Friday, May 9, 2008

Movie Review: The Killers (1964)

I’m taking a brief break in my final run-up to the last films in the Seagal oeuvre and actually watching some quality works to clear my head a bit. This week I saw an absolutely amazing (and fairly obscure) Lee Marvin film from the mid-60’s called The Killers. The film is loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway story, and is a very quirky, noir film featuring Marvin as an assassin who is troubled by a hit on a washed up race car driver (John Cassavetes). The Killers is truly an amazing little picture that features an incredible array of talent, and foreshadows much of what was to come in crime films of the late-60’s and 70’s . . . and what was later revived by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. It has oddball hitmen, a flashback narrative, inventive camera work, and career-best performances from a number of individuals. Most incredible of all is that it was shot for television! Unfortunately it has been largely forgotten over the years, a situation that definitely needs to be corrected . . .

I began The Killers with only minimal knowledge of what to expect. I had read enough to know that it was a respected Lee Marvin film (at least by those who had managed to see it), and that it featured a great cast. What blew me away though as the opening credits rolled was just how many notable people were involved. The film stars Marvin, Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager (more in a moment on that), Claude Akins, Norman Fell, and (get ready for this one) Ronald Reagan (as the villain no less). It was directed by the legendary Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and written by Gene L. Coon (Star Trek). And the music was by an obscure fellow by the name of John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, Planet of the Apes, etc.). Not too shabby of a talent roster, eh? And let me tell you every one of these folks is on top of their game, but I’ll get to that as we go along.

The film opens up with nerve-rattling sequence in which Marvin and Gulager descend on a home for the blind where Cassavetes is teaching an auto shop class. They ruthlessly question the blind students (including women and children) as to his location and march in and shoot him well over a dozen times. For a film of this vintage the sequence is remarkably violent, and sets a tone that will be maintained for the duration. As I mentioned the film was indeed shot for television, and in fact would have been the first made-for-television feature. Would have been. That’s because the film was deemed far too violent to be shown on television in the 60’s. And truth be told it would hold its own in many ways with the television content of today. Blood is kept to a minimum, but the attitude and no holds barred behavior of all the principal characters are on par with what one would see in today’s crime films. I’ve read reviews that mention The Killers as a precursor to Bonnie and Clyde, and that’s certainly a valid statement.

Upon killing Cassavetes, Marvin is intrigued by the fact that he made no attempt to flee. Cassavetes had received enough of a warning (via a phone call) that the assassins were on their way, yet he simply waited at his desk to receive them (and be killed). This sets Marvin and his loyal partner Gulager on a journey to discover Cassavetes’ background and the possible existence of a stolen truckload of money. Along the way they find that Cassavetes’ promising racing career was ruined after he fell under the spell of a groupie (Angie Dickinson), and ultimately ended up working for her crime boss (Ronald Reagan). Naturally this will all culminate in an unforgettable climactic showdown.

In my experience, noir films tend to follow a basic pattern like the one seen in The Killers. You have a morally questionable protagonist thrust into a seemingly unwinnable situation, and a resulting climax that usually is not of the happy ending variety. What makes any noir film stand out from the pack though is the direction and performances, and The Killers is rich on both counts. First let’s start with the latter. I can’t say enough about how terrific all the actors are in this film. Everyone turns in first rate performances. Cassavetes is outstanding as the troubled driver, Akins is surprisingly vulnerable as his best friend mechanic, and Dickinson is at her sultry best. Even Norman Fell is wonderful in his small, but important role as Reagan’s weasely sidekick. But the real standouts here are Marvin, Gulager, and Reagan.

Marvin is probably best known to most folks for his iconic performances in films like The Dirty Dozen (which was the basis for how I perceived him for many years), but he appeared in a number of films starting with The Killers which broke all the rules. These included the delirious masterpiece Point Blank (1967), the wildly irreverent Prime Cut (1972), and the uncompromising WWII film The Big Red One (1980). Granted he did many great action films along the way, but these were all as daring and original as anything you could find then or now. Prime Cut in particular will cause the jaw to drop on even the most jaded cult film aficionado. What these all show is that Marvin’s talent was far more than as a standard tough guy hero. Amongst his iconic roles he would actively seek out artsy/challenging parts that defied audience expectations, and The Killers is a perfect example.

While the film starts off with Marvin acting out the tough guy role, once he has dispatched Cassavetes his character becomes something quite different. He begins to ponder the motivations of his prey, which leads him down an introspective path. On the surface he is concerned with the possibility of a payday in the form of recovered loot, but underneath he is far more interested in the man’s loss of the survival instinct (something his hitman character cannot comprehend). It is his contemplation of the essence of a man that drives the action, rather than the standard plot device of the stolen money, lending the film significantly more weight than your average crime outing. Marvin’s nuanced performance manages to pay service to his tough guy image, while also providing subtle moments revealing his troubled conscience and loss of stability. The result is a landmark performance, that easily ranks as one of his best.

In contrast to Marvin, the movie features Clu Gulager as his partner in crime. Gulager is a total wild card, often engaging in unpredictable behavior and offbeat commentary. I’ve seen reviews comparing him to the Vega brothers from Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction and that’s fairly close. I would say he’s more of the Reservoir Dogs variety Vega. He shows no mercy (neither does Marvin, but he’s less smug about it), and is prone to throwing out odd statements and observations (the man thinks very highly of steaks and Miami). I must confess my familiarity with Gulager is largely from character work in horror films (e.g. Return of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), but after seeing this performance I’m amazed he didn’t become a more prominent actor. He is pitch perfect in the role, and really does set the template for future characters of this type. Every time he is in the spotlight one is put on edge wondering what he will do or say next. He’s amazing to watch because he is so invested in the part, and perhaps he was so convincing producers steered clear of him. Even if he’d never shown up again, Gulager would have made a solid contribution to cinema history.

And then there’s Reagan. After being totally sucked in by Gulager’s performance, I never would have suspected there to be an equally memorable villain in the film. But about midway in we’re introduced to Reagan’s character and he is something to behold. Now I know Reagan comes with a little baggage as folks obviously have strong opinions based on individual political philosophy. I’m here to tell you, regardless of what you think of his political life you will be blown away by what he does here as an actor. Apparently this was the only time he ever played a villain, and he was not too keen on it (he took the part as a favor to a friend). Despite his reluctance he really goes for broke, oozing menace every moment he’s onscreen. He is an excellent adversary for Marvin and Gulager, and it’s quite something to see them interact with each other. If you only are familiar with Reagan’s Bonzo films, then prepare for an entirely different experience.

Of course great performances are only part of the equation. Another big reason The Killers works is director Don Siegel. Siegel was a fairly prolific action director who certainly brought an understanding of the filmmaking process to the table. But he also had a flair for subtext. One need only look at the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to see that Siegel was someone special. In that film he took a B-grade sci-fi plot and turned it into a metaphor for the Red Scare. A similar spark must have ignited with The Killers as he infused the proceedings with a dark humor and unrelenting brutality that was completely unexpected. The film was no less than an early warning shot across the bow of mainstream Hollywood, which unfortunately went unheard due to the film’s origins. Although it was released theatrically, it was intended for television and therefore not likely given proper credit. Consequently, when Bonnie and Clyde came along it received the lion share of the credit for the revolutionary shift in Hollywood due to its prestige status. Happily, the film marked a resurgence for Siegel who went on to helm a number of wildly successful films with Clint Eastwood, including the similarly rebellious Dirty Harry.

The Killers is one of those rare films you come across that manages to completely live up to its well-deserved reputation and fires on all cylinders. While it manages to be deliver on the visceral thrill of the genre, it also rewards viewers with a host of artistic touches that elevate it to classic status. Most of all it provided a first glimpse of what Marvin was truly capable of, and showed us what might have been in the form of Clu Gulager and Ronald Reagan. If you’ve never seen or heard of this film, you definitely want to get a hold of the stellar Criterion Collection edition (which also includes a 1946 version of the story featuring Burt Lancaster). The director of Dirty Harry, the President of the United States, and Mr. Roper. How can you resist?!?

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