The Films of Don Siegel: The Killers
Two hitmen, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are hired to track down and kill Johnny North (John Cassavetes) by an unknown client. When they find North he is teaching auto repair at a school for the blind. Right away it is apparent these two assassins mean business as they rough up anyone who gets in their way, even a blind female secretary. The men proceed to the room where North is and when they burst in, their target oddly doesn’t even budge, it’s almost as if he wants to die. Usually Charlie wouldn’t give it a second thought but something strikes him as not being on the level about this latest job.
Charlie and Lee begin tracking down North’s old acquaintances starting with his friend Earl (Claude Akins) a mechanic who gives them the backstory. It turns out Johnny had been a star auto racer then one day he met a gorgeous young beauty named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) and his life changed. The two started an affair and Johnny fell deeply in love. After Johnny was severely hurt in an accident during a big race, he lost his status and thought that Sheila wouldn’t love him anymore. To make matters worse, Earl discovered that she was just using him and was really the property of Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) a sinister criminal in the guise of a mild mannered businessman who held her under his control.
Charlie and Lee then visit Browning’s associate Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) who gives them more of the story about how Sheila later came to Johnny with a opportunity to make alot of money using his driving skills to help rob a mail truck. The only trouble was he had to work for Browning to do it but North soon agreed to the job thinking Sheila really loved him. Upon hearing this, Charlie and Lee find Sheila to get her own take (using their trademark brutal intimidation techniques) and that soon leads them to Browning.
What’s unique about this update of The Killers is how the ruthless hitmen become unlikely investigators and also in a way get a kind of roundabout revenge for their first target who had been done wrong while they seek out the stolen money. Compared to Robert Siodmak’s noir exercise, Don Siegel took his film in the complete opposite direction making it boldly colorful and visually stylized. Siegel makes wide use of flashy effects like rapid rear projection shots and extreme close ups taking it down a more cinematically electrifying route.
Lee Marvin started out playing heavies in movies, but his Charlie was a twist on those crime types, it almost brings him into an anti-hero status. A cold blooded hitman who strikes back at a group of people who have no sense of honor and you almost forget he’s just trying to get the stolen money. Clu Gulager’s Lee is one of those eccentric characters that adds an unnerving quality to their interrogations. As Charlie asks the questions, Lee constantly touches things like a child would. If there’s a bell on the door he rings it, if theres a wind up toy, he’ll play with it. Even his voice is strange, he talks like a robot and he’s health conscious so he sips carrot juice and uses hand exercisers. Gulager really took the typical thug role to a different place and it’s alot of fun to watch!
The Killers would also mark a change in the way onscreen violence was shown. This film has what I call the beginning of the “Siegel Sadism” that would show up in many of his later movies like Dirty Harry and Charley Varrick. For example, Angie Dickinson is slapped by Ronald Reagan, punched by Clu Gulager then hung out a window by Lee Marvin! You’ll also note the killing of Johnny North is in slow motion, a contemporary visual effect that Arthur Penn would use in Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah would expand on in his controversial classics The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA
– The Killers was intended to be the very first “made for TV movie”, but NBC judged it too violent to broadcast, and so Universal released the movie in theaters instead.
– Steve McQueen and George Peppard were considered for the Johnny North role.
– The Killers was Ronald Reagan’s last acting role before entering politics, and the only villain in his career. According to Kirk Douglas’ autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Reagan regretted doing the movie, particularly because of a scene in which he slaps Dickinson.
– Don Siegel had originally been hired as director of the earlier 1946 version of the same story, but had been fired. Actress Virginia Christine had also appeared in the 1946 version.
– According to the DVD commentary, leading lady Angie Dickinson received the news during filming that her friend (and rumored romantic partner) President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed.