For the taut, cynical, cleverly constructed sun-drenched east coast thriller this picture turned out to be, which first established forty-year-old supporting actor Lee Marvin in the veteran tough guy anti-hero screen persona for which he was soon to become internationally known, 1964’s “The Killers” has deceptively unprepossessing origins, despite lining up its director and producer Don Siegel’s then-stuttering career in the crosshairs of a gun-sight that eventually leads him in 1971 to the making of “Dirty Harry”, while incidentally setting the course for Siegel’s directorial resurgence and critical reappraisal as the godfather of the modern, hard-edged action thriller.
And yet “The Killers” is ostensibly a quickly shot, made for TV remake of a classic Golden Age 1940s Hollywood film noir by one of the genre’s greatest practitioners, Robert Siodmak. The same-titled original, made by Universal, saw the young Burt Lancaster and the sultry femme fatale Ava Gardner take on the lead roles, and Siodmak dealing in the genre’s trademark Expressionistic sense of heightened reality filtered through a cinematic vision composed with deep dark shadows and slanted light. In that telling a faithful adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story source becomes a first act set-up that gets spun out -- by uncredited screenwriters John Huston and Richard Brooks -- into a classic noir flashback scenario that sees Edmond O'Brien’s Insurance adjuster investigating the circumstances of a mob hit on Lancaster’s character and gradually gleaning the details of a backstory built on lies, deception, greed and obsession.
Siegel’s film, on the other hand, completely dispenses with all the mysterious glamour and heady romanticism of film noir, and bluntly embraces a neutral landscape of bland hotel rooms, identikit hospital wards, humdrum home interiors with suburban garages, and anonymous 1960s offices dressed with random TV studio set furnishings; all flat lit relentlessly in the standardised Technicolor palette familiar to countless American TV dramas from the decade. The cast, too, was mainly comprised of faded Hollywood B movie supporting actors, or languishing contract players whose faces would have been more recognisable to American audiences of the day from their guest appearances in the hokey parade of serial Westerns churned out by American TV in the 1950s. On the face of it, then, this should really have been an entirely forgettable affair: a cheaply produced, syndicated TV Movie of the Week, soon to be consigned to oblivion like so many that came later; perhaps worth a footnote in television history as the first of its kind for sure, but certainly not destined for the kind of modern classic status that has since been deservedly thrust upon it, and which leads now to its release on Blu-ray being the rather glorious looking candidate for appraisal that this special edition in fact is, thanks to the lavish attentions of UK distributor Arrow Films and its Academy range -- an imprint specifically reserved for the release of key titles crucial to the development of cinema.
“The Killers”, as the property intended to be the first ever NBC movie special of the week, was chosen by Lew Wasserman -- the head of leading Hollywood talent agency M.C.A. -- after new S.A.G. rules had just made possible his acquisition of Universal International Pictures. Universal, of course, already owned the rights to the Siodmak picture so a remake involved no extra cost, and the previous success of the title probably made it seem a reasonably safe contender for prime time syndication when Universal branched out into TV production, the Ernest Hemingway connection also adding a welcome pinch of prestige despite the fact that assigned producer and director Don Siegel had TV writer Gene Coon (later to be one of the main creative driving forces behind the development of “Star Trek”) overhaul the story told by the original film to such an extent that, in the process, nothing substantial of the author’s original short story remained in his teleplay … besides perhaps a hint of Hemingway’s penchant for edgy studies in masculinity and emasculation as represented in John Cassavetes’ character Johnny North, through his fractious relationship with Angie Dickinson’s dangerously irresistible female catalyst for self-destruction, Sheila Farr. In fact, Siegel had intended to call the film “Johnny North” and shot it under that title to distance it from any Hemingway connection -- only to have the original moniker reinstated by the TV executives. As things were to play out, though, fate decided that “The Killers” would never get to fulfil its original movie of the week role after all, and instead it debuted theatrically in the UK, where it received good notices and, indeed, went on to earn its star Lee Marvin a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actor that year.
It had always been intended that the film might have a theatrical life outside of its stint on TV, which is why Siegel’s framing takes into consideration both the then-standard TV aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and the fact that the film would have to be matted at a 1.85:1 ratio if ever it came to be exhibited in theatres. It is this intended double-life which helps elevate the film in status all these years later. For it was produced during a transitional period in Hollywood history, just after the collapse of the star system that had previously been overseen by the Screen Actors’ Guild and the big studios, but before the rise of the maverick filmmakers who came afterwards, and who often continued to work within the studio system in the late-sixties/early-seventies even though their movies began dealing in edgier subject matter and are generally now grouped together under the umbrella term New Hollywood. “The Killers” looks like any other fifties colour studio picture on the surface, but it is filled with unsympathetic characters, lean characterisation, and is much more explicit in its use of violence than most anything that had been seen before up to that point, pointing the way to later more explicit thrillers to come in the seventies.
Usually, Hollywood violence was extremely stylised, and generally removed itself from reality by the way it was choreographed and depicted. But when somebody gets hit or roughed up in “The Killers” you feel it. The opening scene, for instance, has Lee Marvin and co-star Clu Gulager as two immaculately suited hired hit men who walk into a school for the blind and coldly set about intimidating and terrorising the blind female receptionist with rough treatment and the threat of physical harm. When Marvin and Gulager actually bump off their true target minutes later, at point blank range in a classroom full of his students, Siegel puts particular emphasis on the act by overcranking the camera as the first bullets hit the victim’s body – inadvertently anticipating one of the slow-motion stylistic traits that would come to be associated with Sam Peckinpah’s depiction of violence on the screen at the end of the sixties. It is scenes like this which were the reason why the film never got shown on TV in its intended slot; Lee Marvin and Gulager are calculating killers capable of switching in a micro second from casually chatting about trivia to violently grabbing Angie Dickinson’s character and dangling her out of a hotel window. Such characterisation was still influential in the ‘90s and can be seen in the interactions between hit men Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” -- but it was deemed simply too violent and ‘real’ by NBC executives at the time. Production of the movie was also interrupted by the assassination of John F Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, and the film does contain one particular scene in which a sniper with a high-powered rifle is shown firing on his intended victims from the window of an upper storey office just as his targets exit a hotel foyer: another obvious reason why the country’s TV channels might have not been too keen on the film at the time! Actually, that scene has an even greater and more perverse resonance for viewers today, because the actor doing the sniping was future President of the United States Ronald Reagan – who was to survive an assassination attempt made on him during his Presidency in 1981!
Reagan’s casting in the film by Siegel (they’d worked together before on the 1949 drama “Night Unto Night”) is one of those strokes of genius that manages to encapsulate everything about what makes this movie work, both at the time but even more so when watched now in hindsight. Reagan’s carefully managed screen persona as ‘the nice guy next door’, which was epitomised by a series of 1940s buddy movies in which the handsome but uninspired actor always played the supporting role to the movie’s lead is, on the one hand, being deliberately evoked by the way in which Siegel capitalises on the palpable fact that Reagan had limited acting chops, and could only really play any role he was given with his customary ‘folksy charm’ set of mannerisms. But deliberate miscasting like this also plays beautifully to the film’s central existential theme concerning the unknowability of people to each other. Reagan’s character, Jack Browning, projects the image of a dependable, down-to-earth businessman, and even though we know he’s a gangster his air of mild-mannered reliability colours our image of him … right up until the exact moment he unexpectedly slaps Angie Dickinson’s character full in the face and the corruption and venality underneath makes itself explicit. Reagan came to hate the film and his role in it -- not just, one suspects, because it portrays him as an assassin and a woman beater, but because of the way in which it deliberately sets out to exploit and subvert his carefully cultivated nice guy image in order to excoriate the falseness of the respectability of the small ‘c’ American capitalist businessman of the era – the same image he was to depend on in his career as a Republican politician and as President.
The intractability of the inner nature of people in general and the impossibility of fully understanding the past and the multiple obscure motivations guiding a person’s actions are related themes established from the opening shots of the movie which, as mentioned, take place in a blind school, more for symbolic reasons than for their necessity to the plot. Shots of children playing cowboys and Indians and pretending to gun each other down on the lawn outside the school anticipate the imminent murder of ex racing driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes) that's about to take place inside, but also prefigure the very final moments of the movie when, the entire principle cast having by now been dispatched, Marvin’s hit man Charlie Strom stumbles mortally wounded onto a suburban lawn, dripping blood as he forms his fingers into an imaginary weapon aimed at a police patrol car as it comes cruising into view along the drive.
Marvin’s character – a middle-aged, silver-haired hit man on the verge of ‘retirement’, who had thought he’d seen it all – becomes obsessed with the fact that North didn’t run when warned of the hit, but instead seemed merely to accept it, waiting patiently for the moment of his demise to arrive and not flinching from the spot as Charlie and Lee draw their weapons on him. We are told nothing explicit about either Charlie or his younger, fidgety and unpredictable partner Lee, but their interplay (Charlie, measured and inscrutable; Lee, volatile and active) tells us everything we need to know about their relationship and its dynamic, apparently facilitated by Siegel secretly telling Gulager to try his best to upstage Marvin in every scene, knowing the latter had enough inherent charisma to be able to deflect such an assault while barely seeming to raise an eyebrow. This was Marvin’s first role as a top billed star and the one to set him on his way to stardom (he would even get to re-establish his screen relationship with female lead Angie Dickinson a few years later, in John Boorman’s “Point Blank”) after having steadily built a name for himself in television and several supporting roles in movies by John Ford, among others, where he starred opposite John Wayne. Now as the star of the show (although Cassavetes gets more screen time) he was not about to be overshadowed by anyone.
Although Charlie gets Lee on board with his plan to take a trip to Miami, Florida in order to find out more about who paid the unusually high fee to have Johnny hit and why, it’s only when they discover that their target was previously involved in a million-dollar robbery of a US mail truck four years before, that Lee truly becomes interested in the investigation, realising that the money must still be out there somewhere and could be theirs for the taking. Charlie and Lee spend the rest of the movie tracking down anyone who knew Johnny or was involved in the mail truck robbery plot, in order to piece together the truth and discover the current location of the loot. But even though there is the prospect of a cash reward looming on the horizon, one always senses that it is Johnny’s strange reaction (or lack of reaction) to his own death which is driving Marvin’s character on to discover more, his victim’s indifference appearing to reveal a troubling hole in Charlie’s knowledge of human behaviour which also suggests a gap in his own self-knowledge.
The film, then, echoes the original Soidmak version in its proceeding as a series of flashbacks which aim to uncover a mystery, the progression of each stage of the story instigated by the memories of persons interviewed in succession by the two hit men as they lean on those involved in the events four years previously. Each segment is slotted into place as though it were part of a jigsaw puzzle forming a larger picture of reality. What we are getting, in fact, is a plotline that is actually made up out of a fragmented series of unreliable narratives, with each part the story told by one of several different narrators: Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Johnny’s racing mechanic partner and best friend; Micky, one of the mail truck robbers who was part of Jack Browning’s gang (Norman Fell); Browning himself (Reagan), and Browning’s girlfriend and Johnny’s ex-mistress, Sheila (Angie Dickinson) – all accounts though are potentially compromised either by a lack of or inaccurate information, the deliberate spreading of misinformation fed to the hit men by one of the interested parties and outright lies intended to manipulate their responses and actions.
Charlie and Lee piece together the elements of a narrative that forms itself into the storyline we as the audience are also being presented with. One in which the dangerous love affair between impetuous champion racing driver Johnny North and Sheila Farr leads to a twisty-turny plot of double- or triple-crossings with Angie Dickinson’s character, and her apparently limitless capacity for treachery in the name of living dangerously, at the centre of everything. There are several different sorts of ‘blindness’ being laid bare here: Johnny’s blindness over the manipulative influence Sheila has over everyone around her, born of his passion for her and a reckless, stubborn, macho bravado that ends up wrecking his racing career and eventually embroils him in much more serious trouble when Browning’s gang need a driver in order to get their scheme to work and North allows himself to be persuaded to take part in order to impress Sheila. Then there’s Browning’s deliberate turning of a blind eye to the obvious chemistry sizzling between Shelia and Johnny right in front of his face during the planning of the robbery. Finally, there is the blindness displayed by Charlie and Lee as they hear the tale coming together and think they’ve figured out the score. Even though they eventually discover what made Johnny refuse to run when presented with the prospect of his own death, they do not see in time how their own greed has allowed them also to be led into an equally dangerous situation. The labyrinth of various deceptions and manipulations conveyed by these flashbacks come back to haunt us in the final moments when we realise that, at the end of it all, we cannot really say that we ever knew any of these characters or their true motivations with any certainty -- for as a million dollars flutters away on a November breeze in Florida, we only have a narrative woven out of hearsay and half-truths to go on.
What is more solid and certain is the professional economy and undemonstrative efficiency of style Don Siegel brings to his treatment of the material, effectively conveying the ensemble performances with clarity and embroiling us emotionally in the cynical world of these characters, despite their unsympathetic or flawed natures. Considering this was made for TV it has none of the unimaginative flatness we’ve since come to expect of the television movie genre, while at the same time it studiously avoids overtly showy illustrations of technique. Siegel rarely imposed any recognisable film aesthetic on his work from film to film but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have bags of style and a smooth competence; and, enhanced by John Williams’ brassy score, there are some very nice crane shots employed here along the way by cinematographer Richard Rawlings, while the 18mm lens Siegel uses in a crucial shot near the end of the movie allows the silencer on Lee Marvin’s pistol to fill the entire screen with great visual impact, creating an immediately memorable image as the final reckoning arrives for another woebegotten protagonist.
There is an awful lot of rear projection work used for the driving scenes which now looks rather artificial and appears throughout large chunks of the picture (apparently John Cassavetes could barely drive in real life), and a lot of motor racing stock footage is inserted to cover North’s racing crash by attempting to match footage of a real racing incident involving a Ford Cobra, caught on camera during coverage of an actual Grand Prix, with the vehicle Cassavetes drives -- but these production techniques were still relatively acceptable to audiences in the mid-sixties and the film doesn’t particularly suffer much for merely demonstrating the conventions of its age any more than a Hitchcock film does today. This UK Blu-ray edition from Arrow Academy does present a particularly luscious HD transfer though, with bright Technicolor hues that pop off the screen and make the spectacle a very attractive one that offers a beguiling peak into the world of early-sixties American motor sport as a side bonus.
Both the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the theatrically matted 1.85:1 version are included because the latter would have been how the first theatre audiences would have seen it and neither one can be considered the ‘correct’ presentation. We get some nice extras too, consisting of two biographical documentaries produced by High Rising Productions that concentrate on two of the most prominent names in the film: “Screen Killer” (30 mins) features Lee Marvin’s biographer Dwayne Epstein talking about the life of this charismatic tough guy hero of acting, and how his wartime experiences during the Pacific campaign of WW2 left him with survivor guilt and an attraction to violence fed by alcoholism that he later channelled into his acting. There are plenty of anecdotes and observations from throughout Marvin’s career, and some particularly interesting notes on his performance in “The Killers”, interspersed with clips from the movie and production photos from many of his other films.
Biographer Marc Eliot offers an equally incisive portrait of the ups and downs of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood career, in front of the camera and behind the scenes, in “Reagan Kills” (20 mins) -- and although he seems to miss the point by dismissing Reagan’s appearance in “The Killers” as an instance of gross miscasting, the featurette gives us an interesting insight into the personality of this folksy former Democrat who gradually shifted to the right. Finally, a ten minute excerpt from a French film programme made in 1984 includes an interview with Don Siegel, who talks about his lack of a recognisable style and how his approach to filmmaking was formed by years of working as a second unit director for a host of different film makers who all had varying styles and approaches to their use of the camera, which he would try to mimic in order to match his footage with theirs. He also claims that he would much prefer to be directing romance or comedy over action films and, when asks why he doesn’t, ends by defiantly stating: ‘I’m a whore … I work for money!’
For more detailed analysis and perspective on the making of the film, a full-colour collector’s booklet features an excellent overview by writer Mike Sutton; a selection of quotes from contemporary reviews to provide a flavour of the various press reactions to the movie upon its release; and a valuable, lengthy extract from Don Siegel’s posthumously published 1993 memoir “A Siegel Film”, which gives a colourful and immensely detailed account of all the stages involved in the making of “The Killers”, from pre-production and casting to the actual shooting.
“The Killers” is a true classic of American cinema that slides effortlessly between the cracks of two eras and seems to represent both with equal convincingness. Where else could you have actors as different as John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan appearing side-by-side in the same film without the results looking totally anomalous? This is a fine release which delivers everything one could hope for in the visual and audio presentation stakes and which should be made part of every cinephile’s collection immediately.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!