(Relatively minor SPOILERS)
When I learned, some time ago, that there is a movie based on Hemingway's short story "The Killers," I wanted to see it out of sheer curiosity. There really isn't very much to the story, and almost nothing happens. Two menacing men arrive in a small town. They menace people in a diner. They're in town to kill "the Swede." Nick Adams (this is one of the Nick Adams stories) goes to warn the Swede. The Swede says there's nothing he can do about it and waits for the men to come and kill him.
That's it, as far as the plot goes. There's a good deal more to the story, of course, but it's all character and atmosphere. There's not enough there to fill an hour or two of film time, so the movie, made in 1946 and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, makes Hemingway's narrative a prelude to an entirely invented backstory. The Hemingway story is gotten out of the way in twenty minutes or so, and is really quite a good adaptation. By "good" I mean both that it's faithful to the original and that it's powerful in itself.
The Swede (Lancaster) is done in as expected. Then it turns out that he left an insurance policy, and an investigator from the company is assigned the task of locating the beneficiary. In the course of that investigation he uncovers the complicated reasons for the killing. Not surprisingly, they involves gangsters and a femme fatale.
It's classic film noir, so much so that when I checked In the Dark, a book about noir, to see if the movie is listed, I discovered that in fact it provides the cover photo. And if you like noir this is one you definitely need to see. It didn't displace Out of the Past as my favorite, but it's well up there in the ranks. I didn't recognize the names of the director and screenwriter, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Veiller, reportedly with some uncredited help from John Huston. It was the first big success for both Lancaster and Gardner. I can't offhand remember having seen the latter in anything else, and now I know why she was a major sex symbol.
Having located the 1946 film on Netflix (DVD only), I was surprised to discover that there is a second version, made in 1964, and starring John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play the menacing gunmen. To my taste it's not nearly as good, but I found it interesting as a contrast and an indication of the way film sensibilities were changing. The cinematography is flashier and more elaborate. The violence starts almost immediately. There's much more spectacle: the hero is not a boxer, as in the 1946 film, but a racecar driver, which provides lots of opportunity for noisy action. There's more emphasis on the killers themselves, who are given a psychopathic edge. And Angie Dickinson is a beautiful woman but she doesn't have the smoldering allure of Ava Gardner. It's in color, which the 1946 one is not, and although I certainly have a great love for black-and-white I don't think color is the reason, or not the main reason, for the lack of atmosphere, for the movie seeming flat compared to the earlier one.
There is one remarkable thing about it: Ronald Reagan plays the bad guy, and he's surprisingly effective. It was his last film role; two years later he would be governor of California. I'm surprised that more wasn't made of his portrayal of this evil character when he was president, considering that he was as deeply loathed as Donald Trump by the same sorts of people. But then in the 1980s we didn't have ready access to old movies.
Both films are available as a set from Criterion, and Netflix, as noted, has the set. Here are the trailers.