KILLERS X 3: A recent DVD set from Criterion pairs Robert Siodmak's 1946 noir classic The Killers with Don Siegel's 1964 remake of the movie. (Both are based very loosely on Ernest Hemmingway's short story.) I'm a big fan of the original film, and I had never seen the remake, so I rented the set eagerly last night. In addition to being made by Siegel -- one of my favorite directors -- the '64 version is notable for featuring Ronald Reagan as a villain. That I wanted to see.
I wasn't disappointed. Even if this were a lousy movie, it would be worth watching just to see Reagan as a gangster who hits Angie Dickinson and says things like "I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles." The man who steals the show, though, is Lee Marvin as one of the eponymous killers -- I don't think I've ever seen him give a better performance. A very good, very underrated picture; I recommend it almost as highly as Siodmak's version.
But here's the strangest thing. Among the set's many extras is a 19-minute student film of "The Killers" made in 1958. The chief director was, of all people, Andrei Tarkovksy. The thought of Tarkovksy making anything so short boggles the mind, but Tark fans needn't be disillusioned: In his hands, 19 minutes feels like three hours. Aside from one inventive sequence in the middle, his film is leaden stuff. On the other hand, it's the only version that faithfully follows the original Hemmingway.
As a smart, funny description of a particular time and place, this is excellent stuff. As an insight into the conservative experience, it's less impressive. Frank's days as a suburban Reaganite may reflect the lives of many middle-class kids, but they don't say much about why someone might find conservative ideas intellectually attractive, as opposed to emotionally rewarding. I suspect one reason Frank often has trouble distinguishing free markets from crony capitalism is the fact that he didn't pay much attention to the theoretical case for markets when he was on the right, and subconsciously assumes that no one else did either. "Here was I," he writes, "a Mission Hills lad, growing up in one of the perfect regional arcadias of American capitalism, a place more like the grounds of Versailles than the average postwar suburb, and what I had managed to do was invent a romantic justification for precisely the system of social arrangements that had made Mission Hills possible."
I can sympathize. While Frank's chapter reminded me very little of most conservatives I've known, it reminded me quite a bit of my own teenage days, even though I've never been a Republican in my life. Five years younger than Frank, growing up in a liberal college town, Teen Jesse looked back with nostalgia not at the lost days before the '60s but at the lost days of the '60s themselves. My politics were skeptical, humanist, and leftist, a combination I'd absorbed from the city's old hippies, young punks, and liberal professors. Here I was, a Chapel Hill lad, growing up in one of the perfect regional arcadias of American academia, and what I managed to do was invent a romantic justification for precisely the system of social arrangements that had made Chapel Hill possible.
And what changed my mind? Well, I was already a libertarian of sorts by the time I reached college, but what made me decide I wasn't a part of the left was watching the P.C. authoritarianism of so many university progressives, a group whose high-handed bullying had more than a little in common with the frat hounds Frank faced at the University of Kansas.
Tom Frank's memoir was supposed to describe a political type. Instead it reveals a personality type. Like so much of his book, that makes for better literature than sociology.