Two films based on the same story (by Ernest Hemingway), released in 1946 and 1964. Textbook examples of how different approaches to the same narrative yield substantially different results.
THE STORY: Two bad guys show up and kill a guy. Someone wants to know why, and an investigation is launched. We learn about the life of the deceased, Citizen Kane-style, through the dead guy's friends, enemies and associates. A tragic tale of downfall and redemption, crawling with noir characters -- ruthless hitmen, big-hearted lugs, fiery-eyed femmes fatale, honest cops and cold-hearted Messrs Big. In both cases, the utterly predictable plot is rescued by the unconventional presentation. Criterion (who else) has helpfully put them in the same box for you.
THE DIRECTORS: The 1946 version is directed by Robert Siodmak (who I'd never heard of before); the 1964 version is directed by Don Siegel, whose work I'm very familiar with.
THE PHOTOGRAPHY: The 1946 movie is filled with enough inky shadows and expressionistic lighting to make Frank Miller go weak in the knees. The 1964 version is lit like an episode of Marcus Welby, MD. (No wonder, it was shot, for TV, on the Universal lot. So when the killers pull up to a house, it's literally next door to Marcus Welby's and Beaver Cleaver's, etc, etc.) It has other things going for it, but is also flat, bright and desperately uncinematic.
THE BIG TWIST: In the 1946 version, the investigation is launched by a tough-talking, hard-knuckled insurance investigator whose brief is to make sure his company's money is being handed over to the proper beneficiaries. This task is accomplished around the end of Act I, which leaves the insurance investigator with a good half-hour of pointless investigation to go before he stumbles onto a second reason to be doing any of this -- the dead guy was also a robber of another one of his company's clients! By investigating the robbery, he'll be saving his company's clients up to a fraction of a penny on their future premiums! Apparently, the insurance industry was big, exciting news back in the 1940s -- the subtlety's and vicissitudes of the insurance game also form the spine of Billy Wilder's 1944 classic Double Indemnity. "Grab your coat honey, there's a new insurance thriller playing at the Bijoux!"
The big idea for the 1964 remake is that the investigation of the dead guy's murder is undertaken by the hit men themselves -- they know there's money to be found somewhere in this mystery and they're going to find it, even if it means killing the guy who hired them. This is a brilliant innovation that plunges an already amoral story into darker, uglier territory and does a lot to ameliorate the fact that it looks like an episode of Marcus Welby, MD. It also opens with a startling sequence involving the hit men bullying their way through a school for the blind, which has to be new record for hit-man bullying.
THE KILLERS: The dialogue between William Conrad and his accomplice in the 1946 version is just smashing as they taunt the utterly helpless inhabitants of a small New Jersey town. The moment one realizes the movie isn't going to be about the hit men is a sad moment indeed, especially when their sneering thuggery is replaced by the adventure of a foursquare insurance investigator. So it makes perfect sense to replace the investigator with the killers themselves in the remake. And Lee Marvin is utterly Lee Marvin-like in the William Conrad part. The problem is that he's been paired with TV mainstay Clu Gulager, who grabs the part of "second hit man" in his teeth and shakes it into a kitten. He sneers, he giggles, he plays with toys, he glowers, he menaces, he's got his engine firing on all cylinders. Thing is, he's miscast, looks like he should be playing the nice young doctor on Medical Center, and he's cast opposite Lee Marvin, who gets out of bed looking like he'd kill you for stealing his newspaper. So a typical hit-man scene will be Clu Gulager chuckling and giggling and sneering and pouncing around the room, and Lee Marvin just sitting there commanding attention.
THE BIG LUG: The Killers is a tragedy about a sports figure who loses his touch and is forced into a life of crime in order to keep his femme in furs. A young Burt Lancaster is a boxer in the 1946, and he's just amazing. Not bright at all, completely baffled by the world he's entered into, sweet and meaty and un-clued as to why he's so unhappy, he's like Lenny if Of Mice and Men had been a gangster picture. For the 1964 remake, the producers had the idea to make the big lug a racecar driver who falls from grace and ends up as a getaway driver. The character arc is still the same but the casting is disastrous -- John Cassavetes is obviously far too intelligent and canny to play a man in over his head. To compensate, the screenwriter has given him drive (get it?) instead of brawn as his motivating factor, but still the viewer has no choice but to sit there and say "Hey, you're John Cassavetes, why you makin' these bonehead choices?"
THE DAME: Ava Gardner smolders and seduces indelibly in 1946, but you know what? the surprisingly fierce Angie Dickinson kicks ass in the remake. A-plus in both cases.
THE BIG CHEESE: Perfectly okay Albert Dekker serves as an adequate Big Cheese in 1946, and for reasons unrelated to acting talent is overshadowed by Ronald Reagan in 1964, who at the time was a genial b-list lead on the downhill side of a long career. The part requires him to be cold, heartless and cruel, qualities he would go on to effortless personify in American politics, but to which he is utterly unsuited as an actor. The producers must have suspected that he wasn't going to quite hit the mark as a ruthless gangster, so they have made his right-hand man hapless weasel Norman Fell, whose job seems to be making his boss look tough in comparison. "We gotta blow this joint babe, Ronald Reagan is here, and he's got Norman Fell with him!"