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The Killers Restored on 4K, Thanks to The Film Foundation

“The Killers,” originally a 1927 short story by American writer Ernest Hemingway, proved to be such strong source material that it was turned into a movie not once but twice: first in 1946 by director Robert Siodmak in a hauntingly beautiful, stark black and white film noir, and then again in 1964 by Don Siegel, the man who was originally sought to direct the 1946 adaption, at the helm for a surprisingly tense, terse yet amusing piece set in the swinging sixties.

Now, thanks to The Film Foundation, both versions of The Killers have had new life breathed into them, with both being restored into 4K and being added to the Foundation’s database. In collaboration with Delphi, ‘The Film Foundation Restoration Screening Room’, accessed via the Foundation’s website, gave an opportunity to stream both films for free for a limited period between July 8th and July 11th, 2023 and, being a bit of a film noir fiend in my younger days, I was not going to miss out on this, especially as I had never seen the 1964 edition before this.

For those who are not aware, and I certainly somehow didn’t know a lot about the Foundation until I registered to stream, The Film Foundation is a “nonprofit organization established in 1990 dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history”. It was founded by Martin Scorsese, so you can appreciate the level of care, respect, and attention the films and their restorations are given by the Foundation. While their archive of restored films is generally available to the public only through places like educational centres, museums, galleries and, I would assume, cinemas that request them, their online ‘Restoration Screening Room’ is a great resource for cineastes to be able to see some of the art form’s historical triumphs, restored to a visual standard that could not have been dreamed of at the time, yet without diluting any of the original aesthetic beauty of the films themselves.

The 1946 edition of The Killers has been restored using the original 35mm nitrate negative, while the 1964 edition uses the original 35mm negative. Both films have had 4K workflow and restoration services provided by NBCUniversal StudioPost and both films, I am happy to report, look like a million bucks (the kind you might rob a payroll or mail truck for!)

Comparing the 1946 edition of The Killers to my old DVD copy, the difference is remarkable. On disc, the film is murky-looking, grainy, a distortion of a vision of evil, if you will. This brings up perhaps quite a valuable question when addressing the issue of the restoration of older films, especially film noir: in a genre whose major aesthetic involves shadows, grime and obscured vision, could restoration clear out all the shadows and therefore all the danger out of these films? In clear light, can film noirs still capture us in their pulpy, illicit spell or does the magic leave with the vivid chiaroscuro?

The 1946 version of The Killers proves that restoration can allow both film and audience to have their cake and eat it. Yes, the murk is scrubbed out, leaving an astonishing clarity of image that pops from the screen and renders each and every outline in sharp relief. But it does not take the magic away from the aesthetic—the clarity does not kill the tension of the atmosphere that the film inhabits. What it does instead is swap out what you could call the ‘compromised’ shadow of DVD for a pure shadow instead. The darkness feels truer, deeper-looking, more defined and therefore compliments and contests the light rather than mingling with it and creating a more general gloom, as I would argue the DVD version does. It’s an astonishing revelation, this clarified darkness, and it really is a testament to the skills of The Film Foundation that such a good job has been done to restore the film and clarify the image whilst maintaining visually its essential ‘noir-ness’.

While I had not seen the 1964 edition of The Killers before this, I can see that while this film is colour, the sharpness of the image is remarkable, giving a crispness to the visuals that matches the excitement of the quicker pace, the more aggressive action and the brilliant tension displayed by Lee Marvin as one of the titular killers, close to the end of the game of life and wanting to know why a man with a target on his head would just throw his hands up to fate and not try to run for his life. The restored visuals display Marvin’s conflicted rage absolutely and the whole film is a sight to behold.

In fact, if you have seen neither film before, I heartily recommend catching both as quickly as you can. They’re that good. In fact, the 1946 The Killers is one of the jewels of the original run of Film Noirs, and is certainly more traditional as a Noir than its remake. Ava Gardner gives a sterling turn as femme fatale Kitty Collins, leading the broken and desperate Ole Anderson, played with cool intensity by Burt Lancaster in his first movie role, into a web of disaster that will see the man killed at the start, leaving an inquisitive insurance man, Jim Reardon (played charmingly by Edmond O’Brien) to piece the story together from the beginning and solve who pulled the trigger on Ole. It’s not as convoluted as some film noir plots can be and works very much on the strength of its characters—Sam Levene as Lt. Sam Lubinsky particularly impresses with his homespun charm and his weary, hard-won street knowledge.

For all that, I actually think the 1964 edition is the stronger film. The aforementioned Lee Marvin as Charlie Strom, alongside Clu Gulager as his accomplice Lee, are a fascinating study in contrasts. Marvin snaps terrifyingly from controlled and contained, professional even, to downright terrifying in an instant, while Lee acts the clown, making it even more scary when he hints that he might just snap any second. The pair are on a journey of Strom’s choosing after completing a hit on Johnny North (John Cassavetes), a teacher at a deaf school that does not resist or try to run when they come for him. In all the jobs he’s done, Strom has never seen a man give in so completely. It’s this philosophical element which perhaps elevates the film for me as I’m always compelled by films that question a man’s soul in extreme situations. But director Don Siegal also keeps the pace at full throttle, keeping the movie running at a fine clip, and the memorable performances from Marvin, Gulager, Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson as femme fatale Sheila Farr grab you through the screen and invest you in their world.

It’s a damn shame that The Film Foundation restorations won’t immediately be more readily available to view, as they are gorgeous and should be shared with as many people as possible. In any case, if you never entered either of the worlds of The Killers before, let this review be an incitement. Seek out the best copies you can find and immerse yourself in some great, gritty noir storytelling.

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL, Film Obsessive and TV Obsessive who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, Art House Cinema, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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