The Killers (1964) starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson
What’s it about?
Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play Charlie and Lee, a pair of contract killers who are paid $25,000 to rub out a man named Johnny North (John Cassavetes) for stealing $1 million. They force their way into the blind school where he is now working and gun him down in cold blood.
On the train journey back, the older and wiser Charlie starts to ponder a number of details about the case. Firstly, Johnny didn’t make any attempt to escape his fate. Secondly, $25,000 is an inordinately large amount of money for a simple hit. Thirdly, their mysterious client didn’t bother to ask them to retrieve the missing million. Charlie suddenly twigs:
“Whoever laid this contract wasn't worried about the million dollars, and the only people that don't worry about a million dollars are the people that have a million dollars.”
The pair decide that the prospect of shaking their client down for a considerable number of extra dollars isn’t an opportunity to pass by. They make a few diversions in their cross-country travels to interrogate various people connected with Johnny and get to the bottom of who ordered the hit. Much of the subsequent story takes place in flashback as the people whom they rough up spill the details of how the erstwhile race car driver Johnny got involved with both a sultry dame named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) and the criminal underworld.
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Why is it significant?
This is the second filmed version of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story The Killers, the first being the 1946 adaptation directed by Robert Siodmak. Universal made it with the intention of it being first ever made-for-TV movie to be broadcast on US networks. However, it was deemed too violent for home viewing and ended up being released in cinemas instead. Indeed, it has subsequently become regarded as one of a slew of American films released during the 1960s which successively broke new ground in the level of depicted onscreen bloodshed.
The cast is also notable. Firstly, this was Lee Marvin’s first top-billed role. This was also the first occasion when he would act alongside Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes. Both would join him onscreen again in 1967 in the two films which have subsequently been regarded as the legendary actor’s most iconic: Dickinson starred alongside him in Point Blank and Cassavetes did the same in The Dirty Dozen.
It was the actor and Republican politician Ronald Reagan’s last feature film appearance before he turned his attention wholeheartedly towards the latter, ultimately ending up in the White House from 1981-1990. It was also the only occasion when he played an antagonist. He was quite reluctant to play against type and particularly disliked a violent scene involving him hitting Ms. Dickinson. However, director Don Siegel successfully managed to persuade him to take the part.
Filming was somewhat problematic since John F. Kennedy while it was underway. A number of the cast members, including Marvin and Dickinson, were in mourning. Reagan, of course, was an exception, but tactfully avoided discussing his political views with the others.
How does it hold up?
Whereas the earlier 1946 version of the story, stylistically-speaking, fitted firmly into the film noir category, this one has the atmosphere of a playful 1960s action film. The colour palette uses the riotously bright children’s nursery hues of the Eastman Color process. Much of the runtime is filled out with depictions of car races, a heist and a smattering of shootings. However, the somewhat lightweight surface appearance both belies and adds jolting impact to the hilariously hardboiled dialogue and merciless violence. The result is like biting into the sugar-coated shell of an M & M only to discover that it hides a California Reaper chilli. The film’s visuals may not be noir but its black heart most certainly is.
The standout scenes here are, of course, those featuring the titular killers. Gulager plays the chattier and more immature of the two, who functions in the manner of a sadistic school bully as he pours water out of a vase over the floor in front of the unsuspecting eyes of a blind desk clerk. Marvin, on the other hand, plays the kind of laconic human rock that became his stock-in-trade star persona over the years. He’s a man of few words who uses them bluntly and carefully. When he strikes out he does so with a shocking and sudden precision. They function superbly as an onscreen double-act who seem to have known each other long enough to instinctively combine their specialities and function as one deadly unit.
The dialogue during their scenes together and with their unfortunate victims is classic stuff. When Lee (Gulager) lands a bruising punch on Sheila’s face when she’s clearly spinning them a web of lies, Charlie (Marvin) follows up with the drily-delivered line:
“Lady, I don’t like your story. Tell me another one.”
That’s not to say that the other cast members aren’t worthy of note. John Cassavetes’ character Johnny isn’t an archetypal weak sucker; if anything, he’s a cocky, charming and confident alpha male who views Sheila’s attention as the fruit of his conquests. It’s left ambiguous until late on in the runtime whether or not Sheila genuinely reciprocates or is merely using him in typical femme fatale manner. Angie Dickinson herself is great playing this outrageously sultry and forward character. Although she was only about 32 at the time of filming, she has a disarmingly mature air about her that projects a certain innate sense that, while Johnny drives the cars, she’s more metaphorically in the driver’s seat.
After watching him take centre stage on TV news throughout the 1980s it’s rather surreal seeing him act here - and even more so seeing him play a career criminal rather than his usual stock boy scout hero. However, he maintains a cooly professional and even somewhat pleasant demeanour which makes the fact that he ultimately resorts to acts of violence all the more jolting.
If there are any weaknesses to this adaptation of Hemingway’s novel it’s in the production values which betray its made-for-TV origins. The rear projection shots of the actors during the vehicle scenes are glaringly unconvincing; a go-kart race sequence fares particularly badly in this regard. A later racing car crash involves grainy stock footage. During this same fateful race sequence, the shots of the main actors stand by the trackside clearly take place on studio sets.
However, director Don Siegel makes the most of the limitations of TV filming and pulls off some inspired flourishes. The subtle use of Dutch angles during the opening sequence in the blind school is particularly notable, as are some aerial shots later on. There’s also a classic shot of a gun being pointed right into the camera in extreme close-up near the end.
“Lady, I ain’t got the time.”
There’s so much sick, twisted entertainment here that the cheap look can be forgiven. It could almost be taken as a dry run for later, similarly violent Point Blank. It’s not as artfully made but it is a lot more funny.
Runtime: 95 mins
Dir: Don Siegel
Script: Gene L. Coon, based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway
Starring: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell