The Killers: A Decisive Reversal of Values

On Film / Essays — Jul 7, 2015
The Killers (1964)

Our recollections of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 movie The Killers are apt to center on three primary elements: Ernest Hemingway’s story, so literally brought to the screen in the film’s opening scenes; Ava Gardner, carrying the full weight of that late-forties sense of female sexuality as enveloping power, pervasively narcotic if not downright supernatural; and finally, the impression of dreamy spectral density evoked by Siodmak’s Germanic camera play and the luminosity of Woody Bredell’s black-and-white cinematography. All these elements are notably missing from Don Siegel’s remake. The 1964 incarnation of The Killers—or, to give it its somewhat inappropriate official title, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”—appears to jettison everything that made for the suggestiveness of the original. Of Hemingway’s story only the faintest traces survive; Angie Dickinson conveys not so much the myth of the femme fatale as the early sixties ideal of very high-priced arm candy; and where Siodmak’s film conjured up nocturnal shadows and emotional depths, Siegel brings us into the harsh light of a casually violent and unrelievedly mercenary day. All the gestures and situations that the forties made poetic and mysteri­ous are here stripped of whatever made them glisten.

We have left behind not only film noir but also that sense of a seamless counter-reality instilled by classic Hollywood cinema, and are moving toward a new era of American filmmaking that in 1964 had not quite arrived. First of all, Siegel’s The Killers is a film made for television, although its streak of brutality (blind people abused, a woman held out a high window by her ankles, and the violent death of nearly every leading character) was deemed, especially in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, excessive for the small screen, and the film was released theatrically instead. The flat and garish photographic look, the crude process shots (some, like those of the two lovers racing each other around the track, now seem almost surreal), and the rather tacky zooms bear little resemblance to Siegel’s earlier films.

The film’s visual world is harsh and truncated, lacking any sense of depth or past. A laconic exchange between the killers (“I always liked Miami.” “Yeah, it’s a nice place.”) is followed by a cut to the exterior of a generic auto repair shop in Anywhere, USA. Elsewhere, New Orleans and Los Angeles are represented by grainy stock-shot inserts. The texture is fragmented further by the interpolation of documentary footage of auto races and demolition derbies. Yet 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.

There’s hardly a structure in the film that doesn’t look as if it were built the week before, with nonunion labor, by E-Z Construction Corporation. The hotel rooms and hospital rooms and offices have a uniformly depressing, depersonalized quality. When the movie’s working-class hero remarks, “I’m Johnny North . . . in a pad like this,” he’s talking about an apartment that has the rent-by-the-hour luxuriousness of a cut-rate business suite. One of the minor fascinations of the film is studying the invariably inappropriate art decorating the rooms; I especially like the Etruscan dancer who adorns Ronald Reagan’s corporate office. But what could be more lifelike than that disconnection between decor and emotional reality?

The jarring sense of intrusion starts early, as two hit men barge their way into a home for the blind, while two blind boys play cops and robbers on the lawn. Years of subsequent screen violence have not blunted the real sense of violation in this sequence (accentuated by Siegel’s insistence on casting blind people as extras). The very fact that in this version it is the killers who conduct the inquest into the roots of their own hit signals a decisive reversal of values. Anything resembling the forces of law and order—or, indeed, any indication of tenderness or minimal human concern—is pushed far to the periphery. The cops show up only after everything is already over. The hit men are deadly serious clowns, metaphysical hipsters who weigh conundrums of motivation while planning their next act of violent coercion. They are at the same time thoroughly ordinary citizens: there’s an unforgettably banal moment where Lee Marvin hangs up the drip-dry shirt he has just washed in the sink while Clu Gulager does push-ups on the carpet of their hotel room. Siegel had already been down this road in his brilliant 1958 film The Lineup; decades later, Quentin Tarantino would still be ­mining the same vein in Pulp Fiction.

In his account of the making of The Killers, Siegel puts particular emphasis on the casting, and indeed its extraordinary collection of actors is a major factor in the enduring fascination the movie elicits. Marvin emerges for the first time as the iconic figure he would embody a few years later in John Boorman’s Point Blank, and his performance remains remarkably moving in part because his tics and expressions have not yet hardened into routine. Gulager, as his humorously psychopathic health-nut sidekick, provides the perfect foil to Marvin’s moody philosopher-killer, while John Cassavetes brings a further element of turmoil with his note of ­sarcasm masking barely controlled rage.

If Angie Dickinson lacks the aura of Ava Gardner, she does at least perfectly communicate the chic rapacity her underwritten role requires. Finally, there is Siegel’s great casting coup: Reagan, in his final screen appearance and his first ever role as a bad guy. He turns out to be the most believable of heavies: there’s nothing flamboyant or demonic about him, just a drab, businesslike demeanor and an absolute coldness in the gaze. The scene in which, within a few seconds, we see Reagan slapping Dickinson and then getting slugged in turn by Cassavetes is one of those where the real-life iconography of the players becomes a startling part of the movie experience: a future president (then just on the brink of his emergence as the emblem of political conservatism), an actor who was the very essence of early sixties cover-girl glamour, and the radical auteur of Shadows and Faces, all caught in the same turbulent frame.

However threadbare the plotting—there’s a heist that, in an era of complex caper movies like Topkapi, harks back to the simplicities of Highway Patrol—we continue to care about what happens because of the presence of the actors: we look at Marvin and Dickinson and Cassavetes and Reagan as if we were watching a documentary. Siegel always possessed a genius for making the cinematic frame an arena that forced out his actors’ combative energies. His prison movies (1954’s Riot in Cell Block 11 and 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz) were only extreme instances of an aesthetic in which simply to live is to chafe against some form of confinement. All the characters in The Killers are in one way or another at the mercy of a narrative they cannot control, and what linger in the mind are the moments when the actors mime their own disasters: Cassavetes staggering away from the auto wreck, his goggles cracked, and collapsing in near-fetal position; Reagan going down like a fallen tree in the living room of his luxury home; Marvin, fatally wounded, crawling onto the suburban lawn and, with an empty hand, pulling a trigger that isn’t there, in a gesture that recapitulates the blind boys’ imaginary gunplay in the film’s first scene. If The Killers was made in a difficult period of transition in Siegel’s career—there would be four rather rocky years before Madigan (1968) marked his commercial resurgence—it resonates with the same dry, darkly humorous, no-nonsense artistry that informs all his best work. A master of making the most of low budgets, imposed scripts, and interfering studio bureaucracies, Siegel forged a fast, sharp, uncompromising style that cuts through incidentals to focus always on the cadence and clarity of the main action. In his modest way, he was the great no-frills master of postwar American filmmaking.

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 DVD edition of The Killers.