Though it's really not all that great as a movie (one of its stars, Clu Gulager says as much himself in a 2002 interview recorded by his sons), the 1964 version of The Killers packs in so much symbolic and cultural heft that its inclusion in the Criterion Collection requires no apology or further explanation once the various elements that make it an "important" film are laid out in plain view. It's the second half of a very entertaining two-pack of films that Criterion released back in 2003, along with an earlier 1946 adaptation of the same Ernest Hemingway story that served as a springboard for two plots that were expanded from the original in very different directions. The premise of Hemingway's concisely-told tale (running all of four pages in its published form) is that a pair of hit-men enter the known hangout of a man they're under contract to murder. When they finally meet up with their victim, they learn that he's been amply forewarned of the threat upon his life, which he passively allows them to carry out, without resistance. The mystery is immediately triggered: why would a man allow himself to be shot to death without taking so much as one step toward self-preservation? That question drives the momentum of each film, leading the respective directors to answer it in ways that provide their own insightful commentary on the eras in which they were made.
You can read my thoughts on what Robert Siodmak's 1946 version of The Killers said to its post-WWII milieu by following that link. Here, I'll just narrow my focus to what was conveyed in 1964, a "remake" only in the loosest sense of the word that was originally titled Johnny North, as if the creative forces behind the film wanted to have no part in invoking the name of Ernest Hemingway or his famous short story, even though they admittedly drew inspiration from that source. That reluctance to cash in on Papa Hemingway's reputation is made clear in the supplements that detail correspondence between director Don Siegel, lead actress Angie Dickinson and others who nevertheless had no choice but to acquiesce to the studio heads who had to find some way to salvage their investment after the film they made was rejected by NBC for nationwide TV broadcast in early 1964. Purportedly intended to be the first-ever "made for television" motion picture, The Killers proved to be too violently rambunctious for unfiltered public consumption, especially in the jittery months following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. So after an abortive attempt to censor out the movie's gratuitous cruelty and implied sexuality to meet network standards, the decision was made to just skip all that and send it to the theaters, where it went on to do solid business, furthering the careers of several of its stars, while famously wrapping up one show-biz phase (and prefiguring the future) of another.
We can only speculate on how successful this rendition of The Killers would have been if some of the alternate casting possibilities (generously provided on this DVD as a supplemental feature) had been realized. But it's hard to find fault with the lineup that was chosen: Lee Marvin, quite fresh, confident and well short of the caricature of himself that his roles eventually become, and Clu Gulager, cold-hearted, cocky and unburdened by conscience, as the distinctive personalities that made up this pair of assassins... John Cassavetes, delivering his flippant, restless insolence as the tragic, hard-driving simpleton race car driver Johnny North whose lack of self-awareness sets him up as easy prey for the women and men who want a piece of his action... Angie Dickinson as the swift-moving gold digger who skillfully manipulates the men in her life, though ultimately to her own ruin... and Ronald Reagan who somewhat reluctantly took on the last screen acting performance of his career, almost as a favor for old friends, and went on to regret allowing himself to be cast as a merciless scheming gangster in the only villain role he ever accepted. Each of these actors went on to accomplish great things, emblazoning their faces and personalities into the popular consciousness to the point that their appearance on the screen stirs up a multitude of iconic associations.
Beyond those leading performances, we get a few other notables: Norman Fell, emblazoned in my memory as Mr. Roper from the Three's Company TV series and its spin-off The Ropers; Claude Akins, who made a decent living appearing in dozens of TV shows including The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and many more pitch-man slots in auto parts commercials; and Seymour Cassel, a favorite bit player of Cassavetes when it came time for him to cast his own films (including his first feature Shadows from 1959, and several more over the next decade or so.) Seeing all these actors, who each went on to carve out their own notable niches in the entertainment industry, at these early stages of their careers on such a risky, provocative venture is enough to compel my interest, just in terms of the trivia value alone.
But setting all that aside, what a cornucopia of early 60s pop culture The Killers provides! The vintage Henry Mancini soundtrack, showing off his jazzy side, certainly points us to a particular time and place when the composer was at the very height of his powers. Flattened out, low-budget sets, wooden cookie-cutter dialogue and laughable rear-projection backdrops of the production give the film a look and feel not all that different from the cheap knock-off movies that Elvis Presley was cranking out around this time (Roustabout and Spinout come to mind.) The casual assumption of prevailing misogynistic and racially insensitive attitudes marks the film as a relic of the pre-civil rights, pre-women's lib era. Despite these limitations, Siegel and company are able to find their way to tap into some deep-seated anxieties that were permeating the culture at that time, even pointing the way to a future that perhaps none of the film's creators had ever envisioned.
In this version of The Killers, the question posed by Hemingway, paraphrased in the quote at the top of this article, sticks in the craw of the men who carry out the dirty business of death on demand. Experienced as they are at their craft, with all of the calculated indifference required to thrive in this trade, Charlie and Lee find themselves perplexed to meet a man who almost seems to welcome their fatal encounter. We see Johnny North gunned down right at the beginning of the film, with the bulk of the story told in flashback form as the hit men interview key players in their attempt to reassemble the clues. This narrative strategy (eliminating the need of the superfluous insurance investigator that was introduced into the 1946 telling) gives the gunmen an odd and unexpected philosophical motivation, as they probe the psyche of their victim, perhaps seeking answers to their own unresolved dilemmas as to why they do what they do.
High-risk competitive driving... manipulative sexual flirtation... armed highway robbery... merciless betrayals and double crossing... plunging neck-deep into desperate criminal conspiracies... the willingness to pump bullets into a human target to achieve some ruthless objective... all these reckless actions are so easy to criticize and second guess in hindsight, as the obvious dangers of each action reveal themselves as failed strategies to get ahead. And yet The Killers almost effortlessly draws us into complicity, cajoling us to set aside any ethical reservations and cheer on the lowlifes as they pull off their caper. And when the simmering generational conflict, then just burgeoning in late 1963 (as it was being filmed), erupts in the competition between Johnny (Cassavetes) and Browning (Reagan) for the affections of Sheila, it's practically impossible at this point in history to not see a foreshadowing of the strife between the veterans of World War II and their rebellious Baby Boomer offspring that would consume the next decade or two of American social history. That split between the sensible, business-like older man and the impulsive, wild youth is replicated in the relationship between Charlie (Marvin) and Lee (Gulager.) In this movie, neither the elder nor the younger emerge unscathed - the conclusion of The Killers is surprisingly bleak and nihilistic for a film originally intended for mass entertainment purposes.
As a foretaste of senseless, horrific violence yet to come, Don Siegel was tapping into a vein that now seems remarkably prescient, prophetic even. The baldness of that insight, and his candor in revealing the harsh exploitative confusion that permeated the USA's business, political and sexual environments at that time, made The Killers a little too hot to handle when it was delivered to those who commissioned its creation. But it serves as a memorable and evocative expansion of the limitations that American filmmakers had to work within as they held up their mirror to a society still a little too afraid and hesitant to look without blinking.
Next: Gate of Flesh