Today: April 19, 2024

The Killers

First published in 1927, Ernest Hemmingway’s short story “The Killers” has been adapted for the screen no less than six times. The reason for this abundance of adaptation is that Hemmingway used his story to ask a big question and then unpacked the question in a style so minimalistic that every reading plants the seed of a fresh interpretation. Why would someone refuse to run when confronted with men who had been sent to kill them?  Like many 1960s crime thrillers, Don Siegel’s The Killers answers that question with a beautiful woman and a whole heap of trouble.

The film opens with a pair of smartly dressed hitmen muscling their way into a school for the blind. After brutally assaulting the blind receptionist, the pair make their way upstairs where a man is teaching car maintenance to a group of blind people. Pausing only to confirm the man’s identity, the assassins pull out their guns but rather than running or begging for his life, the man simply smiles and accepts the inevitable. Troubled by the man’s reaction as well as the inflated fee for his murder, the older of the two assassins (Lee Marvin) convinces his unsettlingly healthy junior (Clu Galager) to investigate the events leading up to the man’s death. However, because the subject of their investigation can no longer be interrogated, the assassins are forced to piece together the details of his life by talking to the people who knew him. Like the shock troops of psychoanalysis, the hitmen torture and threaten their way into the story of a promising young racing driver (John Cassavetes) who fell for the wrong woman (Angie Dickinson).

Much like Ryan Gosling’s character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Cassavetes’ Johnny is someone with nothing in his life other than cars. Said to be one of the most naturally gifted drivers of his generation, Johnny is poised to take the world of racing by storm until Dickinson’s Sheila wanders into his life and changes everything. Suddenly, the man who lived only to race has a reason to win and his passionate need to win a race in order to get married results in a hideous accident. When Johnny comes to, he learns not only that his racing career is over but also that the woman he loves is actually the mistress of a sinister crook played by former US president Ronald Reagan. With nothing left to live for, Johnny goes into a steep decline until Sheila unexpectedly turns up and offers him a job: Come work for Ronald Reagan and you will receive enough money to make a fresh start. The promise is big but not nearly as big as the promise of rekindling an all-consuming flame and so Johnny accepts the deal. Needless to say, everything goes wrong… but then again, maybe it goes exactly to plan.

Despite a lurid title, some well realised driving sequences and the presence of Lee Marvin, The Killers is more of a hardboiled crime drama than a conventional heist picture. Made for TV and shot almost entirely on sound stages, the film’s charm lies less in its pace or visual panache than it does in its story and characters.

Gene L. Coon’s script moves with all the grace and precision of a ballet dancer. Constructed around an extraordinarily elegant double-timeframe structure that moves us smoothly back and forth between the life and death of Johnny, the psychotherapeutic themes allow Siegel to drill all the way down into its primary character. As in Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen, Cassavetes is a relentlessly energetic screen presence that twitches and fidgets its way through feelings of love, hate, longing, and regret before finally reaching the perfect stillness of acceptance. While much of the plot may focus upon Johnny’s motivations and character, this big mystery also serves to open up a number of smaller mysteries about the secondary characters. In fact, one could argue that this film is not so much about the life of Johnny as it is about the death of Lee Marvin’s hitman.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

Released with extras including a fascinating interview with the director and two rather less fascinating interviews with Marvin and Reagan’s biographers, The Killers is an absolutely unimpeachable classic of 1960s crime cinema. Intricately plotted, elegantly acted and psychologically devastating.

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