Robert Siodmak's 1946 version of The Killers is just barely an adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story it's based on, and Don Siegel's 1964 version of The Killers is just barely an adaptation of that adaptation. Still, all three are compelling crime stories with their own unique merits and memorable qualities. Hemingway's short is an economical bit of suspense that gains power from leaving much of its tale untold. Siodmak's movie is a classic slice of moody noir which finds a great deal of bruised soulfulness in the tale. As for Siegel's version... well, it has a scene in which the future President of the United States smacks Angie Dickinson across the face.
Given Siegel's inclinations behind the camera, it shouldn't come as a surprise that his take on The Killers is a much harder, colder, leaner film than Siodmak's classically melodramatic version. While the original film was shot in shadow-filled black-and-white, this one is in bright, eye-popping color – a seedy tale of murder and mystery that unfolds in broad daylight. It was originally intended as a made-for-television film, but was ultimately deemed too violent for TV. The violence is tame by today's standards, but the attitude isn't: this movie is just plain mean.
The film opens not with a recreation of Hemingway and Siodmak's infamous diner scene, but with something far more unsavory – an attack on a school for the blind. Helpless, sightless people crawl around and scream as professional killers Charlie (Lee Marvin, Point Blank) and Lee (Clu Gulager, The Virginian) murder their target: a teacher named Johnny North (John Cassavettes, Rosemary's Baby). Johnny accepts his fate calmly... perhaps a little too calmly. Charlie senses that the whole job was a little too easy; that they're being paid too much money for such an easy hit. There most be more money involved somewhere along the line, and the killers set out to find it.
This sets up a fairly clever variation on the story Siodmak told: instead of having a noble insurance investigator attempting to discover the cause of the victim's death, we have a pair of criminals conducting an investigation in the hopes of further profiting from that death. As in the original, much of the film plays out in flashback, though in this case many of the people providing the information for those flashbacks are being held at gunpoint. Slowly but surely, the truth of Johnny's life unfolds: his past as a successful race car driver, his relationship with the seductive Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, Dressed to Kill) and his professional involvement with the cold-blooded gangster Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, Bedtime for Bonzo).
Lee Marvin (cool and commanding) gets top billing and John Cassavettes (increasingly bedraggled and all-too-human) gets the most screen time, but it's Reagan's performance that really sticks with you. Yes, it's partially because you're always aware that you're watching a future world leader, but also because the performance contrasts so sharply with every other thing Reagan had done. In most of his other films, he's genial, warm, heroic – the qualities he attempted to capture in his public appearances as a politician. Here, he's playing a man with no redeeming features other than well-coiffed hair; a steely villain with murderous eyes. It was an inspired piece of stunt casting at the time (shaking up Reagan's all-American image), and it plays like a positively genius one now.
The film's chief failing is that the doomed romance angle doesn't quite stick. Dickinson is a capable actress, but she isn't half the femme fatale Ava Gardner was, and she never quite sells us on her character's complicated journey. It doesn't help that Cassavettes and Dickinson don't seem to have much chemistry together during their scenes of early romance. There's a moment late in the film that ought to feel like an emotional sucker punch, but it falls curiously flat.
Thankfully, Siegel makes up in stylish cool what he loses in emotional depth. The film is never less than a pleasure to look at, its striking canted angles and snappy editing defying the film's TV movie roots. The score is provided by a figure no less than John Williams (who went by “Johnny” back in those days), and it perfectly captures the film's sense of amoral glamour. Intriguingly, a couple of prominent cues are borrowed from Henry Mancini's score for Touch of Evil – they fit, despite the fact that this film's aesthetic is wildly different from the one offered by Orson Welles' B-movie gem.
Siegel builds to an ending as strong as his opening – a wham-bam knockout punch that wastes no time in wrapping things up. It's worth mentioning that JFK was assassinated early in the film's production process. I realize that things were firmly set in motion before that, but the film occasionally feels like an indirect reaction to that moment in history. Siodmak's film – made in the wake of WWII – was a tragic story, but one in which the good guys ultimately triumphed. Siegel's film is far less optimistic. This version of The Killers offers a portrait of America in which everyone – good, bad, rich, poor, noble, corrupt – ultimately ends up in a pool of their own blood.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 1964