Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Killers (1964)

Director: Don Siegel                                      Writer: Gene L. Coon
Film Score: John Williams                             Cinematography: Richard L. Rawlings
Starring: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan

Long before Dirty Harry made Don Siegel something of a name in Hollywood, he had been plying his trade as a feature film director from 1946’s The Verdict with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956 before being marginalized as a television director in the late fifties and early sixties. But all that changed with his version of The Killers, from a story by Ernest Hemingway that had been previously filmed as a noir classic in 1946. After that he began his association with Clint Eastwood and became an influence on a number of young directors. His work here shows what was so appreciated about him. The film begins with two killers going into a school for the blind. They’re both wearing sunglasses and fit right in with the blind people wearing the same, and when they kill their victim it’s in a room full of witnesses . . . but none of them can see. It’s this knife-edge balance between suspense and humor that is one of Siegel’s trademarks.

The two killers, Lee Marvin and Clu Galager, are looking for John Cassavetes, and though he is warned by a phone call he seems resigned to his fate when they gun him down. This raises suspicions for Marvin, who’d like to get his hands on some of the million dollars Cassavetes’ was rumored to have stolen. Cassavetes had been a racecar driver, so they begin with his mechanic, Claude Akins, who tells them all about the doomed relationship he had with Angie Dickinson and the career-ending accident that he blamed her for. Next they seek out Norman Fell, a criminal who was in on the job with Cassavetes that pulled down the million dollars. Then they meet up with Ronald Reagan, a wealthy criminal who was in charge of the robbery but wound up being cut out of the take. Finally they meet up with Dickinson, the last person who ever saw the money.

In Robert Siodmak’s version of The Killers from 1946 the reason for the hit is shown in flashback through the remembrances of Burt Lancaster. But screenwriter Gene Coon takes a different tact by having Marvin and Galager investigating Cassavetes’ life after the hit and learning about his past in the interviews with those who knew him. The one glaring weakness of the film, however, is the script, especially the dialogue at the beginning. Coon attempts to create some witty banter to make up for the lack of screen chemistry between Cassavetes and Dickinson, but it winds up being too cute to be believable and destroys what was supposed to be tension between them. If the film has the look and feel of a television production, that’s because it is. It was intended as a TV movie but because of the violence Universal made the decision to release it into theaters as a feature.

This was Ronald Reagan’s last film before going full time into politics, but there’s a little left of the old sparkle he had in his starring days before Bonzo. John Cassavetes, on the other hand, was still mired in TV work, and would be until he teamed once again with Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen and stayed in feature film thereafter. Marvin delivers his standard solid performance and while in a small role is one of highlights of the film. Another bright spot, ironically, has nothing to do with the plot. It’s the great Nancy Wilson in a nightclub with a jazz trio singing a sultry song entitled “Too Little Time” by Henry Mancini and Don Raye. Despite it’s low budget pedigree, The Killers is a great little film. It has an interesting story that, despite its weak beginning, gradually picks up pace and delivers a solidly entertaining crime story.

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