Two Sets Of Killers
There’s plenty of good scholarship on Mark Hellinger and The Killers. His papers went to USC and numerous writers have dug in and thoroughly covered this Citizen Kane of film noir. Would that as much documentation was available on all classic films! We’d remember Hellinger lots better had he lived longer. As it is, there were but three independent productions completed prior to his death in 1947 at age 44 (that's him below boarding the train with Edmond O'Brien and the premiere print of The Killers). All give testimony of promise vast but cut short. Was any filmmaker more ideally suited to thrive in a postwar market dominated by crime subjects and darkish tone? Hellinger was tattling on Broadway in the twenties and covering rat-tatting underworlds besides. His stuff was good enough to be syndicated beyond NYC papers. Fifteen million readers nationwide were engaged by his reportage, so this was no Joe Franklin unknown beyond city limits. Hellinger went Hollywood and naturally ended up at Warner Bros. His first meet with production chief Hal Wallis must have gone badly because they hated each other right off. Rudy Behlmer’s great collection of studio memos, Inside Warner Bros., reveals vitriolic communiqués as posted by an independent-minded Hellinger who’d always resist marching studio chalklines. He was proof that sometimes it’s the most talented who get screwed most royally. Things became so bad with Wallis that Hellinger finally quit. The Killers was initiated after a war corresponding hitch and was among first of winner-take-all independent set-ups wherein men bet farms against success of one movie and borrowed themselves into hock so as to get it made their way. Hellinger’s name and reputation got him $875,000 from the Bank Of America to produce The Killers. Universal floated the rest and agreed to release it. Failure would have translated to a negative repossessed by the bank, a state of affairs others came to know when poverty deprived them of rights to the very films they’d bled to make. None of Hellinger’s three (including Brute Force and The Naked City to come) entered those jaws (and for sure, Bank Of America built up a stout library of its own through the late forties and profited nicely selling seized pics to TV well before major studios let go their backlogs). The Killers, or rather Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, was marketed on proven names of both that author and Mark Hellinger. You could do such in 1946 with writers prominent enough and audiences that actually read books and followed columnists. 1944’s To Have and Have Not owed measure of its success to a link, though tenuous, with Hemingway, while Hellinger’s rep was sufficient to place him on-camera in a trailer for 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, which he’d co-written at Warners. Both were tough guys with battlefield experience, real ones as opposed to soundstage mock-up. Scripting participants on The Killers had recently looked down gun barrels as well. John Huston was among these. He penned on the quiet so as not to reveal violation of his WB pact. The Killers was only a short story as far as Hemingway took it. The first eight or so minutes disposed of his part. Huston and Anthony Veiller, with assist from Richard Brooks, followed in EH’s big tracks to fill out a remaining hour-and-a-half. Coming in behind Hemingway’s opener was literary equivalent of following Jolson at the Winter Garden. No wonder The Killers emerged so studied and efficient (too much so? Some say yes).
Universal got its licks in before crime sagas went stale. Flash-backing had already become a familiar device. I wonder how long it took for patrons to get sick of it. Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce paved that structure’s way for The Killers. What sold Hellinger’s package was sex and a how-to on planning, executing, and bungling The Big Caper. Unknowns (in her case relative) Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner looked mighty good on posters and stills. The fact they delivered on that promise led The Killers to a mighty gross. Lancaster’s screen test had been leaked to gossipers and they were atwitter over Hollywood’s unveiling of its newest caveman. He was what saved an otherwise problematic title for women, and ads such as one shown here were careful to target that select (and selecting) group. Similarities with Citizen Kane might have been better noted had more people gone to see Orson Welles’ 1941 inspiration for much of how The Killers spun its narrative. Certainly others down the line pinched ideas off Hellinger’s (and director Robert Siodmak’s) film. How many would experience déjà vu watching Out Of The Past the following year, with Robert Mitchum recognized at his end-of-the-line gas station much as Lancaster was in The Killers? Indeed, newcomer Burt would make repeated stops behind eight balls in pursuit of noirish schemes gone wrong, a chump you’d vote most likely to be fall guy at your next armored car robbery (The Flame and The Arrow came not a moment too soon to rescue him from sameness of such enterprise). Ironic that Mark Hellinger would share his contract for Lancaster’s services with old Warner nemesis Hal Wallis, now producing independently as well, and releasing through Paramount. The Killers was photographed by Woody Bredell, a Universal ace who’d lent distinction to visuals in their horror films as well as Deanna Durbin vehicles in which she looked by far her best for his camera. Too bad Criterion’s DVD falls short of what Bredell delivered in 1946. I assume Universal sent over what element they had (or was lying on a nearby shelf) when the lease was negotiated, but surely The Killers needs a restorative look-in. 16mm prints from years back could be, often were, astounding, depending on which New York lab reels were heisted from. Woody Bredell’s name in collecting days generally meant liquid whites and rich blacks. A lab’s effort to capture these made all the difference. I had Reel One of The Killers from a poorly timed print and the remaining two reels from an exquisite source that got every bit of value from one of the most spectacularly photographed of all noirs. A revisit to the camera negative (if it exists), followed by Blu-Ray release (what fairyland am I living in?) would go a long way toward reaffirming The Killers’ genre supremacy.
I read with great interest Don Siegel’s memoir account of directing (and largely writing) 1964's redo of The Killers. To have started out as a movie for television, the project merited unusually close supervision by Universal chief Lew Wasserman. Since The Killers was planned to be the first feature film for vid premiering, it’s likely Wasserman focused on delivering a quality product so as to secure an ongoing commitment from NBC. The plan was for The Killers to lead off a series of movies for the network. A director with feature experience who could also shoot quickly and for a price was needed. Siegel took much of the project’s burden upon himself, his assigned writer tired and bored by the hacking game, but anxious withal that his credit be maintained. Gene L. Coon was the journeyman in question. Now there’s a name branded into memories of any of us who abided sixties tele-series. Coon was all over Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Wild, Wild West, and dozens more. Cheap sets, process screens, and Gene L. Coon seem to go hand in hand --- all are among Universal truths of that era. So then is The Killers, which abounds in these, plus offbeat casting and crisp Siegel handling way beyond standards of TV movies to come from this company. Remember Fame Is The Name Of The Game, The Longest Hundred Miles, The Borgia Stick? So many made and virtually all disposable. NBC wanted fresh product for Saturday night’s primetime slot, thus the deluge. To advertise these as "movies" was something akin to false advertising. NBC allotted $250,000 toward production of The Killers, an unrealistically skinflint figure for anyone expected to deliver decent product. Universal was said to have actually spent past $900,000. A theatrical release might have been necessary to recover overruns, never mind that The Killers was rejected by NBC on grounds it was too spicy, expensive (?), and violent for TV screens. NBC vice-president Mort Werner was circumspect about this initial (and in his mind, failed) effort. We've learned to control the budget. Two new 'movies' will get started soon, and the series (of movies for the network) probably will show up on television in 1965. Maybe Universal recognized sales potential to theatres and decided The Killers was simply too good for NBC (Siegel’s film would in fact never run on that network). It was certainly no worse than a lot of what they were putting on paying screens. Universal merchandising at least cared enough to supply exhibitors with a set of attractive door panels (above) in addition to other accessories, so it wasn’t a matter of The Killers being tossed to wolves.
Theatrical release pin-pointed selling for various territories and action crowds they catered to (any attempt to lure a discerning audience with the Hemingway credentials is apt to be aborted and ineffectual, said Variety). New York’s July 7, 1964 premiere was saturated among neighborhood theatres with The Private Lives Of Adam and Eve as co-feature (ad above), while our own Starlight Drive-In first-ran The Killers with Universal’s The Lively Set and a direct appeal on behalf of both film’s Hot Cars, Hot Thrills, and Wild Women (also above). You’ll note shifting emphasis in these ads. Selling points were plentiful as pitched to a minor league of nabes and ozoners. Urbanites got Lee Marvin aiming his piece with further emphasis on Angie Dickinson (violence and sex as enticement), while we of the South were drawn to racing art and its accent on speed (plus the sex). Did The Killers give satisfaction then? Probably so, even if grossing potential in such markets was limited. $949,260 was Universal’s take in domestic rentals. There might have been as much in foreign (such themes traveled well), though I don’t have figures for that. Violence in The Killers is said to be tame now. Only if one’s inured to Lee Marvin’s particular line in menace, says I, for he seems chilling as ever, if not more so, amidst metro-sexed and sensitized leading men presuming to carry his banner today. As to matters of bloodletting, The Killers reflects Hollywood in transition, with John Cassavetes spilling not a drop in his first reel death scene, despite being shot multiple times, while Lee Marvin's later drenched in the stuff for a gory finish that no doubt did give NBC the vapors and forecast explicitness to come in features. The stock car race is Siegel’s centerpiece. He talks about that sequence a lot in his book. They went out and shot an actual event with multiple cameras, hoping to catch something exciting and get production value from bleachers filled with onlookers. Had things changed so much since 1914 when Mack Sennett took Charlie Chaplin along to perform against the similar background of Kid Auto Races At Venice? There is too the matter of Ronald Reagan in his last acting role. He’s at least as capable and lots more interesting than anyone else they could have gotten for his price. Did a reluctant Reagan do The Killers as a personal favor to his agent as some claim? He smiles but fleetingly before twirling Angie Dickinson with a deathless moment slap. Reagan doing this in the forties was one thing ... seeing a soon-to-be California governor land such a blow (and looking like Reagan of the White House in the bargain) gives real power to an otherwise unremarkable scene. It’s loaded all the more for nowaday viewers hauling their own social and political baggage to screenings. Siegel and crew would never have seen it coming, but it’s Reagan who’s a lightning rod for crowd reaction to The Killers, his mere presence a cue for cheers and boos (or boos and cheers, depending on which red or blue state you're in). How many slaps delivered forty plus years ago resonate so loudly still?