Under the title Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, Don Siegel's 1964 movie shows no more fidelity to the short story from which it takes its name and a fraction of its plot than Robert Siodmak's 1946 masterpiece, The Killers. And though it borrowed from the earlier movie its flashback structure (substantially simplified) and much of the backstory written for it, it's not quite a remake, either: the changes strike too deep. A pair of contract hit-men track down a victim who seems ready, almost eager, to die. The killers this time around are Lee Marvin and Clu Gallagher, whose cozy arrangements suggest something of Fante and Mingo in The Big Combo. The first big shift from its 1946 predecessor is that Marvin's curiosity, not an insurance investigator's, sets the plot in motion, by his delving into the target's past and the whereabouts of a million dollars from a heist years before (in fact, he becomes the principal character). The second is a racheted-up level of violence: The movie opens with the pair tracking down their prey in a school for the blind, whose residents they ruthlessly terrorize during their hunt. And the level stays high. John Cassavettes plays the victim, a former race-car driver fallen on hard times since a bad smash-up. Through the reminiscences of old buddy Claude Akins and past associate Norman Fell, we relive his racing career to an extent that stretches of the movie look like outtakes from Grand Prix. In those glory days he crossed tracks with the femme fatale of the piece, Angie Dickinson (in her rat-pack, late-Camelot salad days herself). After his car crash and their break-up, she lures him off the primrose path to serve as driver during a mail-truck robbery. But Dickinson's heart belongs to daddy daddy in this instance being Ronald Reagan as a heavy. This marks his last film role. For a while it was chic to dismiss Reagan as a lousy actor, but he was always compentent enough. The puzzle is that the undeniable charisma that helped garner him the governorship of California and the presidency of the United States never came through on the screen; he couldn't carry a picture. He has a nasty moment slapping Dickinson silly when her attention strays to Cassavettes, but Marvin redeems his top billing by stealing the movie. Ernest Hemingway's The Killers remains a good example of how the complexities and suggestiveness of the noir cycle were to metamorphose into a faster, flatter, more literal and brutal style of moviemaking starting in the late 1950s. Don Siegel was in the forefront of this change, starting in period noirs (The Verdict) but reaching his apogee, so to speak, in Dirty Harry. He delivers the goods, pronto, in a plain brown wrapper.
Surprised that their contract victim didn't try to run away from them, two professional hit men try to find out who hired them and why.
February 12, 2021