Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Killers (1964)

In 2003, Criterion released the 1946 and 1964 filmizations of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" together in one cool set. We'll begin with the newer.

If director Don Siegel's THE KILLERS fails with its storyline, it more than compensates with...everything else. By the way, I don't really believe the screen-, er, teleplay (this film was originally shot for TV, but released to theaters after NBC deemed it too intense and violent) is poor, or lacking in any significant way. It's just very potboiler, "B", exploitation, guilty pleasure. With Hemingway source material and a solid film adaptation nearly 20 years before, this version just seems sorta one dimensional. Dames will double cross you. Powerful gangsters will keep an iron fist (and sometimes use it across your face) over their lackeys and molls. Good, essentially honest folks will suffer. Heists will go bad because people get greedy. And crime (eventually) won't pay. We know all that, we've been to the movies and maybe even read a pulp novel or two.

But Charlie, a hitman played by the great Lee Marvin, is more inquisitive than your average stone-faced noir assassin. After he and partner Lee (Clu Gulager) easily waste a man named Johnny North (John Cassavettes), a former race car champ, Charlie is nagged. Nagged by why Johnny just stood there and took it, why he didn't try to run. Most of his victims tried to run. The payoff was more than twice his usual fee; that doesn't add up, either. Lee, a brutal yet often smiling psychopath who also watches what he eats, is content with just taking the dough and not asking questions. Charlie convinces him that whoever hired them has a lot more money. They decide to unravel a mystery. For the money, yes, but Charlie's satisfaction will come more from learning why Johnny stood and resigned himself.

Through their interrogations of a mechanic named Earl (Claude Akins) and mob underling Mickey (Norman Fell), the hitmen learn Johnny was involved in a million dollar heist, masterminded by an uppity gangster named Browning (Ronald Reagan), gone sour. Contributing largely to Johnny's downfall: a stunningly attractive woman named Sheila (Angie Dickinson) who's just too alluring for the poor lug to resist. A shame that she's also Browning's mistress.

THE KILLERS plays the noir game deftly, with many nice directorial touches by Siegel, who would go on to make other lean, tough dramas (several with another cinema icon, Clint Eastwood). Siegel manages to work in some nimble camerawork (note the jazz club scene) even within the constraints of a made-for-TV production, with its restriction of scope and laughably fake sets (plenty of overlit backlots for some outdoor scenes, too). Most laughable are the rearscreen projection shots (very common in earlier films) of Johnny and Sheila during a go-cart race and the stock footage of racecar crack-ups.

The hijacking of the mail truck (and the caper itself) is as elementary as your average TV drama. The artificiality of it all actually works in the film's favor. There's lots of crackling dialogue, lines like "If I knew you were coming, I'd of burned the place down." THE KILLERS is hugely influential. Watch PULP FICTION again and tell me otherwise.

It's especially fun to see such a diverse cast, some of whom would later find their biggest success on television, at work. Cassavettes acted in many films to fund his idiosyncratic, as-far-away-from-Hollywood-melodrama-as-you-could-get pictures like FACES and A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. He's just fine as the average joe whose only real crimes are love and trust, two things that will definitely spell doom for a man in a story like this. Dickinson is just plain sexy in the femme fatale role, though she may not exactly erase memories of Ava Gardner. And of course, it's entertainingly odd to see Reagan, in his final screen appearance before his entrance into politics, playing such a cruel character. He's perfect, really, expressionless in face and voice, and not above slapping his mistress. Right after, we get a moment that is pure pop culture gold: Cassavettes pops Reagan right in the kisser.

That leaves Marvin, whose unique persona is on full display in this movie. His curiosity is what makes THE KILLERS a bit more thoughtful than other similiar films. He's menacing, but almost philosophical. In some ways, he's both the Greek chorus and a participant. He'll hang Sheila out a window by her ankles to get answers, then comment not only on what he's learned here, but perhaps on the whole crime genre itself. He's not just muscle and silencer. There's something about his voice, not gruff, almost soft, and his cool demeanor that can boil over in a second. But he's no brute. He was a tough guy with a brain, not merely some killing machine that fires off wisecracks. He would go on (with Dickinson) to play an even more seminal role in POINT BLANK (playing even more of a Greek chorus in that one), as well as several war and other pics. He was one of a kind. His last moments in THE KILLERS are absolutely unmissable. Watch that final hand gesture.

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