Monday 19 February 2024

The Killers (1964)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writer: Gene L. Coon, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Stars: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell and Ronald Reagan

Index: 2024 Centennials.

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t seen The Killers, at least in this incarnation, the 1964 feature by Donald Siegel, not yet to shrink that into Don. It started out as a short story by Ernest Hemingway, originally published in 1927, which was set in Chicago during a peak era for organised crime: prohibition. It’s about a couple of hitmen, Max and Al, who arrive at Henry’s Lunch-Room to murder a Swedish boxer called Ole Anderson, only to find that he isn’t there. It’s an interesting story, because Anderson doesn’t die within it; instead Hemingway focuses on the responses of the various characters to the knowledge that he’s about to. It’s been adapted to screen many times, most notably by Anthony Veiller in 1946 in a version that I have seen and rate very highly indeed as one of the best films noir Hollywood ever made. That version is far more cinematic than the painful wait of the story, with the hit happening first and the story behind it unfolding in flashback, giving a debuting Burt Lancaster plenty of screen time as Anderson.

This later version updates that one, keeping the hit at the start and the story behind it in flashback, but with the two hitmen as the reasons why the story is told. In 1946, that was done by Edmund O’Brien as an insurance investigator called Jim Reardon; here, it’s the killers who mount an investigation because one of them is puzzled by why his victim was completely resigned to his imminent demise. As the names have all been changed and the timeframe was updated to the sixties, the killers are now Charlie and Lee and the victim is Jerry Nichols. Charlie recognises him as Johnny North, a former race car champion who supposedly pulled off a heist of a mail truck that netted him a million bucks, so he starts to wonder about why they were paid well above the typical rate for the hit and where that money went, given that whoever hired them didn’t care. Thus the investigation, which unfolds chronologically within the contemporary scenes, while the back story fleshes out through the memories of the characters that they interview.

The most notable change is that, far from a claustrophobic black and white film noir, this is a bright and brash slab of sixties cool, shot in colour with the two hitmen almost always wearing sunglasses, even inside. It starts tough with a stylish opening sequence that has the credits unfold against static shots of the killers saturated into red and blue and backed by a re-edited take on part of Henry Mancini’s score for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. We already know that Charlie and Lee aren’t going to mess around, even if we haven’t learned their names yet. And, sure enough, they don’t, even though the hit takes place at a school for the blind, which is a fascinating touch. The kids are so believably blind that I’m sure they are, though Virginia Christine just as clearly isn’t, acting that she is in the role of the school’s secretary, but it’s still neat to see her read a braille watch. They torment her before shooting Nichols in his classroom upstairs; he’s played by John Cassevetes, whose last words are to dismiss his class.

Framing the whole story from the perspective of two hitmen trying to track down a stolen fortune is a masterful touch. We know that they’re going to be brutal because they have been from the very outset, murdering a man in cold blood while his students, all of them blind, attempt to leave the scene. Charlie is all business, courtesy of our centenarian, Lee Marvin, who received top billing for the very first time on the big screen in a career that dated back to a role as an uncredited radio man in 1951’s You’re in the Navy Now, coincidentally also the uncredited debut of another future action star, Charles Bronson. Marvin was 6’1” and looked taller, so he’s effortlessly dominant here without any scruples to get in the way. His partner here is Clu Gulager, two inches shorter but with a Tom Cruise in asshole mode mindset that makes him look shorter still. His film debut was right here, after a decade on television; he’d played Billy the Kid in seventy-five episodes of The Tall Man and was a year into his new regular show, The Virginians.

Given that the mystery is all about Johnny North, Cassavetes gets plenty of time in the flashbacks. Charlie and Lee’s first stop is to see his former mechanic, Earl Sylvester, at his “speed headquarters”. That’s Claude Akins and we’re launched into his flashback at the fourteen minute mark, only to return to the present day a full half an hour later, almost halfway through the picture. Marvin’s debut as a leading man—he became one on television in 1957, leading three seasons of the highly successful crime drama M Squad—was tempered by the fact that he’s only actually in half of it. Nonetheless, it made his name to a filmgoing audience, who were thus conditioned to him playing bad guys from the very beginning, even if the following year brought him both an Academy Award and abiding fame for a very different picture indeed, Cat Ballou. Of course, as the film runs on, the flashbacks become shorter and scenes in the present day longer, as the two together slowly combine to explain the mystery behind Johnny North.

So to the back story, without either Marvin or Gulager but with Angie Dickinson. She’s Sheila Farr and she drives into Johnny’s life right as Sylvester starts his story. They’re at the track, with the mechanic clocking his partner on time trials. She watches and then takes over his life, quickly and effectively. He gives her a ride round the track in his Shelby Cobra, which turns her on because she’s she’s all about the danger, and then drives her to lunch in her own car. Beyond the arrival of Sheila, with whom Johnny falls in love just like that, there are two other details to note here, one of which affects how this picture plays today. The one that doesn’t is the car itself, a 1962 Shelby Cobra, only the fifth ever built. After being so prominent on screen, it was sold to the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving, where it was used as a trainer car, driven by students like Steve McQueen and James Garner. The one that does is that Cassavetes couldn’t drive it, so all the driving scenes where he’s clearly identifiable are obvious rear projection.

Frankly, this is the worst thing about the movie today. Both Steve McQueen and George Peppard were considered as Johnny North, but Cassavetes was cast before Siegel discovered that he couldn’t drive. Now, I haven’t driven for thirty years, though I do have my British license, and I wouldn’t remotely want to find myself thrown into driving fast for a movie. However, I can drive a frickin’ go kart, which Cassevetes apparently couldn’t do here, and putting the pedal down and hitting maybe thirty miles per hour on a short track feels like I’m doing two hundred on a Formula 1 circuit. Because of that, Cassavetes pretending to drive his stationary go kart while Angie Dickinson clearly rides one for real round a track in footage projected behind him is rather offputting and defuses any tension that we might expect to wring out of those scenes. I started to fall out of his story at this point, wondering instead what his problem with driving really was. Trauma, maybe, or a motion issue or some sort of phobia. Oh yeah, there’s a movie on. Let’s see...

Driving aside, Cassavetes is good here, with some excellent dialogue and good backs and forth between him and Akins and between him and Dickinson. However, his happy time is about to come to an end, through the ominous appearance of Ronald Reagan, a face so well-known that we recognise him even while he’s looking at us through binoculars. He’s Jack Browning, who Sheila describes as “an old friend” to Sylvester. He’s obviously far more than that and it doesn’t surprise us when it’s made clear that he’s a crime boss and she’s the eye candy he expects to have at his beck and call. Reagan had already ended his film career, his previous feature film being Hellcats of the Navy seven years earlier, and he would soon regret agreeing to play an outright bad guy because he had already decided to move into politics, with an impactful speech in 1964 on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. By 1966, he was Governor of California. By 1980, of course, he was President of the United States.

Noting that Norman Fell is also part of the principal cast, as Browning’s right hand man, it’s fair to say that there are heavyweight actors here, many of whom are more than capable of stealing the show. Cassavetes did that in many movies; Reagan had his entire career behind him to draw on, with the added bonus of playing a bad guy for the first time in his career; and Dickinson benefitted from almost being the only woman in the filmand the one who drives the flashback stories; only two others are credited, with tiny roles as a secretary and a receptionist. However, Marvin and Gulager drive the contemporary story and it’s not tough to see why the former apparently called this his favourite picture when it came out. He wasn’t just the lead in a movie for the first time in an impressive career; he was a ruthless lead willing to do absolutely anything to get what he wants and one with far more depth than Gulager’s psychopathic Lee. Maybe there are other stories in Jack Browning, but I left this wanting to know more about Charlie.

While it’s not likely that we’ll ever learn more about Charlie, we know a lot about the man who played him, Lee Marvin, who would have been a hundred years old today, had he not died in 1987 just down the road from me in Tucson, Arizona. He was born in New York City to an advertising executive and a fashion writer, named after his first cousin, four times removed, Robert E. Lee. Yes, the confederate general. He struggled in school, having both dyslexia and ADHD, but he thrived as a teenager hunting deer and puma in the Everglades, after a family move to Florida. He enlisted in the Marines at eighteen and served in the Pacific as a scout sniper, taking part in twenty-one amphibious assaults on Japanese-held islands and a host of brutal battles that cost the lives of most of his colleagues. He was wounded by machine gun fire and a sniper bullet, leading to a year of medical treatment, PTSD and a medical discharge as a private after demotion from corporal for troublemaking, which had previously got him expelled from multiple schools.

His entry into acting was far from commonplace. He was working as a plumber’s assistant at a community theatre in upstate New York when an actor fell ill and he was asked to take over the role. He did so, was hired by that company and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study acting at the American Theatre Wing. Stage roles led to television roles, but his debut on Broadway happened the same year as his debut on film in You’re in the Navy Now. While most of that was shot on board a navy patrol craft, scenes were shot in California too and he stayed there to build his film career, channelling his war experience into assisting others to ensure scenes in war movies were believable. Given his memorable appearance and obvious presence, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that he was kept busy, even if many of his early film roles were uncredited. It’s more surprising that it took a few years for him to be more noticed, but strong supporting roles in films like The Big Heat and The Wild One did that, leading the Beetles gang in the latter.

I’ve seen a lot of his films from the early fifties and he’s always a reliable presence, whether the title is The Caine Mutiny, Bad Day at Black Rock or Violent Saturday. He had a strong year in 1955, starting with Violent Saturday and wrapping up with three movies—Pete Kelly’s Blues, I Died a Thousand Times and Shack Out on 101—that are interesting and flawed but in each of which he’s arguably the best thing; there are even two others in between that I haven’t seen yet! However, while he continued to deliver in a long line of major supporting roles, moving up the credits list as he did so, it took M Squad on television to break him as a leading man, firmly setting him up as not just a tough guy but a memorably violent and deep tough guy. No wonder that his inevitable return to the big screen after three years of M Squad would be in a film as crucial as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, playing a memorably violent but deep tough guy, the title character, holding his own against heavyweights of the industry like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

This film came after a further outing as a double act with Wayne, Donovan’s Reef, and was intended to be a TV movie but was moved to theatres either because it was too entertaining or because it was too violent, depending on which source we choose to trust. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. It was Marvin’s first lead role on film, but it was Cat Ballou a year later that made him a star, courtesy of a double role, playing both Tim Strawn, the hired killer who’s threatening Cat’s father, and the drunkard Kid Shelleen, who she hires to take him down. It won him an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, but it also cemented his career as a versatile actor, not just a heavy, a villain and an anti-hero. The future was bright and he lived up to that promise in westerns like The Professionals; war adventures like The Dirty Dozen, reuniting him with John Cassavetes; and tough thrillers like Point Blank; not to forget unusually phrased musicals like Paint Your Wagon, which gave him an unexpected hit in Wand’rin’ Star, three weeks at number one in the UK.

Off screen, he gained much attention for a relationship that wasn’t one of his two marriages. When he made The Killers, he was still in the first, with Betty Ebeling, with whom he had four children, but they would separate in 1965 and divorce in 1967. He married a second time in 1970, to Pamela Feeley, and they remained married until his death in 1987. However, it was the relationship he had in between them that led to a famous court case, Marvin v. Marvin. The other Marvin was a girlfriend, Michelle Triola, rather than a wife, though she changed her name legally to Marvin anyway. She later sued for the compensation that a spouse would get under California’s community property laws, not least because she claimed a trio of pregnancies, one ending in a miscarriage, the others in abortions, which he paid for. This court case became known as the “palimony” case, the term coined by another Marvin, Marvin Mitchelson, Triola’s attorney. She lost, but the case was satirised on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show.

By this point, he was a bona fide star who could pick his own roles, leading to a more versatile output in the seventies and eighties in films as varied as Emperor of the North Pole, The Klansman and Gorky Park, though most likely remember him for a couple of traditional tough guy roles. The first came in 1980, with him top billed as the sergeant in Samuel Fuller’s World War II epic The Big Red One; the second in 1986 in his final acting role, alongside Chuck Norris in The Delta Force. There was almost a third, because he was offered the role of Quint in Jaws, but he turned it down. That role went, of course, to Robert Shaw, with whom he made a thriller in 1979, Avalanche Express, which turned out to be Shaw’s final film because he died of a heart attack during production. In total, Marvin made fifty-seven features over thirty-five years, in addition to a TV movie, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, and a long list of television roles leading up to Cat Ballou. As an icon, he remains highly recognisable even to those who were born after he died.

1 comment:

dale wittig said...

Actually, John Huston and Richard Brooks, along with his frequent collaborator Veiller, were responsible for the adaptation of the Killers (Siodmak, 1946), as Huston reportedly told Hemingway. I forget why he wasn't allowed to take credit for it, but that happened with Huston on Welles' the Stranger as well.