“Once in a while.”
“You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.”
—from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”
Last week’s Hemingway binge began with both the 1946 and 1964 film versions of his story, “The Killers,” on a 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD from the Princeton Public Library.
Meanwhile, to catch up on what’s been happening in the Hemingway marketplace, I went back to the library and checked out a copy of Paula McLain’s best-selling The Paris Wife (Ballantine 2012), still in the top 20 after 30-plus weeks on the New York Times trade paperback list. Right now I’m still recovering from two and a half hours of another library item, HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), which I watched on the assumption that between a solid director like Philip Kaufman and an actress I admire, Nicole Kidman, it would be worth seeing, which it sort of almost was. Except that by the end, even the impressively replicated illusion of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and Kidman’s performance as journalist Martha Gellhorn had been fatally tainted by the humiliation visited on Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).
Assuming no one has organized a Hemingway Anti-Defamation League, we will have to make do, for now, with The Paris Wife. Although this novel offers one of the most sympathetic depictions of the young writer ever put between covers, it surely has Hemingway doing somersaults in his grave, outraged not only by the idea of a woman taking possession of his story but, to put it crudely, stealing his first wife Hadley’s soul. In spite of being sneeringly dismissed out of hand by some reviewers, McLain accomplishes her mission with grace and style. You may occasionally cringe or roll your eyes, but by the end, you feel that you know Hadley (1891-1979) as well if not better than you do in Hemingway’s end-of-life love letter to her in A Moveable Feast — and without the happier and nicer and smarter than thou smugness that sometimes infects his account of the relationship.
One reason to celebrate The Paris Wife’s extraordinary success is the hope that many more people will have encountered McLain’s Hemingway than the loutish travesty perpetrated by Hemingway and Gellhorn, where Clive Owen’s in-your-face blowhard suggests Groucho Marx on steroids crossed with Ali G at his most embarrassingly buffoonish. You rarely believe that this guy is capable of writing “the one true word” Hemingway said every story should begin with. Philip Kaufman seems to have sold Hemingway short in his eagerness to show why, as he says in an online Hollywood Reporter interview, Gellhorn is worth a great deal more than a footnote in the life of the 20th century’s most famous writer. And when Kaufman says that Gellhorn was “the only one of Hemingway’s wives who loved him,” you know he hasn’t read The Paris Wife. All the well-known character defects are there, but instead of making you think what a jerk he is, you see him as Hadley does and you suffer with her when he makes the same wrong moves that he himself ends up lamenting in the luminous memoir that was in his typewriter on the July morning he took the story of his life in his own hands and ended it on his own terms.
Thinking the Unthinkable
The first half of Hemingway’s most famous, most anthologized story, “The Killers,” is an entertainment. Think of it as gangster vaudeville. Al and Max, two hit men from Chicago, small in stature, wrapped in big tight-fitting overcoats and gloves, come into a suburban lunch-room, engage in a kind of tag-team taunting of George, the man behind the counter, and the sole customer, Nick Adams, Hemingway’s youthful alter ego. Al and Max are cracking themselves up even as they blithely admit they are there to blow away the Swede who is known to stop in at six every evening. The verbal bullying (“Well, bright boy, why don’t you say something?” “What’s it all about?” “Hey, Al … bright boy wants to know what it’s all about”) is not that far removed from Hemingway’s own approach to journalists, correspondents, and interviewers, including even “bright boy” George Plimpton in the Paris Review (“when you ask someone old, tired questions, you are apt to get old, tired answers”). After Al eats his ham and eggs and Max his bacon and eggs, which they do with their gloves on, they get down to business and tie up and gag Nick and Sam, the black cook, and when the Swede doesn’t show up, they go looking for him.
At this point, with Nick hurrying ahead to the Swede’s rooming house to warn him, entertainment becomes literature. As can be seen by the piece he wrote for the Oak Park and River Forest High School literary magazine in 1916 (“A Matter of Color”), Hemingway already had a knack for gangland dialogue at 17. Nick’s exchange with the Swede, who is lying in bed staring at the wall, is on another, more darkly suggestive level. Every dead flat toneless sentence the Swede utters in response to the news that two men have said they’re going to kill him (“There isn’t anything I can do about it …. That wouldn’t do any good …. There ain’t anything to do”) is hard core Hemingway, the haunting, hypnotic endgame edge and acid essence of his style. Here’s a man receiving word of his impending death without emotion, without the least sign of resistance to the prospect. Appalled at what he’s witnessed, Nick goes back to the lunch room, where he and George speculate about the Swede’s attitude and what he must have done to draw the death sentence. Nick is shaken. He can’t stand to think about the man “waiting in that room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.” What George says next seals the story, wraps it up, and leaves the reader in a hush.
“Well,” said George, “you better not think about it.”
That’s it. Neither motion picture version of The Killers replays that essential Hemingway advisory because it wouldn’t work. It was made for the page and nothing but the page. Imagine trying to end a film with someone saying “Well, you better not think about it.” No actor on the planet could make of that sentence anything remotely comparable to what Hemingway accomplishes by laying it out in cold hard type. This is where the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words just doesn’t cut it.
So how do you make a movie out of a short story that slams the door in your face with that last line? First you have to figure out what the Swede did to earn a death sentence (“I got in wrong” is all he tells Nick) and then you have to show why he doesn’t care (“There ain’t anything to do now”). Anthony Veiller and John Huston’s screenplay for the 1946 version directed by Robert Siodmak recreates the scene in the lunch room, with most of the Hemingway dialogue intact, along with Nick’s visit to the Swede. The flashback that fills out the 105 minutes of screen time is a well-done if routine film noir about a bungled heist, a femme fatale (Ava Gardner), a lovelorn boxer (Burt Lancaster’s Swede), and a crime boss (Albert Dekker). In Don Siegel’s 1964 technicolor version the lunch room scene with the Hemingway dialogue is gone, the doomed man is a race car driver (John Cassavetes) and everyone dies, including both killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager), the femme fatale (Angie Dickinson), and the crime boss (Ronald Reagan). If it weren’t for the title, you wouldn’t know that what you were seeing was based on Hemingway’s story. While the two hit men in Siodmak’s film are true to the original in being confined to the setting of the opening act, the killers in Siegel’s film behave like protagonists. With Gulager providing the entertainment by way of his sarcastic one-liners, Lee Marvin carries the weight of the story, for he wants more than the missing money. He wants to know why the Cassavetes character just stood there not caring when they killed him. Marvin is an amazing actor (as Gulager movingly testifies on the Criterion DVD), one of the few who could give a charge to the you-better-not-think-about-it line. But he doesn’t have to say it, he presents it physically. He is it, he’s the medium for that terse message.
Both films fall short of the story in the end because the reason for each victim’s indifference to death amounts to nothing more than a film noir cliche: betrayal by a woman. Hemingway doesn’t go there. No need to. As he once put it, “that story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote …. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.”
He also thought that the 1946 Killers was “the only good picture made of a story of mine.” When producer Mark Hellinger sent a publicist to Idaho with a print to personally screen for him, Hemingway watched it with a pint of gin and a pint of water handy so that he could numb the pain if the film got bad. After the screening, he held up the full bottles with a big smile.
The truth is, Hollywood served Hemingway well, at least when the directors were of the stature of Frank Borzage and Howard Hawks. The author was also fortunate that his close friend Gary Cooper was born to play the Hemingway hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and Borzage’s Academy-Award-nominated version of A Farewell to Arms (1932), which Hemingway considered a romanticized abomination. As for To Have and Have Not (1944), loosely based on a novel Hemingway himself made no claims for, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, least of all the author, could have a problem with the happy wonders Hawks and Faulkner, Bogart and Bacall did with that one.
Clearly, Hemingway had little respect for the medium, as the teasing reference in the “The Killers” quoted in this column’s epigraph indicates. In fact, hitman Al’s “the movies are fine for a bright boy like you” never made it into the 1946 film version of the lunch room scene. Given the twisted concerns of an industry that was always watching its back, perhaps the Hays Office and the custodians of the Code feared that audiences would think going to the pictures was endorsed by gangsters.
Princeton native Mary Chapin-Carpenter puts the heart-in-the-right-place essence of Paula McLain’s novel into a six-minute ballad, “Mrs. Hemingway,” from her 2010 The Age of Miracles. Hadley is left out of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but then she’s used to that: Hemingway left her out of The Sun Also Rises. He more than made up for that in A Moveable Feast, of course.
One reason to see the Criterion DVD of The Killers is its inclusion of -Andrei Tarkovsky’s 20-minute student film version of the story.