Saturday, 18 January 2014

In cold blood… The Killers (1964)

A made-for-TV movie, deemed far too violent for the medium, Don Siegel’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story was given a release in cinemas instead going on to become a classic of sixties noir…

As with the later Point Blank, the film stars both Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson but their characters are rather less sympathetic. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone to identify with in this brutal story of nihilistic greed, occupational violence and double, triple, quadruple dealing. And yet… the narrative is driven by Marvin’s character’s need to understand how a man can face his own mortality dispassionately after he hit’s a man who just stands there and takes it.

With an excellent screenplay from Gene L. Coon and a top-notch cast, The Killers asks more questions of its audience than most films of its genre… and, as with Point Blank, you can feel its influence resonating down the years through Pulp Fiction, The Limey and many more.

Marvin plays Charlie Strom, a professional killer sent, along with his sadistic apprentice, Lee (a cool Clu Gulager), to perform a hit at a school for blind children… this is not going to be a comfortable ride…

They fight their way into the school office and tie up the secretary (Virginia Christine) who is also blind… they’re looking for a teacher called Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The secretary manages to get a message to him before he arrives and he clears his pupils from his class… he know who and what is coming. Lee and Charlie burst into the room, they ask his name and he confirms with barely a flicker of emotion, they take aim and shoot him down: he didn’t even try to run or otherwise protect himself.

Charlie and Lee make their escape but the older assassin can’t stop thinking about his mark’s reaction. He’s also troubled by the fact they got paid so much for what was seemingly a simple hit… the amount suggests that there’s more which ties in with the rumour that Johnny was involved in a million dollar robbery in which he ran off with the proceeds. The killers can’t work out why they haven’t been tasked with recovering the loot… surely there’s no one who can ignore that amount of money even for revenge?

They set out to find out the backstory and to find the money for themselves: Charlie looks forward to a nest egg to seal his retirement but he also needs to know… just why didn’t Johnny run?

And the girl looked at Johnny...
The duo track down Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Johnny's best friend and head mechanic when he was one of the best young motor racers on the circuit. They overcome Earl’s embittered resistance to discussing his former friend and learn how Johnny’s career had been undermined by the uncertain love of a bad woman… an irresponsible experience junkie named Sheila Farr (a frankly radiant Angie Dickinson…).

Sheila pushed Johnny to enjoy himself and as their affair proceeded he began to neglect his racing and to take chances. Ultimately, whether it was just bad luck or weariness, Johnny had a bad crash that affected his vision and meant that he could no longer race… he was reduced to stock cars.

By this stage Johnny had found that Sheila had a “businessman” boyfriend who was bankrolling her plush apartment, fast cars and extensive, tight-fitting wardrobe, name of Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). After the accident, and with Earl’s prompting, Johnny frees Sheila of any obligation and she returns to Jack.


Charlie and Lee leave Earl to his memories and set out to find Browning’s right hand man, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) in order to get the next piece of the jigsaw. After trapping Mickey in his Turkish bath steamer they get him to reveal how Johnny had been involved in the heist.

Jack was planning to ambush a mail truck but couldn’t drive fast enough to make up the distance. Sheila helpfully suggests Johnny who easily performs the task: he’s in but there are tensions as he and the boss vie for Sheila who clearly prefers the younger man…

Johnny clocks Jack... we all cheer!
The job will go ahead but there’s bad blood to be settled afterwards.

No spoilers - It wouldn’t be fair to outline the rest of the plot as this film is definitely worth watching but needless to say, Charlie and Lee continue their investigations and meet with both Sheila and Jack as they unravel the twisted complex of betrayal that led to Johnny’s demise… and to the look that so haunted Charlie.

The Killers reputation is fully justified and it is no surprise that at the time of its release, Marvin said that it was his favourite film (wonder how he rated it against Point Blank?).

Lee Marvin
Marvin is superb and it would be tempting to view him as a one track macho actor were it not for his Oscar winning turn in Cat Ballou. He had a naturalistic style and a tough exterior but was always able to express vulnerability and the humanity behind the hitman.

Force of nature...
Angie Dickinson is also a force of nature, her beauty matched by a skill and energy that enabled her to match the explosive alpha males all around her. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen her give as she creates a character of passion and uncertainty: you’re never quite sure which side Sheila’s on but you really want her to be good…

John Cassavetes gives an intelligently intense performance of his own and his style feels out of time: he’s the method link between Dean, Clift, Brando and de Niro, Paccino, Keitel.

John Cassavetes

Dusty verdict: The Killers is available in a plush Criterion edition in the US and also on an up-coming Blu-Ray from Amazon in the UK. Well worth watching over and again… when you feel brave enough. It’s not just the violence but the existential undertone: how much of Johnny is in all of us?


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