Posted: 05/06/2002

 

The Killers

(1964)

by Del Harvey



Schizoid remake notable primarily for seeing Reagan in a new light.


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Director Donald Siegel is probably best known for the films he made with Clint Eastwood: Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Coogan’s Bluff, and Escape from Alcatraz. Probably few people realize that he directed the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s he made his share of gritty, low-budget crime films, including Baby Face Nelson, The Line-Up, The Big Steal, The Verdict, and Riot in Cell Block 11. Siegel was the type of director who would have been immensely popular had he been born 10 years earlier, and active when the studios were happy to pigeonhole someone in a specific genre and leave them there for 10 years or so.

His remake of the 1946 noir film The Killers—taken from an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name—is telling of its time as much as it is of the director’s frame of mind. In the ‘46 version, the flimsy short story is held together by the strength of its incredibly talented cast, which includes Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. The dark noir is truly the story of a man pushed into a corner from which he cannot hope to escape. In Siegel’s 1964 version that darkness has been stripped away and the violence of the times thrust right into the camera lens and exposed to the bright Southern California sunshine.

Our story follows the work of two professional hit men, Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), as they track down a former race car driver named Johnny North (John Cassavetes). They figure out that North was involved in a heist and there is a cool $1 million floating around out there just waiting to be taken. So they decide to visit another crook who was involved in the heist, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell). But Mickey doesn’t know where the money is, and since he and Charlie have a history, Charlie can tell he’s not lying. So they visit the last of the crooks, Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), who, as we all know, is the biggest crook of them all. Browning and his girl Sheila (Angie Dickinson) suckered Johnny into joining their heist, just to have him help out with the driving. Interspersed between all the hitmen’s travels is the bittersweet love story of Johnny and Sheila, which we eventually learn is no love story at all.

This cynical and confused film was pretty shocking in its day. The violence dispensed by the hitmen was stark and uncompromising in its time. So much so that the weak-kneed plot was all but ignored by most of the viewing public. Lee Marvin proves why he was such a good bad guy that you loved to like. And Ronald Reagan is ignorant to the humorous character he creates as the scowling bad guy. If you find yourself unable to sleep and feel you absolutely must watch this film, then so be it. But don’t even shell out the extra buck at the video store; the remorse will only drive you batty. Of course, you won’t be able to control your laughter at watching Reagan act the tough guy.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and a lover of film noir.



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