by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, and in his final acting role, Ronald Reagan
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80%

PLOT: A hit man and his sadistic partner try to find out why their latest victim, a former race-car driver, did not try to escape.

…well, THAT was disappointing.

Fresh off watching the original The Killers from 1946, I dove into the 1964 remake.  Originally intended for television – indeed, this was supposed to have been the very first made-for-TV movie – it contained so much casual violence and sexual content that no network would touch it, not even the network that commissioned it, NBC.  It was imported to movie screens, pillarbox framing and all, where it cemented Lee Marvin’s status as one of the all-time great Hollywood tough guys.  (How tough?  He reportedly shot a scene while he was literally falling-down drunk.  That’s the take that’s in the film; you’ll know which scene it is when you see it.)

But while Lee Marvin is indeed tough, and even though his partner (Clu Gulager) plays a sociopathic killer who brings tension to every scene he’s in, I couldn’t get as worked up over this remake as I did over the original version.  Those two performances aside, this movie felt cliched and a little boring to me.

The story is the same as the original, with a couple of minor changes.  Two hitmen stroll into a school for the blind (!) and gun down Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in broad daylight.  Afterwards, Charlie, the veteran hitman (Lee Marvin) latches on to something he can’t figure out: why didn’t the target try to escape?  He does his own digging which leads him to a motley assortment of thugs and one duplicitous dame, Sheila (Angie Dickinson), who isn’t just a gold-digger, she’s a gold-strip-miner.  Turns out North was part of a million-dollar heist along with Sheila and some other thugs, including Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).  The heist was successful, but after a series of double-crosses, no one seems to know where the money is.  With his seriously psycho partner, Lee (Gulager), Charlie tracks down the witnesses, and we get the same flashback structure as the original.  And the more he digs, the less he likes what he finds…

One major factor that didn’t score many points with me was the production’s obvious roots in television.  As you can well imagine, lighting on a movie set is very different from lighting for television.  And this movie looks like a TV movie through and through.  At the time, because of the relatively smaller screens of most televisions, it was believed that a movie shot FOR television needed bright lights and especially colors, so the pictures would be clearly visible on the tiny screens.  Well, in this remake, everything is so brightly lit and colorful it looks an episode of Star Trek or any other TV series of that era.  The very brightness of the surroundings drains a lot of the tension out of scenes that are meant to be disturbing or violent.  Blood doesn’t look like blood; it looks like Sherwin Williams.  I’m aware of the technical limitations of the time, but the shortcomings are just so obvious that it left me cold.

(By comparison, the original 1946 version is steeped in darkness and shadows and pools of light; it’s not only more beautiful, but it also just works better for the story.)

I also had problems with the casting of some of the big character roles, but my momma always said, if you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.

The editing was also a little distracting.  Again, this might be a factor of the period when it was made, as well as the fact that it was intended for TV, not the movies.  But one scene annoyed the heck out of me.  I don’t normally nit-pick bad editing, but here goes.

There’s a scene where someone has to drive a car down the length of a winding dirt road within two minutes, if not faster.  Zoom, off he goes.  And as we cut back and forth to various shots showing the car’s progress, instead of cutting directly to a different vantage point or camera angle, it’s cut with fades, which are normally used to indicate a passage of time.  But when the fades are used in what is basically a race against time, it has the effect of making the scene feel longer than two minutes, even though only 30-40 seconds of real time have elapsed.  It made the whole scene feel “off”, even amateurish.  Director Siegel had already directed 15 or 16 films by this time.  I think he should have known better.  Or his editor should have.

By the time we get to the end of the film, we’ve seen someone get dangled out of a hotel window from seven stories up, six or seven people get shot dead (one by a sniper rifle), more double-crosses than a Luftwaffe squadron, and a future hardline conservative President of the United States play…a villain.  But it all felt like an exercise in futility.  Sure, you get Lee Marvin playing a tough guy, but in three short years he’d get to play a really tough guy in Point Blank.  THAT’S the movie you wanna see. Or go find Dirty Harry, or even Escape from Alcatraz, both directed by Don Siegel, both superior films.

This one?  This one I only got because it came packaged with the 1946 version on the Criterion Blu-ray.  Do with that information what you will.

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