Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Gene L. Coon
Starring: Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickenson, Ronald Reagan
Running Time: 93 Mins
Reviewed by Guy Adams
Don Siegel had originally been slated to direct the 1946 version of THE KILLERS (inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same title) but was fired from the production. In 1964 he was to get his chance again in a version intended as the first movie specifically made for TV broadcast. Ultimately, concerned over the violent subject matter, NBC decided not to broadcast it and it was released theatrically. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for all concerned, most particularly Lee Marvin who was propelled to leading man status thanks to his compelling performance.
Two hired assassins kill Johnny North (Cassavetes), a teacher at a school for the blind. Afterwards, Charlie (Marvin) admits to his colleague, Lee (Gulager) that he’s uncomfortable. North didn’t run. He simply sat there and waited for the bullets. Charlie needs to know why. They decide to investigate.
It’s certainly Marvin’s film. He and Gulagher make a charming yet terrifying pair of conversational killers (often cited, not least by Quentin Tarantino, as a direct inspiration for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters in PULP FICTION). Marvin’s performance and charisma linger even when he’s not onscreen. Which, given the multiple flashbacks explaining how Johnny North came to accept his death is sadly often.
It seems unfair to cite the strength of one performer as a criticism for the movie as a whole but, as much as Cassavetes and Dickenson almost hold their own, it’s impossible not to miss Marvin when he’s absent. The climax — during which he was apparently drunk — is pure cinema magic.
THE KILLERS is also famous for being the last acting role of Ronald Reagan. I use the word ‘acting’ loosely.
Apparently the future president didn’t want to appear in the film, the only time he ever played a villain. He was particularly uncomfortable with a scene in which he slaps Angie Dickenson, considering it morally repugnant. Which is charming. Clearly he managed to overcome such a burdensome sense of morality in his later years, otherwise he would have never managed to achieve such excellent work in Nicaragua.
He’s a bland and unbelievable presence, though the subject of a fascinating special feature, an interview with Marc Eliot, author of ‘Ronald Reagan: the Hollywood Years’. There is also an interview with Lee Marvin biographer, Dwayne Epstein and a wonderful, archive interview interview with Don Siegel in which he talks with great wit and humility about his work in cinema.
The disc offers a beautiful HD presentation of the movie in two screen ratios (‘television’ and ‘cinema’) and a beautifully illustrated booklet with new writing on the movie by Mike Sutton and excerpts from Don Siegel’s autobiography.