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Sunday, October 26, 2008

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 four 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 a rat-tatting underworld besides. His stuff was good enough to be syndicated beyond NYC papers. Fifteen million readers nationwide were engaged by MH 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 disliked each other right off. Rudy Behlmer’s collection of studio memos, Inside Warner Bros., reveals harsh words as posted by an independent-minded Hellinger, who’d not march studio chalk lines. He was proof that often it is the most talented who get abused most thoroughly. 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 work done 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 had bled to create. None of Hellinger’s four (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, plus audiences that actually read books and followed columnists. 1944’s To Have and Have Not owed a measure of its success to its link, though tenuous, with Hemingway, while Hellinger’s fame was sufficient to place him on-camera in a trailer for 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, which he had co-written at Warners. Both Hellinger and Hemingway 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 so 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 EH’s lead 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 lent allure to 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, this newcomer 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. 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 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. 16mm prints of The Killers 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. 

I read with great interest Don Siegel’s 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 eager withal that his credit be maintained. Gene L. Coon was the journeyman in question, his a name branded into memories of those who abided 60's programming. Coon was all over Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Wild, Wild West, 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 did put on paying screens. Universal merchandising cared at least 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, which may be if one is inured to Lee Marvin’s particular line in menace. On the other (persuasive) hand, he's as chilling as ever (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, John Cassavetes spilling not a drop in his first reel death scene, despite being shot multiple times, while Lee Marvin is fairly drenched for a gory finish that no doubt gave NBC the vapors and forecast explicitness to come in features. The stock car race is Siegel’s centerpiece. He talks about it a lot in his book. They went out and shot an actual event with multiple cameras, hoping to catch something exciting, plus 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  Reagan is the lightning rod for crowd reaction to The Killers, his mere presence a cue for cheers or jeers. How many slaps delivered forty plus years ago resonate so loudly still?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Composer Miklos Rozsa delivered dynamic scores for all three Hellinger productions in the 1940s.

Reading "A Double Life", Rozsa's autobiography, reveals Rozsa had little use for most Hollywood producers, but he had great fondness for Hellinger and was devastated at his premature death.

One can only wonder at what material Hellniger would have brought to the screen had he lived.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Deanna Durbin wanted to make more drama type movies, but Universal Studios either didn't provide any more amazing scripts like CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, or it would seem that the public just didn't want their sweet young thing acting like a bad girl.


7:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re your daily "mast-head" for Tues, all I can say is, "Holy sh---!" There's a line-up for you. Have you by any chance seen the seperate short that Metro did on this (which may be the most elaborate "trailer" that any studio ever did, to my knowledge)
-- called "Hollywood Goes to Town"?
The Carthay Circle, where this was held, was an awesomely ornate show-house here in L.A., on the border of Beverly Hills (within walking distance by the way of the old "Regina") which I vividly recall my parents' taking me to, for several "hard-ticket" Road-show type things. Since you're basically about "Exhibition", you really should devote an entire post to its' history -- it was really a beautiful theatre, with a seperate lounge upstairs, I recall). The premiere footage for "Alexander's Ragtime Band" included in the video, was also held there. And, as I write this, I suddenly remember (chillingly) that years-later, in going there as a child, seeing posters in the forecourt (it was a huge place) for their up-coming attraction, "Solomon and Sheba" -- the picture that of course, Ty died during (weird!).
It is, like so many things of memory out here, long-gone now. Pity.
Finally, the gent standing behind Gable looks suspiciously to me like Billy Gilbert.I went to high school with his nephew, Tom Waldman, whose father and uncle wrote all the "Pink Panther" movies,and whose godfather was Blake Edwards. Tom's mother by the way, was (and is) the glamorous Fay McKenzie, queen of the B's in the 40's. I had the great honor of being taken to meet Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert at their home, shortly before his passing -- but that's another post! (And I know, Mr. Lane -- The Book -- I'm hip to the scene, Dad!)
Great photo, John!

6:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi RJ: I was hoping someone would catch Billy Gilbert in the banner today, and you're it! I know that MGM short on "Marie Antoinette" and it's a wonderful souvenir of that premiere and of the Carthay Circle Theatre.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, John, I almost posted a comment on Tuesday's masthead asking, "Who's the guy in the background who looks like Paul Whiteman?" Doh! Billy Gilbert, of course! I blush at not having recognized him. Of course, the picture has changed by now -- how cunning of you to keep us coming back daily to see the new one (as if we needed an excuse!). Today's Tarzan Reunion is great fun -- though I wonder: where's Ron Ely?

And R.J., I've had an inspiration about your book: I'll simply comb through John's comments day by day, and cut-and-paste your entries into a Word document for my own perusal. That'll tide me over.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Great post - I think original "The Killers" is close to being a perfect film - great plot, snappy lines, perfect cast, and it looked menacing all the way thru the film. Lancaster and Gardner had some real conviction as characters, and you would've been hard pressed to find a pair that used their bodies so well onscreen better. The remake is strictly a Lee Marvin picture, anybody else was part of the scenery for lee to stomp on. I kinda liked "The Borgia Stick", tho, so I don't find it interchangeable with the other puffy TV movies. Oh yeah, and I wanted Clu Gulager's shades, man, they were the awesomenest.

10:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Vanwall --- Now you've made me want to see "The Borgia Stick" again, but who ever shows it anymore? For that matter, where are all those Universal series and TV-movies NBC used to run?

11:04 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

John -
Exactly! Some of the greatest stuff is buried, and willfully, too - why do you think the Bugs Bunny is locked in a can somewhere and today's kids are stuck with the likes of Scooby Doo...pardon me while I retch...and the HB tripe, which consistently rates low for real kids? Or Paramount's obtuseness, or those you spoke of? It's pure greed and/or bad taste. Read the list of special guest stars on a lot of the 50's and 60's TV shows, and it's like an encyclopedia of brilliant actors. Many films become recognized as masterpieces only after the passing of time - how the heck are we to know how good some of them were, if they can't be seen. Drives me crazy.

7:11 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One of those films, Don Siegel's THE STRANGER'S RETURN, has reportedly being published on DVD in Germany.

The film has become available thanks to P2P software programs, and it even features Spanish subtitles.

3:53 AM  

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