The Killers (1956)

*. What was it about noir that made it so popular outside of the U.S.? It had a big influence on the French New Wave, and, as this student film suggests, even in the Soviet Union.
*. Not that this movie was inspired by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film. I’m not sure if anyone involved had even seen it. But they knew Hemingway’s 1927 story and it had enough of the noir flavour: a hapless hero caught up in a web of crime; laconic tough-guy patter; an overarching sense of doom.
*. I think it’s fair to say that the only reason this film is known today is because part of it (the first and last sections) was co-directed by Andrei Tarkovsky when he was at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). But while it’s very cleanly presented, I don’t see much of the mature Tarkovsky here. It’s a stagey short, but far less effective in its use of space than Siodmak’s version.

*. Instead, what I really like about it are the two killers. At first I thought they seemed overdressed, slightly comic figures, like those threatening characters we get in Beckett or Pinter. But then I had to admit that their American cousins are just as silly. Their talk is just too tough, to the point where it seems unprofessional. If they’re only in town to do a hit, why bother alienating so many people?
*. Then there’s Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in Don Siegel’s 1964 version. Wearing sunglasses to invade the Home for the Blind. How is that not comic? And they even get tough and threatening with the inmates. What kind of tough guys do that? They’re parody heavies, almost like something out of the annals of Police Squad.
*. I wonder what Tarkovsky, or his co-creators on this project, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, were thinking of. Were the killers supposed to be their idea of American gangsters? Or were they KGB commissars? Was there a difference?
*. Of the three adaptations of Hemingway this one sticks closest to the source, not presenting any back story explaining why Ole Andreson turns his face to the wall. Meanwhile Nick Adams decides he has to leave this town. That’s a very American kind of thing to say, but I wonder how it played in Soviet Russia. It’s not like Nick is going to be able to strike out for the frontier. There was a wall to the West, and maybe that’s the Wall that Ole is turned toward, and that Nick is facing too. Which makes a Moscow diner the perfect setting for this latter-day existentialist drama. There’s no escape.

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