The Killers (1964)

tn_thekillers64The ’64 version of THE KILLERS doesn’t have much to do with the original and even less to do with the Hemingway story. And maybe it’s not quite the solid punch to the nose you’d hope for from the combination of Lee Marvin, Don Siegel and that title. But on the other hand it might be some kind of subtle dim mak punch because it stuck with me and seemed better and better the more I thought about it. Anyway, it’s damn good.

After I wrote about the ’46 version I listened to the extra on the DVD where Stacy Keach reads the Hemingway story, and it explained alot. That movie was a good mystery, but nothing in the main story approaches the perfection of that opening, the tense scene with the two strangers coming into the diner, talking shit, then taking everybody hostage and saying, “I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. We’re gonna kill the Swede.” I know now that’s because the Hemingway story is only the opening, the rest is all extrapolated from there. In the story you don’t find out what the Swede did to get killed. Adding a whole story to explain the short story really goes against the spirit of the thing, because to quote Jack Skeleton about Christmas presents, “That’s the point of the thing, not to know.”

mp_thekillers64So the rest of that movie is all new material except for taking the detail that Swede was once a boxer. That explains why a movie called THE KILLERS isn’t about the killers – they were making some other movie and just kept the name they started out with.

When Siegel – who had been the producer’s first choice for the ’46 version – came on, he ditched pretty much everything, but made it actually about the killers this time. It doesn’t use that great diner scene but instead has the two killers, Lee Marvin and Clu (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) Gulager coming after Johnny North (John Cassavetes) at a school for the blind where he works. Like the Swede Johnny is not surprised and doesn’t run. But instead of an insurance agent trying to figure out why he didn’t run it’s the killers themselves. To Marvin it doesn’t add up so they head to Miami to investigate this guy and find out who hired them to kill him and why. They figure out there’s a million dollars in it, but Marvin’s more worried about getting answers than getting money.

Instead of a boxer Johnny is a race car driver. Angie Dickinson (POINT BLANK) is the girl he should know better than to chase after. Instead of a payroll heist at a hat factory they rob a mail truck on the road, and the planning is shown in more detail. The gangster in charge, also possessive boyfriend of the girl, is played by Ronald Reagan (SECRET GOVERNMENT: THE CONSTITUTION IN CRISIS). Man, it’s weird to see a president slapping a woman or pointing a gun. I suppose it’s an inspirational thing for filmatists to think about, that some day somebody in their movie could become president and then the movie would take on a much more novel quality that improves it. Good job on that one Don Siegel, you pulled it off. And when Clint became mayor of Carmel in ’86 Siegel was probly like “Who gives a shit? I already directed the president. Fuck you,” and then Clint said, “I was more trying to impress Sergio Leone anyway, why would I care what you think?” and then Siegel says “I HATE YOU!” and storms out and that’s why Clint dedicated UNFORGIVEN to Don and Sergio, to apologize for playing them against each other in that  argument. In my opinion.

The race car scenes mean there’s alot of fake-looking process shots, and like the original I feel like the scenes with the killers are better than the flashbacks that make up most of the movie. But the greatness of the movie is in the cast. Along with the names I already mentioned it has Claude Akins in an outstanding performance as Johnny’s loyal right hand man during his racing career. To see him cry about Johnny’s death after telling the killers his story is heartbreaking. He knew what Johnny was getting himself into but couldn’t talk him out of it.

Even better though are Marvin and Gulager as the killers. This is an all time great team up. Marvin is the guy in charge and Gulager is the weird, crazy one. Marvin gives one of his best tough guy performances (which is saying alot) but also was generous enough to let Gulager do all kinds of business, he’s always doing some weird thing with his sunglasses or something while they’re talking to people. Marvin is serious and Gulager has a strange sense of humor and the combination is very intimidating. And they got no morals, they don’t mind scaring the shit out of some poor secretary lady or somebody. These guys are total bastards but you find yourself rooting for them.

I have to admit I was excited for a second about one of my favorite actors, Lee Marvin, coming after Reagan, both because he’s an asshole in the movie and because of what he represents politically. But then I caught myself and felt like a jerk because somebody actually did come after Reagan with a gun and that’s not cool when it’s literal and not a metaphor. So I apologize for that. But I stand by my enjoyment of the part where John Cassavetes punches him in the face:


This was Reagan’s last major role before going into politics, which tops Schwarzenegger’s TERMINATOR 3. It apparently took some talking to get him to play a villain, but he was good at it. I didn’t like him as a president, but he obviously had alot of leading man charisma and it’s always exciting to see that turned on its head like this. He’s a pretty creepy villain and not in any of the ways you might see the real Reagan as.

You know what, I’ll say something else positive about Reagan. On one of the DVD extras (I think maybe the excerpts from Siegel’s autobiography) there’s a story about Reagan being livid during rehearsal because the killers kept practicing their parts and the bit player as the secretary wasn’t allowed to do hers. Reagan brought up that he’d been the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and that he wouldn’t do the scene unless the secretary was allowed to practice too. So maybe he was a nice guy.

This was also the first made for TV movie, and in my opinion it’s better than BABY MONITOR: THE SOUND OF FEAR or all the giant snake, bug and lizard movies they play on the Sci-Fi channel. But to get technical it actually didn’t end up being a TV movie because they decided it was too violent and then released it theatrically. It is pretty brutal for the time and even for now when you see the way poor Angie Dickinson gets shoved around. She must’ve really trusted Lee Marvin to come back and do that again in POINT BLANK three years later.

Siegel wanted to ditch Hemingway. He asked not to use any of the dialogue and had tried to change the title (he definitely didn’t want it to be called ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S THE KILLERS). But despite having even less literally to do with the story than the ’46 version I think it’s kind of a more natural extension of it. Because when you read that story it’s the killers who are the more interesting characters. If the story must continue you want to keep them around. The story ends with the witnesses to the incident puzzling over the mystery of why the Swede would be resigned to his death. That obsession with knowing the answer stays in this version but it’s transferred to the killers. In the ’46 version it was a professional curiosity on the part of the insurance company investigator, here it seems more like Marvin’s faith in the universe has been shaken by the incident and he’s gotta understand it if he’s gonna move on. Which he’s not. (SPOILER.)

There are many great things about this movie, but the greatest on is Marvin. He’s meaner than in POINT BLANK but equally set on his goal, and that makes for one of the all time great death scenes when he’s trying to stumble away with the money when mortally wounded. It’s so obvious he’s not gonna make it – he can barely stand up and the sirens are closing in on him – but he’s not about to give up anyway. Get rich or die trying, I guess. It’s so convincing and it turns out the reason why is because he showed up drunk that day. I don’t know if he did it on purpose but it turned out to be a brilliant approach, the poor guy. Sacrificing himself for our entertainment.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 11th, 2009 at 8:45 pm and is filed under Crime, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “The Killers (1964)”

  1. Vern, have you seen Siegel’s The Line-Up? It was just released on DVD as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir box set. It’s really good, very tense and action-packed, with Eli “The Ugly” Wallach as one of the most unhinged sociopaths in movie history. It takes place in San Francisco, with Siegel following the police pursuit of a killer, so it’s a sort of precursor to Dirty Harry.

  2. co-sign on The Line-Up. 20 some odd minutes until Wallach shows up, but when he does, The Line-Up gets really, really good. Interesting dynamic between him and his partner, or, rather, cohort, in that pic.

    Meant to chime in after your review of the ’46 Killers, but I would love it if you delved into older films more often, especially noir and the like from the 30’s-50’s.
    Would also be keen to read your thoughts on Johnny To’s 2000’s output; “Full Time Killer”, “PTU”, “Breaking News”, “Election 1 & 2”, “Exiled”, “Mad Detective”. While I don’t think he’s ever directed a bona fide masterpiece (though I’ll go to bad for “Exiled”, the greatest Asia ode to Sergio Leone since Woo was in his prime), all 7 of those flicks are quality films and well worth a watch. You won’t be bored, and I’m fairly certain you’ll appreciate how he films his action scenes.

  3. This has some great opening credits.

  4. Reagan as President did some good and some bad (ok, that’s kinda lengthy), though Vern I wonder how depressed you are when Democratic leaders like Pelosi trip themselves over in praising him?

    Regardless, the guy’s Presidency was impacted by the movies. This was a guy who after seeing WARGAMES asked his Joint Chiefs of Staff if that was possible. Or pissed that they didn’t have a “War Room” like DR. STRANGELOVE. Or motivated partly by THE DAY AFTER to pursue arms control talks with the Russians.

    The best story: Michael Beck telling of how in the early 80s, he got a random phone call from Reagan, telling him how much he enjoyed THE WARRIORS at Camp David.

  5. I love Point Blank, especially how you could never, ever make that movie today. That single-minded bastard tearing apart a city to get his money, even if they kept his meanness, you know they’d try to make him sympathetic by making it just as much about his revenge as about getting the money. His throwing the naked Mayor off that balcony is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

  6. Brendan – and PAYBACK sort of proves your theory, because they made it but the version they released made him more sympathetic. But the scene in the director’s cut where he beats up his wife is pretty shocking.

    Even the Lee Marvin version is more human and emotional than Parker from the book, though.

  7. Really? Wow. Is Point Blank faithful to the book, or is it a loose sort of interpretation? There’s a really auteur-y vibe to the whole thing, like the scene where he’s walking down the hallway and it cuts around so you see his wife going about her day but you still hear his footsteps. Classic.

  8. Brendan – Vern is right. I’ve read THE HUNTER and THE OUTFIT of the Parker books, and Parker is the son of a bitch.

    And yet we love him regardless.

  9. A good write-up as usual, Vern, but I’m a little disappointed you didn’t enjoy BABY MONITOR: THE SOUND OF FEAR. In my opinion that is the best of the BABY MONITOR series.

  10. Aye, but not a patch on the original: Babyfon – Mörder im Kinderzimmer.

  11. “…and that’s why Clint dedicated UNFORGIVEN to Don and Sergio, to apologize for playing them against each other in that argument.”

    Why, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying for years. I feel vindicated.

    I see that Netflix now has The Lineup. Gotta see that one. Maybe I’ll do these two as a double-feature. I’ll get myself a big old bottle of rye and some hard-boiled eggs and slap myself across the face every so often. It’s my idea of 3D.

  12. Here’s an informative, Reagan-related story for anyone who hasn’t seen it:


  13. Brendan – well, in the books he really has no emotional attachments at all. If he helps someone it’s never because of a moral code, only because it’s the most efficient thing to do to survive or to get the money. Lee Marvin is the best version of him on film but he does get upset about his wife dying. I don’t think Boorman had any respect for the book (which is pure pulp, not trying to be arty). But it’s not like it’s a bastardization of the book or anything, it’s just a little different take on it. One of my all time favorites, though.

  14. That sounds great. Now how many Parker books are there? Are they all connected like an actual series or does he start over from scratch every single book, Man With No Name style?

  15. There are 24 Parker books. They all work as stand-alone heist stories, but they connect together because they usually make a little reference to whatever his last job was. Sometimes the way they end has consequences for the next book, like he has an identity that gets blown or all his money is stolen and he has to start over. Also there are characters that pop up in multiple novels, people he works with more than once, like his partner Handy McKay. And there’s a guy he works with sometimes named Grofield who there are 4 spin-off novels about, but the tone of those is very different.

    My favorite of the books I’ve read is The Outfit, which had a good movie made out of it too but unfortunately it hasn’t been on DVD and I never see the VHS at affordable prices. Otherwise I’d recommend it to everybody.

  16. I’m surprised no one has turned that concept into a T show or something. Every season is a different job, kind of like the Wire or something great like that.

  17. “I suppose it’s an inspirational thing for filmatists to think about, that some day somebody in their movie could become president and then the movie would take on a much more novel quality that improves it.”

    I like to think that’s how Ron Jeremy thinks of his work.

  18. Brendan – a few years ago somebody tried to make a Parker show for HBO or Showtime or something, but it never got anywhere. There was also a network show called SMITH where Ray Liotta was planning out a season-long heist, but it got cancelled after like 2 episodes. This was around the time BLADE THE SERIES got cancelled so I think I caused the cancellation by watching it.

  19. Ray Liotta had a TV show? So that’s where he was between Narc and Observe and Report.

  20. I’ve got this old pulp paperback of The Hunter that is among my most treasured books. It never mentions the name Donald Westlake at all, so you know it’s pure.

  21. Taylor Snatchlover

    December 13th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    That Liotta tv show was great! I was really pissed when they cancelled it, because it started off with some really interesting stuff.

  22. This movie was also a godsend to 80s punk bands, who loved to put Ronnie’s gun-wielding picture in their flyers (see, for example, the link below)


  23. The real bummer about SMITH is they had some unaired episodes but they didn’t finish filming the season, which was all leading up to one heist. So they can’t even release it on DVD, it would be like only releasing the first disc of ’24’. I thought it was cool though – one episode was all about stealing an armored car. At the end they succeed and then there’s one of those “stupid criminals” news reports about how the one they stole only had coupons in it. But we know that they didn’t steal it for what’s inside, it’s something they need for the much larger heist they’re planning.

  24. Vern, et al,

    Have you seen that University of Chicago Press is re-printing/releasing all of the Parker books in order? They are terrific. I have all of them released so far. The covers are great, all with a pistol and a hint of the plot in the art. Seriously, a terrific set and like $10 per. Amazon has them all, really, really worth checking out.

  25. Yeah, it’s great that they’re doing that. The only problem is it’s gonna take years to get to the ones I’m missing. There are two in particular (Butcher’s Moon and Plunder Squad) I need them to get to. Cheapest Butcher’s Moon on ebay right now is $250.

    Good to see you here Owen

  26. You know, I was in Japan for the past 2 years and just before I left I found that my library in Maryland had a really old, hardback copy of Butcher’s Moon. I read it, loved it, and was going to keep my eyes peeled for when it finally went on the “Books to old to repair” Sale rack. I was really excited about it, but then we moved to Japan. I came back last week and, to my everlasting sorrow, they already sold it. Occasionally there are pdf versions of the Stark books on torrent sites, that’s the best I can offer. I have been reading all the Westlake I can get my hands on and I cannot understand how everything he wrote is not a film. Every page is tailor-made for adaptation.

  27. Alright, I’ve just finished reading THE HUNTER. Great stuff, and it’s weird to see the same story from POINT BLANK including certain lines appear without Boorman’s arthouse eye behind them, instead existing as pure pulp. I really dug the book and Stark’s style as a whole, but my one beef comes with the section where Stark follows Mal around New York, occasionally meeting someone who will progress the plot (like Carter) but mostly just dicking around and being sleazy. Not bad at all, just kind of pointless and slower then the rest of the book. I have THE OUTFIT hanging out here, but I’m reading some other stuff in between. I’ll have to keep an eye on that university press to make sure I can keep following that multi-faced fucker: Parker.

  28. Phoebe: It’s heartwarming to know that your daughter has been exposed to the phrase “Dick don’t pay for strange.”

  29. You might want to change your name, it´s quite revealing to the powers that might be. But anyway, I´d like to buy cannabis wholesale!

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