Wednesday 18 May 2016

Movie Review: The Killers (1964)

A taut noir thriller, The Killers is a crisp, violent mystery. The story of two hitmen seeking the background story of their latest victim is a captivating journey through doomed romance, greed and betrayal.

Professional killers Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) stride into a school for the blind and shoot dead instructor Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who doesn't even try to avoid them. Charlie is intrigued by Johnny's behaviour, and although he knows better than to ask questions about his targets, he initiates a quest to find out more, fuelled by rumours that Johnny was involved in a heist of $1 million.

Charlie: It's not only the money. Maybe we get that and maybe we don't. But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run... why, all of a sudden, he'd rather die.

Charlie and Lee travel to Miami, where they meet Johnny's former partner, a car mechanic named Earl (Claude Akins). In a flashback he reveals that Johnny was a promising race car driver whose career was derailed when he fell madly in love with the ravishing Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), a rich girl looking for a distraction. Sheila's sugar daddy is the shadowy and very rich businessman Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). Charlie and Lee next travel to New Orleans to meet Browning's associate Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), who is now running a gym. In another flashback he recounts a subsequent tale about the carefully planned theft of a mail truck, which reignited the passion between Sheila and Johnny, much to Browning's chagrin.

Charlie: Whoever laid this contract wasn't worried about the million dollars, and the only people that don't worry about a million dollars are the people that have a million dollars.

Directed by Don Siegel as a loose adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story, The Killers started life as a made-for-television production. Due to uncompromising levels of violence, it turned into a cinematic release, and a terrific modern film noir. Helped enormously by an in-your-face attitude oozing icy coolness generated by the slick personalities of Charlie (unflappable) and Lee (playful), the film sprints through its 93 minutes of running time, not wasting a moment as the story of lust, crime and double cross unfolds simultaneously in the past and the present.

The Gene L. Coon script lines up most of the classic noir elements and executes perfectly. The film opens with a quick murder, Sheila is a perfect femme fatale capable of making any man bend to her will, Johnny is the ideal sap filled with passion but insufficient control, and Browning represents the shadowy power broker hiding behind a facade of respectability. Siegel adds plenty of oblique angles to complement the edgy action and witty dialogue.

A large part of the film centres on Johnny as an ace car driver, and the on-track and off-road action adds to the manic pace of the film. Siegel pushes rear-projection technology to its limit, and if the film has a weakness it resides in an ambition to capture exciting in-vehicle angles not matched by the available budget.

Siegel assembled what turned into a terrific cast. Lee Marvin finally received his first top billing as Charlie the thoughtful hitman, and he makes a lasting impression as the silver haired cerebral man of action. Clu Gulager almost steals every scene he's in as the younger sidekick Lee, both his dialogue and antics hinting at hyperactivity channeled in lethal directions. Angie Dickinson is a perfect fit as the femme fatale capable of breaking hearts and manipulating minds to further whatever agenda pleases her. And John Cassavetes pushes the intensity needle to its limit, as a racing driver with a wrecked career and a wounded heart.

The supporting cast is deep and effective. Ronald Reagan (in his last film role) gets to play his first villain, and proves to be a surprisingly effective bad guy. Claude Akins and Norman Fell get bigger than usual roles and deliver better than usual performances.

Browning: I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles.

The Killers will not be satisfied until they get to the bottom of the story: why did Johnny North accept his death so meekly, and what happened to the missing million dollars. The road to all the answers is fast, frantic and littered with victims.

Charlie, to Sheila: Lady, I don't have the time.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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