The Killers: A slick Lee Marvin and a quirky Clu Gulager are fantastic together in Don Siegel’s Technicolor Noir

The Killers (1964), directed by Don Siegel, is the second film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s eponymous short story. The film features Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan in his final film role.

I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles

That’s Ronald Reagan talking to his lieutenants- sitting on a big chair behind a desk. I must clarify that this is not Reagan, the president of United States (from 1981 to 1989), talking, nor are these words spoken by Reagan, the Governor of California (1967-1975). But this is Reagan as Jack Browning (a gangster, posing as a legitimate businessman) in his final film role, in the 1964 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Killers.” This scene (and the role itself), where Browning is planning the robbery of a U.S. postal truck with his lieutenants, could very well be Reagan dry rehearsing for his stint as one the most successful movie-star-turned-politicians in American history. Of course, Reagan’s Browning is lying through his teeth with that opening quote, as we soon find out that he not only lies, cheats and orders men to be killed- he personally executes couple of men with a sniper rifle no less; and that too around the same time when then president, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a sniper. It’s truly an eerie parallel, where a future president is cast in the same mold of a previous president’s assassin. The parallels don’t stop there: at the end of the film, Browning is taken out by a hitman in a way that almost mirrors the assassination attempt on Reagan himself (when he was in office) by crazed assassin, John Hinckley. Hinckley was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and wanted to impress the film’s star Jodie Foster with his dastardly (in his mind heroic) act. That’s too heady a mix of movies, politics and real-life to consume in just one film, but the film is that potent. “The Killers” was the only time Reagan played a baddie in a film, and Reagan ended up hating the film for the rest of his life. He particularly regretted doing a scene where had to slap actress, Angie Dickinson, who was playing Browning’s moll, Sheila Farr, this Noir’s femme fatale. Even then, Reagan was hesitant to do the role, as he feared that it would negatively impact his future political career, but he was convinced by director, Don Siegel, to take it up. Anyway, Reagan would quit movies after this film and become a full time politician. All this stuff (in hindsight) makes “The Killers” a very interesting film.

This doesn’t mean that the film on its own is not interesting. On the contrary, i think this is the best adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, done by one of the most Hemingway-like film directors, Don Siegel. Hemingway’s short story published in 1927 is not perfect material for movies. It barely clears two thousand words, and it’s only about a couple of big-city hitmen terrorizing a small town before they hit the guy whom they were contracted to hit. And yet, it spawned two film Noirs, one in 1946 and one in 1964. The twist in Hemingway’s tale is that the guy who gets hit does not run on spotting the killers; he gives a courageous display of the author’s pet theme of ‘Grace under pressure’ and accepts his fate coolly. In their own way, the two films pivot around this all important question: “what makes a man decide not to run… why, all of a sudden, he’d rather die.” In the 1946 version of “The Killers,” directed by Robert Siodmak, the answer to the question is sought by an Insurance detective, played by Edmund O’Brien. The man unresistant to his own murder was a boxer played by Burt Lancaster (in his film debut ) and the role of the femme fatale who leads him down the path of doom was played by Ava Gardner (in a star making role). The film invented a lengthy backstory for the boxer character through disjointed flashbacks from the point of view of multiple characters that chronicles his life up to the point when he nonchalantly accepts his fate. The Don Siegel version also borrows the same structure from the Siodmak film, but the boxer is turned into a car racer, named Johnny North (John Cassavetes). Dickinson plays pretty much the same role played by Gardner. But the big difference here is that the investigation into Johnny North’s past life is conducted by the two killers who actually murders North.

When the film opens, we see the two killers, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), barging into a school for the blind and inquiring about Johnny’s whereabouts. These are tough, no-nonsense killers who does not hesitate to rough up a blind woman to extract the information they want. Once they find out where Johnny is, they load up their silencers and proceed to the classroom where Johnny is teaching mechanics. On being confronted by the killers, Johnny, despite being forewarned of their presence, refuses to run; and the killers shoots down an unresistant Johnny. On the train, on their way back from the hit, Charlie is seriously disturbed by why Johnny refused to run. He and Lee run through what they know about Johnny. He was once a champion race car driver whose career ended in a violent crash. Four years before his death, he was involved in a million-dollar robbery of a mail truck. The Killers deduce that whoever paid them for the hit has that stolen money; Despite Lee’s disinterest, Charlie is eager to pursue the trail of the missing money, but Charlie’s primary interest is in finding out the answer to that all important question. Here begins Charlie and Lee’s investigation into Johnny’s past, which will taken them from Miami to New Orleans and finally to Los Angeles. In Miami they interview Johnny’s former mechanic, Earl Sylvester (Claude Atkins), who tells them how Johnny got mixed up with Sheila Farr, and how their relationship ended when Johnny found out that she was Browning’s moll; this coincides with Johnny’s racing career ending after he gets involved in a fiery crash that almost handicaps him.

The killers then interview one of Browning’s former crew member, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), who tells them how Sheila seduced Johnny back into her fold and recruited him for the mail truck robbery. But during the heist Johnny betrayed Browning- the former knocking out the latter- and fled with the money. Next, the killers visit Browning, who feigns ignorance about the status of the missing money; he also arranges for them to meet with Sheila at her hotel, so that they can talk to her directly. At the meeting, Sheila repeats what Browning has said, but after getting roughed up by the killers, she finally spills the truth: she was the one who instigated Johnny to betray Browning, so that they can run away and start a new life with the stolen money; but this was done as part of a plan concocted by Browning who wanted to cut out his crew from sharing the loot, so that he and Sheila can have all the money for themselves. So, as soon as Johnny delivers the money to Sheila, Sheila betrays him to Browning, who shoots him. Though Johnny is severely wounded he escapes. Fearing Johnny would seek revenge, Browning hired Charlie and Lee to murder him. Now that Johnny’s story is complete and the mystery of the missing money is solved, the killers forces Sheila to lead them to the money. But the killers have severely underestimated the decadent Browning-Sheila duo , who turns out to be more ruthless and immoral than the two killers; and the film races towards its utterly cynical and pessimistic climax, where nobody would be left alive, and the stolen money, like the gold at the end of “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” would be scattered in the wind.

“The Killers” was originally conceived to be the first made-for-TV movie shot in color, and it had the longest shooting schedule for such a film up to that time – four weeks. But due to its violence and sexuality, and not to mention the JFK assassination, the film was not premiered on TV, instead it was released in movie theaters, where it did really well. It was an even bigger success in European markets, with Lee Marvin winning a BAFTA nomination for best actor. Though nothing is depicted graphically in the film, the implied violence, sex and immorality was just too powerful for television. The fact that this was a TV movie is very visible throughout the film- the film was entirely shot on Universal studios backlot using existing sets and props. But Siegel turns this into the film’s advantage: the baroque, gleaming, artificial sets and the blazing technicolor works as a perfect backdrop for this overheated, pulp story about a bunch of crooked, shallow, immoral characters; these superficial men and women move through an equally superficial world of shiny surfaces and colorful backdrops. Siegel accentuates this unhinged quality by using ‘Dutch angle‘ shots whenever the killers are on the move. This is a film Noir in glorious technicolor, where the director uses color and flat lighting in stark contrast to the way directors used expressionistic lighting and high-contrast visuals for Black & White Noir. One even get used to the horrible back projection that makes the several car racing sequences unintentionally funny. Though I wish the car racing scenes would have been trimmed down considerably, if not removed completely. I wish the entire flashback section was much more tightened; because the most interesting portions of the film concerns the two killers investigating into Johnny North. The flashback portions are very predictable and boring. Every time the film cuts to a flashback, the film loses momentum and we becomes disinterested. This is accentuated by the fact that the portions involving the killers are so unpredictable and interesting This is the same case with the 1946 film as well. I guess Hemingway was right in avoiding backstories for his character, but since this is film and it has to be of a certain length, the screenplay has to be developed in that direction. This film still runs only a crisp 93 minutes.

The reason why the contemporary portions work and flashback portions do not is also down to the actors performing in these episodes. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager makes a combustible pair as the killers. This is the film in which the brusque, hostile, stoic and unstoppable Lee Marvin persona was fully formed. Marvin would carry this persona through such iconic films as “Point Blank,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Professionals.” Marvin dominates this film with his powerful persona and sardonic attitude and dialogues. His famous line from this film: “I don’t have much time” sums up the essence of the ‘Lee Marvin’ persona- he’s always a man racing against time to finish a mission. He is amply supported by Clu Gulager, who’s actually the surprise packet of the film; with Gulager even managing to outshine Marvin in some of the scenes (an almost impossible task) through his delightfully eerie performance. Gulager’s quirky attitude and line readings are a hoot. Right from the moment he makes his appearance he’s always doing something oddball . At the school for the blind, he removes the flowers from the vase and spills water all over the desk of the blind secretary, this while mockingly waving his hands in front of her face. Later at Sylvester’s workshop he plays with toy cars; when Sylvester asks them “what’s the deal?” why should he tell them about North, Gulager mockingly tells Marvin: “he wants to know the deal.”; and when Sylvester asks them how North dies, Gulager answers with “He choked on one question, …actually too many.” But my favorite Gulager moment is when the duo question Dickinson; and Dickinson retells the same old story of North striking Browning and getting away with the money. On hearing this Gulager gets out from his seat with a confused expression and says “Struck him you say… you mean this..,” and he strikes Dickinson and she’s down on the ground, Gulager also kneels down and smilingly tells her: “We don’t like your story, we want you to tell another story.” The mixture of such wacky histrionics and sardonic dialogues drives Gulager’s very entertaining performance. When Gulager was inventing one quirky antic after another during the shoot, Lee Marvin told him that “that’s alright kid, but whatever you do, the audience will only be watching me.” But Marvin was dead wrong, Gulager steals every scene he is in.

Compared to these two, the rest of the actors comes across as either inept or miscast. The ever dependable supporting player, Claude Atkins gets a meaty role of Johnny North’s loyal friend and he does full justice to it. Cassavetes as the patsy Noir hero, North, is not very convincing. He seems to be always angry and resentful even when he is romancing Angie Dickinson. One gets the feeling that Cassavetes took up this film only to raise money for one of his independent ventures. Dickinson is miscast as the femme fatale, she doesn’t have the mystique or smoldering intensity of an Ava Gardner. She’s much better at being a strong foil to macho leading men, like John Wayne in “Rio Bravo or Marvin in “Point Blank,” but she is not capable of driving the narrative and be convincing as an unscrupulous woman who seduces and abandons men at will. Reagan as Browning is okay, he is present in only very few scenes and gives the sleazy character a certain amount of authority. Cassavetes and Marvin don’t have any scenes together, but they would reunite for “The Dirty Dozen.” Dickinson, who earlier worked with Atkins in “Rio Bravo,” would team up with Marvin two more times- in “Point Blank” and “Death Hunt.”

Though the script of the film is credited to Gene L. Coon, Siegel himself wrote most of the script. The idea of having the Killers who committed the crime investigate the same crime is a cheeky, anti-authoritarian twist that’s a Siegel trademark- like having a vigilante cop. The world that Siegel creates here is devoid of any sense of law & order- the only time we feel the presence of the law is in the film’s final minutes when we hear the police siren, but by then the story is finished and everybody is dead. It’s a truly nihilistic take on Hemingway’s story befitting of the time it was made. Siegel also sneaks in themes of generational conflict; the older generation represented by the characters played by Reagan and Marvin, who participated in WWII, and the ‘Rebels without a cause’ generation that came after them. represented by Cassavetes’ and Gulager’s characters. Both North and Lee are wildly unpredictable and impulsive characters who live in the moment and do and say things without much thought. Meanwhile, Browning and Charlie are more thoughtful, methodical and clever; they look at the big picture and plan for the future. Charlie wants to go after the money because he’s already into his 40s and he knows he doesn’t have many years left as a hitman, while Lee, who’s in his 20s is happy with his current situation and is not much interested in going after the money. Also, Sheila chooses Browning over a much younger and virile Johnny, because Browning is the more cunning, resourceful and coolheaded. It’s also interesting to note that North and Lee die first, while Charlie and Browning, despite being older, survives up to the end. “The Killers” may be pulp, but it’s very stylish, enjoyable and even thought provoking pulp, something only a Don Siegel is capable of making. As it maybe obvious from the number of Siegel films I have reviewed on this site, I am a big fan of his; he and Walter Hill are my favorite genre directors- they are genre purists who not only gives us all the pleasures that we expect from a masculine action\thriller\Noir picture, but also elevate them to minor works of art. The fact that there is nobody today making (or capable of making) movies like them make me return to their films again and again.

2 thoughts on “The Killers: A slick Lee Marvin and a quirky Clu Gulager are fantastic together in Don Siegel’s Technicolor Noir

  1. The beginning of the 1949 “Killers” follows Hemingway’s short story almost exactly, although the majority of the movie is added on. I’ve never seen the one with Reagan, gotta watch. Thanks.


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