The Killers (1964) Review

Two hitmen, the older veteran Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and the younger Lee (Clu Gulager) have a target: former racing driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes). They track him down to where he is hiding, as a teacher at a home for the blind, and carry out the hit. But something troubles Charlie: why did Johnny not resist, not plead for his life, not try to escape? So they dig into Johnny's past...

First published in 1927, Ernest Hemingway's “The Killers” is a short story, and not an especially long one at that – 3161 words by my count - and is characteristically spare to the point of minimalist. Both film adaptations – the 1946 one directed by Robert Siodmak and the present one from 1964 – use the story as a starting point, and deal with the eponymous hitmen's quest to find out why their victim did not resist and did not try to save his life. The 1946 version was a film noir. Although Donald Siegel's 1964 version is in colour, and the colours pop, it dips into the same noir well: amoral and compromised characters (none of them a good guy or girl in the normal sense), a femme fatale in Angie Dickinson's high-maintenance Sheila Farr, a convoluted plot which unfolds to a great extent in flashback, and a sense of fate closing in. No spoilers, but you can guess it won't end well for all concerned.

The Killers was intended as the first made-for-television film, setting the template of a running time around 95 minutes filling a two-hour slot once you add the commercial breaks. The film was designed from the outset as a hybrid – shot in 35mm (which was not unheard of for US television anyway) and in colour when the USA and Mexico were the only countries in the world broadcasting in other than monochrome, it would be shown on the small screen in its home country and in cinemas abroad. This is a pattern that quite a few high-profile US TV movies were to follow: famous examples include Duel, Elvis, The Jericho Mile and (cut down from three hours to just over two) both Sybil and Frankenstein: The True Story, all of which had UK cinema releases. An even more recent example would be Behind the Candelabra, though that was intended as a cinema film and only premiered on TV in the USA because no one there would finance it as a cinema release because of its gay content.

However, it was not to be. Although it was shot before Kennedy's assassination, a potential release in the wake of it made Universal nervous. A scene with Jack Browning performing an assassination in a similar manner to Oswald must have seemed an unnerving coincidence...even more so in retrospect given that the character is played by a man who later became President of the USA. Citing the film's violence as an issue, Universal pulled The Killers from the schedule and it became a cinema release in the USA as well as overseas. Lee Marvin won a BAFTA award as Best Foreign Actor for this performance, which he shared with himself for Cat Ballou.

Siegel was not happy about the film being called The Killers (or, if you wish to be pedantic, Ernest Hemingway's The Killers) as Gene L.Coon's script has very little to do with Hemingway. At least the 1946 version followed Hemingway by having the victim be “The Swede” (though played by the definitely un-Nordic Burt Lancaster in his film debut). Here the victim is a former racing driver and adrenaline junkie who when the killers find him is working as a teacher at a school for the blind. In fact, that character's name, was the original title - Johnny North, and due to flashbacks making up most of the first seventy minutes, Johnny is as much the protagonist as the two hitmen – if anything John Cassavetes, third billed, has as much screen time if not more than the top-billed Lee Marvin.

Watching The Killers now shows a fascinating mix of what came before and what was to come. While the violence, though less graphic than what would come later that decade, is still stronger than what was generally shown onscreen a decade earlier: there is blood on screen, even if it does look like red paint. Yet the film doesn't quite have the gritty tone that thrillers would have only a decade later, Siegel himself directing a key example of that in Dirty Harry. Visually, The Killers looks of its time: Richard L. Rawlings's photography the high contrast and saturated colours, making the skintones a shade of salmon. (While the USA did have colour television in 1964, the majority of viewers still had black and white sets and you do wonder if Siegel and Rawlings did go for a high-contrast look so that different colours became very distinct shades of grey in monochrome.) The film looks positively glossy, a world away from the overtly-grainy look that would be in favour in the 1970s. The jazzy music score by John Williams (here called “Johnny Williams”) is more of its time than be typical of what would come later.

Quentin Tarantino drew on the dynamic between the two contract killers when he made Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Jules in that film are the descendants of Charlie and Lee: the smart-suited look, the everyday small talk of two business colleagues...whose business is to kill people. On set, Clu Gulager, encouraged by Siegel, constantly tries to upstage Marvin. Lee is like a hyperactive child, pulling faces, laughing, playing with the props. Marvin was aware of this and told Gulager that he could do what he liked as the audience would be watching Marvin...and he was right. Charlie is implacable, professional...until the cracks begin to show. John Cassavetes is twitchy nervous energy as Johnny. Angie Dickinson has the most limited role, Sheila being mostly written as a duplicitous gold-digger. Ronald Reagan was cast against type in his final acting role and only villain. He hadn't wanted to do the film, but needed the money at the time. He also worried that playing a villain, and having to administer a hard slap to Angie Dickinson, would be used by his opponents while he pursued his political ambitions...which he did full-time after this film, becoming Governor of California four years later.

The Disc

The Killers is a Blu-ray release in Arrow's Academy line, on a BD50 disc encoded for Region B.

The film was passed by the BBFC in 1964 with cuts for a X certificate (which then meant sixteen and over), which is understandable. However, if you wondered if there was a US major-studio release from before 1968 (when the MPAA introduced a ratings system) which would still earn an 18 certificate nowadays, well here it is, and that's less understandable. The BBFC's consumer advice is that it “contains violence” but then so do far more graphic films which are routinely passed with 15 certificates. I suspect the issue is that much of the violence is directed towards women, not just Sheila - who, along with the slap referred to above, is on the receiving end of a punch to a face, leaving a bruise, and a threatened defenestration – but also the receptionist of the home for the blind at the start of the film. That said, this film is released on disc on the same date as Classe tous risques, in which the protagonist gives a woman a similarly hard slap and which is rated 12. Though I doubt it would have increased this Blu-ray's audience to any great extent, I would suggest that a 15 is more appropriate for The Killers.

As mentioned above, The Killers was a hybrid production: shot in 35mm for television but also intended for cinema release overseas. The television origins would suggest an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 but cinemas in the USA and elsewhere were only equipped to show films in a wider ratio, whether that be 1.66:1, 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. So Siegel and Rawlings composed for 1.85:1 and protected for the 4:3 television screen. On the disc you have transfers in both ratios, and you can select which one you prefer from the menu, either from the Play option or in the set-up menu. Whichever you choose to watch (I watched both) this is a very strong transfer, with strong, in places very saturated colours and fine, filmlike grain. The optical work becomes very obvious, especially much use of rear projection, but that's down to the original. There are minor scratches here and there, but nothing too distracting.

The sound is the original mono, presented in LPCM 1.0. It's clear, even if the music score is overwhelming loud in places, though again that would be down to the original mixing. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for this English-language film.
The on-disc extras feature two newly-shot featurettes. In “Screen Killer” (30:45), Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, discusses the film's leading man. An older man by the time he became a star, the politically liberal Marvin felt morally bound to present screen violence as realistically as possible, to make it a deterrent or catharsis rather than as something exciting. Epstein suggests that Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his wartime experiences, one symptom of which was his lifelong alcoholism. This is an excellent profile of a man who had many contradictions, and was much friendlier offscreen than his onscreen persona would suggest.

“Reagan Kills” (20:47) features Marc Eliot, biographer of the man. While by no means a great actor, Reagan had a long career because he fit into a type, the l leading man's friend was his most common role. Darker variations, such as in King's Row or The Killers were the exception. Eliot suggests that, during one of his two stints as President of the Screen Actors' Guild, Reagan was in part responsible for the very existence of The Killers. He gave Universal Studios dispensation to produce television, thus giving his guild members more work than they would otherwise have had, and soon they were making television movies, of which The Killers was intended to be the first. Reagan's dealings with film unions may have contributed to his drift rightwards, and to the authoritarian stance he took when he was President. This is another worthwhile extra.

Also on the disc is an interview with Don Siegel in 1984 for French television (10:33), which begins in a stage-managed way with the man being approached while he stands by his car. The interview is conducted in English, and there are burned-in French subtitles in yellow. Siegel refers to himself as a a “whore” and suggests that he had no style of his own, having adapted to whichever director he had been working for at the time as an assistant. This carried over into his own directorial career, when his emphasis was on efficiency and not drawing undue attention to camera movement. He regrets being typecast as an action director, having an urge to make “a realistic love story” or a comedy.

The extras on disc conclude with a twenty-two-image stills gallery. Some of these are German lobby cards with the somewhat too-expository title Der Tod eines Killers (Death of a Killer).

Arrow's booklet runs to forty pages and this Digital Fix contributor will declare a vested interest upfront in that the main essay was written by a longtime contributor to and the current editor of this site. (And, full disclosure: disc/booklet producer Michael Brooke is a former contributor to this site and other contributors, Anthony Nield and David Mackenzie, contributed to this release.) However, there's no denying that the booklet is a substantial addition and Mike Sutton's essay on Siegel and The Killers is an integral part of it. It describes Siegel's changes to the storyline and deliberate departures from the 1946 version, which he saw as flawed. Sutton also compares Marvin's single-minded implacable Charlie with other Siegel protagonists, such as the later Madigan and indeed Harry Callahan, all of whom are much more grey-shaded than conventional heroes. (There's a suggestion that the scene in Point Blank, where Angie Dickinson repeatedly hits Marvin to no effect was in a sense payback for her character's on-screen treatment at his hands in The Killers.) Sutton also describes the film's reception, not least from a nervous studio. If time is running out for Marvin's character in The Killers, it was just starting for the actor, and the film marks the point where his screen persona was established. This is a thorough essay on the film, but it does contain major plot spoilers, so read it after watching.

After two pages of contemporary reviews for The Killers comes “Shooting the Killers”, an extract from Siegel's posthumously published autobiography from 1993, A Siegel Film. Siegel describes the making of the film, beginning in 1946 when he was considered to direct the 1946 version, only to be vetoed by Jack Warner. Several conversations Siegel had with studio executives and key cast and crew members are reproduced in script format, along with the radio announcement of Kennedy's assassination which had a devastating effect on Angie Dickinson, a close personal friend of the President. The account is candid and often very funny and will probably make many owners of this Blu-ray seek out the entire book. The booklet also contains reproductions of original lobby cards, “projectionist notes” (on the aspect ratios), film and disc credits, finishing off a fine addition to a fine package.

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