time for an impromptu Crapfest.

We were pretty determined to take it easy, and the first hour – Rick and I arrived at Casa Dave at 3:00 – was spent on the patio, watching Dave grill and smoke these Flintstone-style brontosaurus ribs he had hand-rubbed the day before. Alan made a surprise appearance, having been given the day off at the last minute, and when Paul arrived – his first Crapfest in a while – we began.

How Dave’s ribs tasted: artist’s representation

Well, first, we had some of those ribs. Let me say I am not a great fan of pork ribs, but Dave’s alchemy had wrought magical changes in this meat. The very last scene in Lynch’s Eraserhead, where Henry embraces the Girl in the Radiator in heaven, all white light and one sustained, heavenly note? That was the first bite into these ribs. And every subsequent bite thereafter.

Then we began.

At one of those Crapfests, in the faraway land of 2011, while we were watching 70s variety TV and watching Dave scream with horror, Paul had brought up the subject of Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, an ABC special done in the In Concert time slot. Basically, it’s Alice’s then-current album, Welcome to My Nightmare, done in long video form… in 1975. Well, I dug up a copy – it had ever only been released on VHS – and here is Vincent Price making damned sure the producers got their money’s worth:

(Or rather we would if the YouTube version of Scrooge hadn’t scoured any excerpt from that special off the Innernets. Somebody give me lots of money so I can start hosting videos on my site.)

Shorn of commercials, The Nightmare is only an hour long, and frankly, even then, it comes close to wearing out its welcome (and mind you, this is an Alice Cooper fan talking here). But just when it reaches that point, it ends, so the worst thing that can be said about it is I have been walking around with Alice Cooper music stuck in my head ever since. Not such a bad thing. (again – Alice Cooper fan)

But then, as Dave arose to change discs after the end credits rolled, something happened… somebody had put something on the disc after Alice Cooper. Something horrible. Who could have done such a thing?


Yes, it was the full infomercial for Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs, shot with two cameras, a simple video switcher and probably two hours in a studio with three or maybe four interpretive dancers – we kept losing track. Mr. Fisher is still around, and still selling music – give him a shot.

You know, I was expecting the “stop” button to be hit after a couple of minutes, the joke told. But no, you guys surprised me: you stuck it out through the entire zodiac. Respect.

I also suspect that the desire to go through the whole thing was fueled by Dave’s heavy sighs and eye-rollings. And also when his wife, Ann got home and Dave was heard telling her, “No, we are not running it back so you can hear your sign!”

After that… well, the whole thing was so impromptu, we hadn’t really established a battle order. I had brought a stack of DVDs, and Dave had brutally gone through it and arranged them in order of *harrumph* quality (and totally dissed my copy of Wicked World, autographed by Barry “Things” Gillis!). When it was commanded we watch something with “lots of kicking”, it was time for The Magic Blade. Here, have a window-boxed, spoileriffic trailer:

Ti Lung plays Fu Hung-hsieh, a complete badass who may not have been based on The Man With No Name, but he is certainly wearing the only poncho in the World of Martial Arts. He also carries a remarkable custom sword that is a combination of a machete and a tonfa. If that isn’t enough for you, he’s come back to fight Lo Lieh’s character, Yen Nan-fei, a year after their first duel; the rematch gets postponed when somebody tries to kill Yen repeatedly, and Fu as well. As ever, somebody is trying to take over The World of Martial Arts, and is eliminating all competitors in his quest to obtain the legendary Peacock Dart, a sort of martial arts neutron bomb. And he’s doing it with a small army of colorful henchmen, with names like The Wood Devils and Devil Granny.

If, like me, your major exposure to old school Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks had been Chang Cheh’s blood-and-thunder exercises with the Venoms, the films of director Chor Yuen are a bracing breath of fresh air. Largely doing film adaptations of the pulpy wuxia novels by Ku Long, these are like detective novels infused with distilled Chinese martial arts flicks, and they are amazing. I started really getting into Hong Kong martial arts flicks with Chang’s Kid With the Golden Arm, when I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I was watching a comic book made flesh, all superhero battles and internecine conflict; Chor Yuen and Ku Long’s universe embraces that fully, right down to the colorful noms de guerre of the bad guys. Black Pearl, Iron Flute, The 5 Poison Kid, Serpent King… and in my limited time, I can’t find the exact reference, but I recall a villain translated as something like Venomous Eddie, the Stun-Dude.

I am thankful Image Entertainment put out a nice DVD of this using the Celestial Pictures restored print, but with the added option for the English dub. Those old, familiar voices I’ve heard for years. Best of all, if you want to severely injure your friends, use the “But still” drinking game. One of the phrases used by English dubs to fill up lip movement is “But still”, and The Magic Blade has a metric ton of them. Guaranteed alcohol poisoning by the end of the flick.

We had our second wind now, and while Rick warmed up the delicious pulled pork he had brought (which would be enriched by a variety of fruit salsas – amazing stuff) we filled the time with movie trailers from the 42nd Street Forever: Alamo Drafthouse Edition, wherein I discovered that Dave had never seen Message From Space, which I found astounding in someone who had been the Ultimate Star Wars Nerd until the prequels broke him of that behavior – and that Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard looks incredible:

Then, our bellies full and far too torpid to make a run for it, Dave decided it was time for his contribution. Keep in mind, now, that Dave is a vengeful monster, probably still smarting over Astrology Songs. Hell, probably still smarting over Things and Darktown Strutters. Therefore, he began the 1997 unsuccessful TV pilot for The Justice League of America. Never shown in America, it was instead shipped over to Europe, because we hate Europe.

(First, HD trailer, my ass, second of all… isn’t that the theme from the infinitely superior animated series?)

If you were smart enough to not click on that, here’s an overview, of sorts. Our licensed DC heroes are The Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Fire, and Ice – all turned into young twenty-somethings, so it’s a sort of proto-Smallville, though I didn’t hate that series as much as I hate this idea. You see, they’re almost all sharing a house, and there are, therefore, pseudo-Big Brother interludes where the heroes, in their civvies, talk humorously about being superheroes.

Besides the obvious – who are these guys, who supposedly guard their secret identities jealously, making these interview tapes for… well, there’s a plethora of things wrong. The Flash here is Barry Allen, supposedly dead for twelve years in continuity, and chronically unemployed. We never see his origin because that took place on his freaking job as a police forensic scientist. And well, also because they stole his origin for Ice’s origin. A guy trying to get a date with Fire’s secret identity recognizes her as the heroine on TV largely because all she does is smear some makeup under her eyes. Dave, when he wasn’t giggling like the Riddler at our pain, was complaining about the off-model costumes or moaning that Green Lantern was being a dick. That, at least was to expected, because it was Guy Gardner.

Well, not all of us were too stuffed to run away, because Paul and Alan, who are always our designated wusses, slinked out during this. If you are not a Designated Wuss, you can check out the whole heavy-sigh-inducing thing on YouTube. I do not recommend it.

So we remaining three needed a bit of fresh air afterwards, and I convinced Dave to put on Point Blank, because Lee Marvin being a badass can heal many wounds.

I’ll be frank: since the last time I’d seen Point Blank,I’d read the source novel, The Hunter, by Richard Stark aka Donald E. Westlake, and I’d conflated the two; the movie is quite definitely drawn from the book, but the novel is leaner, meaner, more tense. John Boorman directed the movie, and there’s quite a bit of Boorman angst and psychedelic melancholy at play here, way more than I remembered. But it’s a good flick, a good way to decompress, and man, Lee Marvin really does want his money, which became our riff for what was left of the evening. “That guy must really want his money.”

It was late, we started packing up, and Dave found a showing of Mortal Kombat on cable. Rick said goodnight, but I remained through the end. Hey, it was Mortal Kombat, and if you can’t understand that, then I’m afraid you can’t understand Crapfest, either.