Saturday, November 20, 2010

GRIN, SMILE, SMIRK: THE FILMS OF BURT LANCASTER—The Collaborative Spirit of The Killers (1946)

"Lancaster, built to defeat a white t-shirt as well as any man...."—Jonathan Lethem

It might be cliché to emphasize the collaborative nature of any given film, yet rarely has collaboration achieved such heightened distinction as with
The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak in 1946, the selfsame year French critic Nino Frank coined the term film noir.

The Short Story: Ernest Hemingway

Based on an Ernest Hemingway short story originally entitled "The Matadors", "The Killers" was first published in Scribners on March 1927, for which Hemingway was paid a paltry $200. Hemingway's friendly rival F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose short stories in The Saturday Evening Post were fetching $3,000 apiece) wryly teased: "I hope the sale of 'The Killers' will teach you to send every story either to Scribners or an agent."

The Painting: Edward Hopper

Appropriate compensation for "The Killers" arrived belatedly, if not indirectly to Hemingway. Edward Hopper painted his infamous Nighthawks, allegedly inspired by Hemingway's short story. As recounted by Philip French at The Guardian: "When he read Hemingway's story in 1927, Edward Hopper wrote to the editor of Scribners, saying: 'It is refreshing to come upon such an honest piece of writing in an American magazine, after wading through the vast sea of sugar-coated mush that makes up so much of our fiction.' " Nighthawks, in turn, became one of the prime graphic influences on film noir (starting off no less with The Killers, whose opening sequence diner—according to Paul Huckerby at Electric Sheep Magazine—was shot to specifically look like Hopper's Nighthawks).

The Producer: Mark Hellinger

Enter Mark Hellinger, a New York columnist (with a readership of 18 million, according to noir historian Bill Hare) and former newspaper buddy of Hemingway's who bought the rights to "The Killers" for $36,000. As observed by David Sanjek at Pop Matters, Hellinger had already "played a key role in the development of the crime genre in Hollywood," essaying his hardboiled "knowledge of the mean streets into literature." Hired first in the early '30s by MGM, "Hellinger soon found his professional niche at Warner Brothers, the company that made its name by parlaying the public fascination with rough action and tough talk, shifty gangsters and their molls. Hellinger produced some of the best, including the Cagney vehicle, The Roaring Twenties (1939), and High Sierra (1941), the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star."

Following service in WWII, Hellinger dreamed of creative independence by setting up his own production studio patterned after Orson Welles' Mercury Players and—as outlined at
Epinions—Hellinger chose The Killers as his first project, imagining "a film similar to Citizen Kane in form, relatively inexpensive, with unknown talent." Thus, it's hardly a surprise that The Killers has been nicknamed "the Citizen Kane of film noir" since Hellinger's intent was there from the beginning (replete with a green silk handkerchief decorated with a gold harp encircled by shamrocks, substituting for Citizen Kane's "Rosebud"). Hellinger used Hemingway's short story to launch a flashback narrative structure reminiscent of the Welles film.

The Killers was the critical and financial success Hellinger hoped for and earned enough profit to bankroll his future productions: Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948). Unfortunately, The Naked City was Hellinger's last film, released shortly after his early death at 45 from heart attack. The Naked City inspired a television offshoot in the 60s whose "dedicated delineation of the working lives of ordinary policemen set the template for other programs to come, like Law & Order and N.Y.P.D. Blue." In fact, as further noted at Epinions, it's Hellinger's voice in The Naked City which carries his immortal words: "There are eight million stories in the City of New York. This is one of them."

The Screenplay: Richard Brooks /
John Huston / Anthony Veiller

Hellinger brought in aspiring young screenwriter Richard Brooks to shape up the initial translation of Hemingway's short story into a film scenario. Brooks had achieved notoriety and some success with his 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole—about a group of Marines who pick up and then murder a homosexual man (later adapted into the 1947 film Crossfire)—but, his screenwriting was mired in such "minor" projects as 1944's Cobra Woman (where he'd worked earlier with Siodmak as director). Brooks was later to become known for his scripts for Brute Force (1947) and Key Largo (1948), receiving his only Oscar® for Elmer Gantry (1960), though being nominated for Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Professionals (1966), and In Cold Blood (1967). His last significant project was the controversial Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).

But it was
John Huston—writer for Hellinger's High Sierra—who stepped in to anonymously draft the actual screenplay for The Killers. Still serving in the U.S. Army and under contract to Warners, Huston (according to Epinions) "provided a second act in which an insurance investigator, like the self-effacing reporter in Kane, would piece the story together from interviews; followed by a third act in which the survivors would be brought together in a denouement." Anthony Veiller, an old newsman colleague of Hellinger's and a friend of Huston's—later to be known for his screenplays for Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946), Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948), and future Huston collaborations Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat The Devil (1953) and The Night of the Iguana (1964)—was brought in to burnish Huston's script and was given official credit for the screenplay. The Killers was allegedly the only Hollywood adaptation of one of his stories that Hemingway approved, even though—according to Huston—"I didn't tell him that I'd written it. He found out later and called me a dirty word."

The "substantiating connective tissue" between Hemingway's short story and its filmic adaptation was initially criticized by resident New York Times critic Bosley Crowther who objected to Hellinger and Veiller "filling out the plot" with clever explanations and flashback reconstructions, which—though "taut and absorbing" and a "diverting picture"—"certainly does not enhance the literary distinction of Hemingway's classic bit."

Hemingway's short story "The Killers" inspired three filmic adaptations, of course: the first being Siodmak's 1946 film, followed by Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 black-and-white student short, and finally Don Siegel's 1964 adaptation (the first-ever made-for-television movie). Interestingly enough, Siegel had been Hellinger's initial choice as director for The Killers; but, he was beholden to Warners. All three versions of Hemingway's story were creatively grouped together for Criterion's DVD release, with an essential essay by
Jonathan Lethem. Comparative analyses between the Siodmak and Siegel versions of The Killers has been articulated by David Sanjek for Pop Matters and Scott Tobias for The Onion A.V. Club, whereas a thorough academic treatment has been provided by Philip Booth in an essay Hemingway's "The Killers" and Heroic Fatalism: From Page to Screen (Thrice) published in Literature/Film Quarterly (January 1, 2007), available through Highbeam Research Library. I highly recommend Booth's analysis as it explores Hemingway's central literary theme—i.e., "heroic fatalism, or fatalistic heroism, a dignified, graceful acceptance of one's circumstances in the face of personal disaster up to and including one's death" (or as David Sanjek abbreviates it: "grace under pressure")—and how the theme translates onto film.

The Director: Robert Siodmak

According to David Cairns, the best book-length study on Robert Siodmak in English remains Deborah Lazaroff Alpi's Robert Siodmak: A Biography, with Critical Analyses of His Film Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works, sadly out of print. Until a new edition of that volume arrives, however, Cairns' Moving Image Source essay "Dark Mirrors: The dual cinema of Robert Siodmak" competently fills the gap, including a thorough survey of Siodmak's films from his early career in Germany, the shift of his career to France, and his eventual migration to Hollywood, where he made such signature films as Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), and—of more immediate interest—The Killers.

Cairns traces Siodmak's thematic concerns with "romantic obsession, ambiguous identity, and doubling." As early as Sidomak's Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, 1932), Cairns identifies Sidomak's fully developed elements of "a doomed hero locked in a fatal romance with an unworthy woman" and "scenes of violence and criminality set in a chiaroscuro, stylized evocation of very specific real-world environment" as elements that foreshadow The Killers and Criss Cross (1949). With Pièges (1939), Siodmak "climaxed his French career with a fast-paced serial killer investigation story" that likewise compares to such later noirs as The Killers and Phantom Lady via a "strong story spine [that] supports an episodic series of suspense sequences that involve various strange or tragic characters."

Cairns admires how Anthony Veiller and John Huston's script "brilliantly deployed Hemingway's source story as a teaser to an investigation patterned on Citizen Kane's flashback structure, a device that allowed the writers to abandon Hemingway's florid-terse style after the opening, and to package an authentically doom-laden noir story of obsession and failure within a more upbeat tale of an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) recovering stolen loot. The backstory leads Lancaster to that lonely boardinghouse bed, waiting for the titular bad men and their inevitable bullets, while the framing story ends the movie with O'Brien giving the camera and the audience a cheerful salute as 'The End' appears. Cake is had and eaten in abundance. But the careful segregation of noir fatalism within can-do American heroics is not complete: the moment when the two stories decisively crash together, the entrance of the long-forgotten killers into O'Brien's world, accompanied by their four-note Miklós Rózsa leitmotif (appropriated wholesale by the TV show Dragnet), carries a chilling charge, and Gardner's eventual fall from power is desperately moving, despite her character's intense wickedness."

Of further interest on Siodmak is his Senses of Cinema profile by
Chris Justice and annotations by Mike Grost to a sampling of Siodmak's filmography.

The Composer: Miklós Rózsa

As referenced by Cairns, Miklós Rózsa's four-note leitmotif "carries a chilling charge" and—when it's first introduced in the film and if you don't blink—you'll quickly glimpse a cameo of Hellinger and Huston talking to two women at the bar. When Rózsa's daughter Juliet attended a tribute screening of Ben-Hur (1959) at the Castro Theatre during their January 2008 Rózsa retrospective, she indicated that—among her personal favorites of her father's oeuvre—The Killers ranked high because of its main theme, which was later (as Cairns phrases it) "appropriated wholesale" into the Dragnet franchise. Rózsa biographer Steve Vertlieb mentioned the infamous litigation over Walter Schumann's adaptation of The Killers theme for Dragnet, which Miklós Rózsa won in court. Whether Schumann's plagiarism was unconscious or subliminal, Vertlieb noted that in the 1987 spoof of Dragnet with Dan Aykroyd, credit for the theme was assigned to both Rózsa and Schumann.

The Cinematographer: Elwood "Woody" Bredell

As detailed at Epinions, Siodmak was at his best when mixing his European and American sensibilities. "The influence of German Expressionism, especially strong in The Spiral Staircase, is also evident in The Killers where it meshes perfectly with American hard-boiled existentialism. Elwood (Woody) Bredell's chiaroscuro cinematography is excellent and here almost rivals the great John Alton's work on The Big Combo. It is a directing tour de force full of breathtaking shots, from the simple pan capturing the contrast between a panicking Nick and the stoic Swede at the start of the film to the virtuoso two-minute crane shot of the heist." According to David Cairns, that "single-take heist sequence shows the director's ambitions, and the fact that he chose the first take of three, the one where everything went wrong, shows his commitment to the messiness of reality, even amid an intensely composed film."

Cairns adds that—during the filming of Phantom Lady—Siodmak encouraged Bredell (who was then a house cameraman at Universal) to study Rembrandt, specifically to "note how the viewer's eye was instinctively drawn to the most shadowy parts of the image." In Phantom Lady as in later films, Siodmak and Bredell turned "a low budget to advantage" and Siodmak moved his actors "in and out of pools of light in a world of devouring dark." The Guardian's Philip French describes Bredell's atmospheric cinematography as "a baleful delight." At Pop Matters, David Sanjek opines that Bredell "exhibits equal facility with the glamour shots of Lancaster's well-toned physique or the dazzling beauty of a young Ava Gardner as he does the scenes of action." Scott Tobias confirms that Siodmak's "noir staple plods lethargically through its double, triple, and quadruple crosses, but its marvelously expressive black-and-white photography puts the story's despairing tone in purely visual terms."


According to Jonathan Lethem, the film's iconographic killers—Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad, in his first feature role)—"were destined to stroll not only into the 1964 sequel (directed by Don Siegel, Hellinger's original choice to helm the original) but also into Steve Martin and Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, into the fever dreams of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, and, of course, into the thrilled hearts of noir lovers everywhere."

Scott Tobias observes that the killers in Don Siegel's film—Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager)—serve "as a funny precursor to the John Travolta / Samuel L. Jackson dynamic in Pulp Fiction."

At The Guardian, Philip French intuits: "The movie's influence has extended over 60 years to take in Cronenberg's homage, A History of Violence." Especially in the opening sequence—quintessentially Hemingway—where two assassins enter a simple diner in a small town and menace the owner, his chef and an innocent bystander.

The Killers opens PFA's Burt Lancaster retrospective on Friday, November 26, at 8:00PM.

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