The Killers

UK Release Date 1964
Director Don Siegel
Starring Lee Marvin
Runtime 93 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 4th February 2014

Two hit men walk into the Sage Home of the Blind…the opening of The Killers sounds like the start of a sick joke and in many ways it is. Don Siegel’s superior 1964 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story replaces film noir’s shadowy expressionism with bubble-gum Technicolor, think Batman, think Tokyo Drifter. His killers don’t discriminate, terrifying a blind woman with a bell before choking her with her own pearls to get the information on their target-racing car driver Johnny North. 

Siegel’s world is a pop art nightmare forcing his audience to witness violence in the safety of dazzling Americana. The blind can’t see it but we can, the slow motion execution of Johnny by two suited professionals with silencers and sunglasses. Johnny doesn’t run but accepts his fate and the older killer Charlie can’t fathom that, “It's not only the money. Maybe we get that and maybe we don't. But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run... why, all of a sudden, he'd rather die.”

It’s not that Charlie or his young protégé Lee are going soft or finding god, it’s rather professional curiosity, maybe a lack of job satisfaction or the million dollars that could secure a pension for men with limited job prospects. Like Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Siegel makes these minor characters the driving force of his film. By pursuing the money and some answers are they seeking free will rather than the determinism that faces stock genre characters?

Free from the shackles of convention hit men make ruthlessly efficient detectives-just watch Jack Carter in Get Carter but once they’ve served their purpose they need putting back in their box - preferably a wooden one. But whilst the mystery unfolds Siegel allows us to see how they operate, how one drinks whisky and the other carrot juice, how they dish out their misogynist beatings. We wonder what Charlie witnessed in the Pacific War to turn his hair silver and why Lee talks like that through his brilliant white teeth? 

The back-story unfolds through sleazy flashbacks as sophisticate Sheila Farr and her sugar daddy, Jack Browning slowly sucker poor Johnny. Sheila looks like she could seduce the devil himself, no wonder Johnny went on to father the antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby. And didn’t nasty Jack become the President of the United States of America? He certainly looks presidential sitting behind that desk lying through his teeth when he says, “I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles.”

The Killers was conceived as the first ever TV movie but was deemed too violent and pulled when JFK was assassinated so it got a cinema release instead. What else were they going to do with Lee Marvin’s Charlie and his particular brand of brutality and a dry run for Point Blank? What about Angie Dickinson wicked but destined to be tortured by Marvin again in that same film? The wonderfully eerie, perfectly named Clu Gulager as Lee? How much of John Cassavetes fee for playing Johnny did he squirrel away to invent modern American independent cinema? And how does that joke go again? Ronald Reagan walks into the White House…

Check out the trailer here.

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