Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Make it Snappy:DVDs You Should Get Around To

Last month The Redhouse offered a Master Directors Film Festival over a 12-day period and invited me to lead one of the talk-back sessions after a screening – mine was Kurasawa’s Rashomon (1950). We in the media didn’t do a very good job publicizing that little festival series – it was under-attended and audience members complained about almost missing the whole thing. Some had caught Rashomon before on DVD but almost no one had seen on a big screen. And they wanted to stay and talk about the movie. We have a cinema-friendly and a cinema-hungry community here. (Witness the pre-screenings that the Syracuse International Film & Video Festival holds throughout Central New York in selecting final festival entries, a labor and time-intensive process that almost no other festival engages in.) Syracuse is, sadly, no longer a first-ranked national test city, getting the range of theatrical openings we once did. But besides a wealth of university film series, we have several robust small independent theaters, and multi-art houses like The Redhouse and Community Folk Art Center make film part of their agenda. Emerald City Video, also locally owned, has an especially fine collection of both videos and DVDs. And of course, God bless netflicks. Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To is a new weekly column, devoted to films that never got here in theatrical release, or might deserve another look because of their enduring quality and influence.

We open with a movie that editor Walt Sheppard suggested, the original 1946 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The movie has Hemingway’s name in the title because it’s based on his nine and a half page story from 1927, although the story only narrated events from the opening scene, in which two hit men enter a small town diner at suppertime and terrorize the few men there by announcing their intention to find and kill another man named “the Swede.” Hemingway’s story is terse and menacing, and his writing style matched the way in which German ex-pat director Robert Siodmak told his stories on-screen. The film takes off from this initial vignette, and the Swede, Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster’s first film role) accepts his fate passively even though he’s warned by a diner patron who races through back yards, leaping fences to out-run the killers. An almost obsessed insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) teams up with a retired cop, Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) to ferret out why the Swede didn’t run when he was warned. Unfolding in a series of flashbacks, the film details how the Swede’s boxing career collapsed and he turned to small time heists, infatuated with the two-timing Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). It is quite a convoluted story, with a mysterious green handkerchief keepsake and several reversals.

The Killers was quite successful at the box office in its time, won four Oscar nominations and Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic musical score features the dum-da-dum-dum that the TV series Dragnet later borrowed for its theme. It was one of that series of increasingly darker, starker, more fatalistic and hopeless US films that the French saw after World War II and dubbed “film noir” before Americans really had a name for it. This movie is one of the best introductions you could have. Despite being 60 years old, it is stunningly modern – from the opening scene you’ll be reminded of films like Sin City (2005), which clearly take their lighting, their ambiance and a while lot else from films like this one.

The Killers was remade in 1964 for television, which meant a major shift to color and very bright lighting, and a shift in approach, as the two hit men (lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) decide to figure out their victim’s passive acceptance of his death. The 1964 version changed the Swede to a race car driver named Johnny North (John Cassavetes) and featured Ronald Reagan in his last screen role as the crime boss. It makes sense to see them together.

The Killers is available through netflicks.com in the 2003 Criterion Collection 2-disc edition or in several VHS issues if you can find them. The Criterion edition is a better bet because it includes Don Siegel’s 1964 re-make, and a wealth of extras, notably Stacy Keach’s reading of the Hemingway story, a 1948 radio adaptation, several recollections and commentaries, especially Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay, notes on film noir, the first take by an American on this style of filmmaking.

The first Make it Snappy was published in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 12/7/06.