Sunday, 5 July 2015

THE KILLERS (1964) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Don ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") Siegel. Gene ("Star Trek") Coons. Ronald Reagan. Lee Marvin. John Cassavetes. Angie Dickinson. Clu Gulager. Criterion Collection. Blu-Ray. 'Nuff Said.

The Killers (1964)
Dir. Don Siegel
Scr. Gene L. Coon
Starring: Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes,
Angie Dickinson, Ronald Reagan, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"It's not only the money. Maybe we get that and maybe we don't. But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run... why, all of a sudden, he'd rather die." - Charlie Storm (Lee Marvin) in Don Siegel's The Killers

Two hit men, the steely Charlie Storm (Lee Marvin) and his young, wisecracking partner Lee (Clu Gulager), pay a visit to their quarry Johnny North (John Cassavetes). He knows they're coming. He waits for the inevitable, and it's brutal beyond belief. His body jerks, flinches and arches in agony with every bullet hit as the killers empty their guns in as many painful and deadly spots imaginable.

The aforementioned represents the opening minutes of the first American film ever made exclusively for television. The picture doesn't get any gentler. Broadcaster NBC was so appalled they refused delivery. It's not surprising. I also neglected to mention that the opening scene is set in an educational rehabilitation centre for the blind and the killers terrorize a sight-challenged secretary to get the location of their quarry, then summarily pistol whip her into unconsciousness. Luckily for Universal Pictures, the movie was released theatrically instead and was a huge hit at the box-office.

Nineteen sixty-four was just on the cusp of the new permissiveness in American cinema - Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, for example, was just round the corner and helmsman Don Siegel was already no stranger to tough-minded thrills with such genre classics under his belt as Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup and among many others, Hell is for Heroes. That Siegel would eventually give us Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Black Windmill, Coogan's Bluff and Escape From Alcatraz should come as no surprise to anyone watching The Killers for the first time.

Like Robert Siodmak's 1946 film noir version of Ernest Hemingway's great short story, Siegel's film builds up a story around the central idea of two hit men and a victim who has no desire to run. Siegel, however, wished to eschew all obvious references to Hemingway and hoped the film would be entitled Johnny North (after the washed-up race car driver turned criminal played by Cassavetes).

Siegel was also interested in telling the entire tale through the perspective of the killers; a wise choice which veteran writer Gene L. Coon handled magnificently. Coon was a prolific TV scribe, and in fact, was the actual creative brains behind so much of what made the original Star Trek series so immortal - in particular the clever banter, humour and his creative input on some of the most immortal episodes like "Space Seed", "The City of the Edge of Forever" and "The Doomsday Machine".

Coon's dialogue in The Killers is exceptional. Though the film has even less to do with Hemingway than Siodmak's version, the words Coon has spitting out of the mouths of all the characters are clearly inspired by Papa's terse word smithing. As well, the sense of doom which pervades Siegel's film is directly linked to Coon's obvious love for the original short story. The entire backdrop of the car racing circuit was an especially brilliant touch as it adds the sense of daredevil bravado to the character of the doomed Johnny, but also provides a perfect world to attract the film's femme fatale Sheila Farr (Angie "Hubba Hubba" Dickinson) to the hapless hero.

Siegel handles the entire film with his trademark economy and viciously hilarious aplomb. He even makes grand use of the rapid TV shooting schedule to create a tremendous look to both the interior and exterior locations. Veteran TV cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings (Sea Hunt, Gilligan's Island) flooded most of the interiors with light to capture the garish colours of 60s decor and for the exteriors, he superbly harnessed the dazzling California sunshine (doubling as Miami) to wash the film in a strangely harsh glow. Even the dank basements and grungy chop-shops where the criminals plan their heist, are only occasionally pooled with high contrast and, more often than not, are imbued with a flat, even lighting to accentuate the grunge of the settings. The compositions are full of Siegel's sparing, but effective use of canted angles.

The cast, personally selected and approved by Siegel, deliver immortal performances - everyone from the "romantic" leads down to the scuzzy supporting lowlife. One of the more astounding performance comes from eventual Governor of California and President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan. As the scumbag criminal mastermind-turned-property-developer, Reagan played the only villain of his entire movie career. (This was also his last feature film as an actor.) He oozes evil, but not in any Snidely Whiplash moustache-twirling manner, but rather in his coolness. It's impossible to forget his chilly delivery of the line "I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles" (knowing he doesn't really mean the latter) and it's inconceivable one could ever clear one's memory banks of Reagan's creepy smile right before he belts Angie Dickinson in the face for "disobeying" him.

The other standouts, of course, are the two hit men; Clu Gulager (whom most will remember as Burt the sleazy warehouse proprietor in Return of the Living Dead) comes across like a handsome Dan Duryea with an oddball "Der Bingle" tone to his deliveries of the acidic lines he's given and Lee Marvin as the laconic, but obsessed hit man gives as great a performance as he's ever given. Marvin's meanness mounts steadily as the film progresses and he's got one of the great moments in movie history when a potential victim attempts a bit of sweet talk to avoid being hit and Marvin half-growls-half-whines, "Lady, I don't have the time.".

And so he does not. If there's one thing which ultimately drives The Killers it's the overwhelmingly haunting sense that time is running out for everyone in the world of the film. The sands keep trickling and only stop once every conceivable body lies dead - as a doornail, of course.


The Killers (1964) is available on a great Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. In addition to including Robert Siodmak's 1946 classic film noir adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. The Blu-Ray is loaded with great stuff including a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks, a wonderful 2002 on-camera interview with Clu Gulager reminiscing about the 64 version, readings from Don Siegel's autobiography, Tarkovsky’s short 1956 student-film adaptation of Hemingway’s story, a terrific 2002 interview with Stuart Kaminsky, the Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio adaptation from 1949 starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters plus, ever-so delectably, a 2002 audio recording of actor Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s "The Killers".

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