The Killers (Siegel, 1964)

Robert Siodmak’s 1946 The Killers (which Don Siegel was apparently originally supposed to direct) is one of my favorite classic period noirs. Tough act to follow and Siegel’s 1964 version, though boasting a great cast of Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan, doesn’t quite get there.

For starters, Siegel changes the format significantly. Rather than have your lead noir investigator – Edmond O’Brien as an insurance salesman in the original – the narrative here is driven by the hitman, only minor figures in Siodmak’s film. Marvin Charlie Strom and his partner Lee (Clu Gulager) shoot Johnny North (Cassavetes taking on the part iconically originated by Burt Lancaster) and then set out to find out the why’s and the what’s of it all.

Not a bad idea for a rewrite, but one of the problems is that the hitmen have too much muscle and too much access. They’re able to bully everyone into talking and the film loses so much suspense that way. O’Brien’s Jim Reardon had to sneak around, get criminals drunk, and tangle with people tougher than he. Charlie and Lee just punch and shoot their way to the ending.

That’s clearly in part because this is 1964 and not 1946. Don Siegel’s version of The Killers ain’t no noir. It’s high key, set largely during the day, has no real “lone wolf” investigator, and the femme fatale doesn’t play nearly as sultry as Ava Gardner in the original.

The dialogue here is still slick and fun though. While in the original, Lancaster’s ‘the Swede’ was a boxer, here Johnny North is a race car driver. Siegel and screenwriter Gene L. Coon have a lot of fun with the feminine pronoun alternately standing for North’s car and North’s girl.

One thing that always (only slightly) bugs me about the original film is that there’s a flashback moment that’s impossible. If you’ve seen it, it’s when the Swede sneaks into the farmhouse, unbeknownst to his accomplices, and double-crosses them. The Swede’s movements prior to being seen are recalled by someone who…never could have seen them. It’s either an impossible or an unreliable flashback. That’s actually addressed in the 1964 film. Charlie interrogates a criminal who recounts his story. He gives some impossible information. Charlie calls him on it. He revises his story.

Siodmak’s film has one of the best heist scenes ever. It’s a flashback and a sequence shot – one mobile camera that moves from location to location and essentially combines multiple scenes into the one shot. It’s brilliant, dynamic, and very calm. That calmness is critical: because the scene is flashback there’s no need for truly heightened suspense. It’s finished. Done with. Feels like the recollection it is.

Siegel shoots his heist in an almost exact opposite way. It’s supposed to be really action-packed. This isn’t Bullitt territory, but it is solid Siegel director. You can tell it’s a made-for-TV film (and that Siegel comes from that background) not only by the TV-closeups that dominate, or the 4×3 frames, but also the generally wide sense of action here:

Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.20.05 PM Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.20.18 PM Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.20.31 PM Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.20.42 PM

It keeps things energetic, but never quite gets the real sense of energy he seems to want. This has nothing on Siodmak’s heist which is just regal, tense, and calm and collected at once.

There’s also the pretty bad rear projection-

Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.19.13 PM

-and a not-bad, but certainly skeptical-looking Ronald Reagan-

Screen shot 2015-09-12 at 4.21.05 PM

-that makes this film a curious entry, but nothing more than a precursor to Siegel’s fantastic late-60s and 1970s films.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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