At the Movies

Michael Wood

‘Ever go to the movies?’ the gangster says to the waiter in a small-town diner. ‘Once in a while,’ the waiter replies. ‘You ought to go to the movies more,’ the gangster says. ‘The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.’ The gangster has just announced that he and his companion are going to kill someone who usually eats at the diner. The waiter asks why. ‘What did he ever do to you?’ The answer is impeccable: ‘He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.’

It’s not clear what the grim joke about the movies means within the scene. Is the gangster suggesting the waiter might be better prepared for incursions of violence if he had seen more movies? Or the reverse? That movies and true crime go their own categorically different ways? The writer is not giving us any more on the subject, and indeed prided himself on his parsimony. ‘That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.’ The writer was Ernest Hemingway; the story is ‘The Killers’.

For us, the readers, the joke has all kinds of other meanings. One fictional character tells another he should consume more fiction, although in another form. Does this enlarge the illusion, make everything into a trick, or does it sneak a little realism in by the back door? How are real gangsters supposed to speak if they can’t speak like gangsters in movies? The two American films made from the story, directed by Robert Siodmak and Don Siegel, in 1946 and 1964 respectively (now re-released together on DVD by the Criterion Collection), very wisely go one better than Hemingway in this matter. They leave the movie joke out. They are up to all kinds of things, but dizzying self-reference is not one of them. The short adaptation made by Tarkovsky and two companions in film school in 1956, also included in the Criterion set, does retain the joke, but the very literalism of this work’s loyalty to Hemingway’s text has an eerie alienating effect all of its own. These characters look Russian and speak Russian, they meet up in a bar (not a diner) that looks as if it’s rehearsing for its part in Stalker, and yet they are supposed to be Americans. The suggestion that anyone could go to the movies more than they do can only be there for bleak laughs.

The Hemingway story and the Tarkovsky film end almost as soon as they start. The gangsters chat for a while in their sinister way, then go looking for their target, who is clearly not going to show up at the diner/bar. Nick Adams, the other person in the place, runs off to warn the victim. The victim scarcely reacts: it’s as if he has already accepted his own death. ‘There ain’t anything to do now,’ he says. ‘I got in wrong.’ The story finishes before the killers arrive and (presumably) do their job.

This interesting economy means that the two full-length films have to do a lot more than put in what they imagine Hemingway left out. They have to make up a whole story he didn’t write, and this is very well done by Anthony Veiller for the Siodmak movie, with uncredited help from John Huston and Richard Brooks. The Siegel film, written by Gene Coon, borrows the plot from the first but transposes scenes and careers: New Jersey, Philadelphia and boxing become Miami, California and car-racing. The stars change too: Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner become John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson.

The first movie, shot by Woody Bredell, is a noir classic, full of haunting, half-seen frames in black and white, shadows disappearing into shadows; and there is a burial in the rain that looks like a photographic allusion to a famous Courbet painting, except that here the tableau is dominated by a row of umbrellas. When we first meet Ava Gardner (five years before she made Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, eight years before she made The Barefoot Contessa), darkness hangs across a corner of her face, as if we were seeing the threat of duplicity that Lancaster is blind to. The narrative structure is quite elaborate after the opening scene in the diner. Eleven flashbacks, composed of the memories of different characters, reconstruct the life of the assassinated boxer, his early promise, his time in jail (he took the rap for Gardner), his life of crime, and his escaping with all the money from a large payroll robbery. He doesn’t keep the money for long, since Gardner, his partner again, took it all with her when she swiftly left. Ever since then he has been living a solitary, mournful life, thinking about how he ‘did something wrong, once’. Until an ex-conspirator comes across him and calls on his murdering friends to take care of business.

The ‘something wrong’ must in part be cheating on his fellow thieves, and in this the movie follows the one hint available in Hemingway’s story. ‘I wonder what he did?’ Nick Adams says. ‘Double-crossed somebody,’ the waiter replies. ‘That’s what they kill them for.’ He had seen enough movies after all. It’s true that Lancaster, in the film, thought his fellow thieves were going to cheat on him, but that’s because he didn’t know a femme fatale when he saw one, or recognise the artful story she would be likely to tell. So the ‘something wrong’ must include believing Gardner and loving her, but then perhaps the errors are not separable, and not even entirely errors. The ex-boxer wanted to be a crook for the money, but he wanted the money for her; and she knew far more reliable sources of money than him. Lancaster tried to kill himself when she left him, and was held back by a maid in the hotel in Atlantic City. After that, he was living on rather than living; not entirely alive when he was killed. The plot is driven by the need to fill out Lancaster’s life, certainly. But the life is interesting because of its final apathy, and the question that lingers is not why was he killed but why did he seem not to care if he lived or died. This is the reason Tarkovsky thought the story was philosophical; and if Nietzsche had been a moviegoer he might have suggested Lancaster had discovered the truth about life’s hollowness, rather than made any sort of mistake.

The person who collects the narratives and puts together Lancaster’s career is Edmond O’Brien, an insurance agent investigating the death because of its implications for a policy Lancaster had. O’Brien’s interest, and ours, goes way beyond any professional insurance need, and it is intriguing that both American films invent not only a long back-story for the killing, but an inquisitive semi-amateur detective who can’t rest until he has put the whole thing together. Lee Marvin, in the Siegel film, is even more of an amateur than O’Brien, at least as a detective, since Marvin is one of the killers. He can’t get over his victim’s apathy, although I have to say Cassavetes is hardly given time to show it. It’s a great idea, though, to turn the executioner into a philosophical inquirer. ‘I gotta find out,’ Marvin says, ‘what makes a man decide not to run.’ Later in the film, when he has found out, at least as far as material details will let him, he is even more aphoristic: ‘The only man that’s not afraid to die is the man that’s dead already.’

The two killers, Marvin and Clu Gulager, are by far the best thing in the film, scary, thoughtful and funny all at once, although you also have to admire the effect of what Geoffrey O’Brien calls Angie Dickinson’s ‘chic rapacity’. Otherwise the film is too slow and too obvious, the colour rather tacky and the back projections awful. These things wouldn’t matter a whole lot if there weren’t so much whizzing around in cars, on race track and country roads, in endless-seeming practices for a race, or a hold-up.

The elusive quality of the vamps is important in both movies, part of the cause of the dead man’s anomie, but also related to it in other ways – as a similar sort of question mark, perhaps. Gardner, perfectly cast in the Siodmak film, has a quiet, stealthy grace that suggests almost infinite untrustworthiness. Nothing complicated here, but the sheer calm of the pose is extraordinary. Dickinson is not really a vamp at all, she’s too ironic and alert, and the script does give her character some ambiguity: she may really love the victim more than she loves the man who owns her, as the boss’s assistant phrases it. But then she loves wealth and security more than anything. There’s something weirdly sensible about this, particularly where so much mystery surrounds everything else.

And finally, what’s most striking about the vamp business, perhaps, is the way the men think about these women. Not the innocents. They just fall, like Lancaster. Or fall, get angry and fall again, like Cassavetes. I’m thinking of the supposed masters, the men who own these women: Albert Dekker in the Siodmak movie, Ronald Reagan (in his last film role) in the Siegel. They have a strange, almost wistful tone of admiration and resentment when they speak of their glamorous partners, as if owning them were not enough. As if the women would always be ahead, even when slapped about and subjugated. The films themselves demonise the dames in the end, of course – it’s just rapacity in both cases – but what else are you going to do when your subordinates are so superior?