The Killers (1964)

*. The title was sometimes given out as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which was highly misleading. Director Don Siegel (who had actually been considered to direct the 1946 version) thought keeping Papa’s name in the title didn’t make any sense, didn’t want to use any of Hemingway’s dialogue, and indeed didn’t want to keep anything at all from Hemingway’s story but the initial idea of the guy who doesn’t want to escape his fate. A fate which is now finalized not in a diner but a home for the blind. Which might be a metaphor. Or something.
*. I don’t care for this movie at all. It has a few nice elements, but a lot more bad than good in it.
*. The thing that stands out the most is its look. Yes it’s flat and bright and sunny where noir was dark and shadowy and textured. This is in part due to the setting (California and Florida mainly), but perhaps more to the fact that it was originally shot as a TV movie. It couldn’t air on TV because it was too violent, but the damage had been done. Paul Schrader, referencing this film: “Technically, television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence, and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the ‘noir‘ look.”
*. Post-Tarantino I guess we can’t say that such a look is a poor match for this material, but in this film I still feel the disjunction. Everything about it has a meretricious feel. Critics have tried to salvage it by tying their praise into counterintuitive knots, as in Geoffrey O’Brien’s very good Criterion essay: “”when the film came out, the fakeness and mismatches made it seem not less but more real: movies like this helped confirm the notion that a recent era of authentic luxury and nuance (reflected in the exquisite textures of forties Hollywood) had given way to a cheap, mass-produced simulacrum. What was up on the screen had a new tackiness that in many ways very much resembled the world outside the movie theater.” But this seems like being too clever by half.
*. More than the look, however, I think it’s the casting that really undoes it. Not Lee Marvin. He’s great here, warming up for a similar role in Point Blank. But the rest of the cast is pretty awful.

*. It’s not fair to blame Angie Dickinson for being no Ava Gardner, but she isn’t. What’s frustrating though is that her character isn’t filled in any more than Gardner’s Kitty. Who is Sheila? Is she just a vacuous moll who likes pretty things? Is she a scheming mastermind? We never know. And she’s even killed offscreen, without any of Kitty’s final ambiguous hysterics.
*. I really love Charlie’s line to her just before he kills her. She’s trying to exculpate herself and he cuts her short. “Lady, I don’t have the time.” I think that must have been a steal from Out of the Past, where Mitchum tells a similarly plaintive (and duplicitous) moll “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks if he believes her.
*. Ronald Reagan. Here’s the obligatory note that this was his last theatrical film and the only movie where he played a villain. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself one bit, and apparently he wasn’t. I don’t buy him for a minute as a heavy, which is actually kind of weird. I say that not as a knock against his politics, but just because playing an operator like Jack Browning should have been natural for him. So why does he seem so totally out of place?
*. Not quite as out of place, however, as Clu Gulager. I think his health-obsessed hit-man could have worked, but there’s just something about his performance that makes him seem too lightweight to be taken seriously. I think he was just wrong for the part. Really wrong.

*. Ditto for Norman Fell. Come to think of it, aside from Marvin this may be the most unthreatening collection of gangsters ever. And John Cassavetes, who might have been believable as a hood, is instead turned into a somewhat naive gearhead who I couldn’t understand turning to a life of crime (in the 1946 version Lancaster’s Ole had a long criminal history before being recruited for the heist).
*. Manny Farber, of all people, said that this “scummy Siegel remake of The Killers . . . far outclasses the Siodmak epic.” I have no idea what he was talking about. Outclasses?
*. When Johnny North says he has “calluses on my rump,” do you think he’s referring to hemorrhoids?
*. Wow. In 1964 even racecar drives didn’t wear seatbelts. And apparently Cassavetes barely knew how to drive.

*. I’ve never seen a hood in a gangster film stick his gun into his back pocket. In this movie Marvin has his whole holster stuck into his back pocket. Isn’t that weird?
*. It’s really neat how Johnny, lying in his hospital bed with his eyes wrapped in bandages, lunges wildly at his garage partner but never loses the cigarette from his mouth! Neat, or ridiculous.
*. I can’t think of any way this movie improves on the Siodmak version. In particular, it seems much bulkier. Compare the interminable scenes at the racetrack with the boxing scenes in the original. And there’s no comparison at all between the brilliant and economical heist in the original (all one crane shot, perfectly choreographed), and the highway robbery here. Why do we have to see them driving down the same roads three different times?
*. I’ve mentioned before how good Siegel filmed chase scenes (see my notes on The Big Steal and The Lineup). But the driving scenes here are ridiculous in their use of back projection (the go-kart scene is the worst offender), and boring in their use of overhead shots (the aforementioned rehearsals for the heist). It’s like Siegel had forgotten everything he ever knew. On the other hand, he was starting to really show a liking for pointing guns at the camera.

*. Well, I think this is a pretty lousy movie. It’s slack, miscast, not that well written, downright silly in places (the killers in all three versions — I’m including Tarkovsky’s — are almost comic figures), and it just plain looks weird. But . . .
*. But I have to recommend it for one of my all-time favourite pieces of (what I’m sure must have been) dramatic improvisation. There stand Ronald Reagan and John Cassavetes in their highway patrol outfits and sunglasses, getting ready to stop the mail truck. Reagan is tall, commanding, and looks born to wear the uniform. Cassavetes looks the opposite. As the mail truck approaches Reagan curtly dismisses Cassavetes, saying “I’ll do all the talking.” Cassavetes leans away and nods his head, pointing at Reagan. You’re the man, Ronnie. This is hilarious. I laugh every time I see it. So you should definitely watch The Killers just to see it. But in the end, it’s only a meme moment. It does not the movie make.

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