Thursday, July 8, 2010

Film Review: THE KILLERS (1964, Don Siegel)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Tag-line: " There is more than one way to kill a man!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips.
Best one-liner: "Lady, I haven't got the time."

Loosely- very loosely- based on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name, Don Siegel's THE KILLERS was the third filmic adaptation of the work (following in the footsteps of Robert Siodmak and Andrei Tarkovsky), and was intended to be the very first made-for-television movie. Due in part to wanton violence directed toward women, the blind, and the defenseless, THE KILLERS instead made its debut theatrically. Much lambasted by critics- at least in comparison to Siodmak's '46 version- I'm here to give you 17 reasons why THE KILLERS is one of my all-time favorite movies, and is the only one that I can think of where the father of American independent film punches out Ronald Reagan over the honor of the star of BIG BAD MAMA. So without further ado–

#1. Clu Gulager. Well, actually, a lot of these will be Clu Gulager-related, but I just wanted to get the main thrust out of the way. This is the movie that turned me into a bona fide Gulager fanatic.

After I first saw it, I ran screaming into the streets, singing the praises of Mr. Gulager to nearly anyone who would listen. I researched his career. I saw the mainstream stuff like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, THE HIDDEN, MCQ, and THE GAMBLER. I hunted down movies of his that exist only on VHS, from WONDERLAND COVE to HUNTER'S BLOOD to AMBUSH AT WACO: IN THE LINE OF DUTY. I checked out thirty or so of his guest appearances on television from AIRWOLF to MAGNUM, P.I. to IRONSIDE to KNIGHT RIDER to HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL to MURDER, SHE WROTE, where he played three different characters in three different episodes. I saw the Lázló Kovács-lensed short film that Clu directed which played at Cannes (A DAY WITH THE BOYS- presently available on the Criterion DVD of GEORGE WASHINGTON). I've awaited, with bated-breath, the decades-in-the-making Gulager family project FUCKING TULSA- AN EXCURSION INTO CRUELTY. In fact, all of you should read this piece about the Gulager clan (Clu, his wife Miram Byrd-Nethery (R.I.P.), his sons Tom and John, and daughter-in-law Diane Ayala) which first appeared in L.A. Weekly in 1997.

Anyway- back to the film at hand. As Lee, one of the eponymous 'Killers,' Clu cements his reputation as one of the premier character actors, his smarmy vicious calm etching him forever on the map of badasses in cinema. He's brutal, he's hilarious, and he's improvising up a storm. One could even say he's notable for being the only actor to hold his own aside Lee Marvin besides Gene Hackman in PRIME CUT, Mifune in HELL IN THE PACIFIC, and maybe that rocket launcher in DELTA FORCE. And so much of Gulager's business is happening in the background, drawing your attention in a should-have-been-star-making way, á la Steve McQueen's shenanigans in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Clu performs a blindness aptitude test on a visually impaired woman.

Clu swabs his dirty sunglasses with sweat from Norman Fell's dampened head.

Clu takes a swig of Claude Akins' third-rate hooch, then, in a dick move, looks for a place on the floor to spit it out. (In real life Clu was a teetotaler.)

More on Clu in a bit.

#2. Lee Marvin. A.K.A. The Terrifying Intimate Verbal Sadism of Lee Marvin.

Lee really knows how to get in your personal space. Not many actors do. In the contemporary era, Rutger Hauer and Jimmy Smits come to mind, and perhaps a few others, but I think this is a filmmaking technique/acting skill which has sadly gone by the wayside. He's not your garden-variety sadist. Somehow, Lee Marvin taps into that primal element– that basic human relationship between child and adult– and translates it in a manner which cements his status as an adult in a world that is somehow now solely populated by mere children. Take heed: perhaps if you do as he says, he will not dismantle your body with his bare hands.


Which kind of leads us to–

#3. The Shit-Eating Grins of Lee Marvin.

He is one of the few purveyors of shit-eating grins that doesn't draw one's ire. Generally, a shit-eating grin elicits contempt from an audience. Lee's shit-eating grins elicit a certain degree of respect and a great deal of fright. And speaking of grins–

#4. The way that ex-NFL player Bob Phillips clenches his teeth whenever he's doing something violent.

Is it intentional? Your guess is as good as mine. "Oh, he's doing it as he commits crimes so that his victims will not recognize him," you say. Well, no- because in the first photograph, he's in private- in the company of thieves, if you will. But it doesn't really matter. Suffice it to say- I like it.

#5. The bored, perpetually droning racetrack announcer. He just goes on and on. I guess it's background chatter for the whole scene and was probably designed as the 'glue' which holds together disconnected shots of stock footage, but it's so dull, ambling, and emotionless that it becomes... comedy gold.

Yes, we've got some great cars out here today. Some great cars. Great cars.

#6. The most simplistic heist map in film history. 'We'll go over it again– and again!" snarls Reagan, but when we finally see the map, it's this beaut:

As a side note on the heist– it involves setting up a detour for an armored truck, hiding the detour after it takes the isolated country road, passing the truck on said road, and meeting up with a faked car wreck further on down which makes the armored truck stop so that it can be easily robbed. A key plot element involves racer Johnny North (John Cassavetes) recruited as the driver, because only he can drive fast enough to pass the truck on the bumpy path . But I ask– why does it have to pass the truck? Isn't the staged wreck on the secluded route enough? Nevermind– this is getting too complicated. Let's go over it again. May I refer you to the map above?

#7. Rear-projection Go-Kart Madness! This one kinda speaks for itself.

#8. The hilarious dynamic between Gulager and Marvin. Their colorless banter– "I always liked Miami." –"Yeah, it's a nice place." The fact that Gulager is a hand-gripper-squeezin', push-up doin', carrot-juice swiggin', milk-quaffin' health nut and that Marvin is a heavy boozin', darkly broodin', shirt starchin' hardass. They don't have a whole lot going on in their lives. Being a hit man's not exactly for enterprising, visionary-types. But you believe that Gulager enjoys his work and that Marvin is tired. And that's all you need to believe.

#9. Claude Akins, who proves himself yet again to be one hell of an actor, finishes his sob story. Real fuckin' tears stream down his grimy, disconsolate grease-monkey's face.

And the camera tracks out to reveal:

Gulager and Marvin: bored as shit.

#10. The fusion of artsy, 60's cinematography and a world of stock, prefabricated sets. It's an odd juxtaposition, and for the most part, the film looks like ubiquitous 60's American studio TV work. But every once in a while, DP Richard L. Rawlings (DYNASTY, CHARLIE'S ANGELS) pulls out something worthy of Antonioni. Did Siegel set up these shots himself?

#11. A bit, wordless role by John Cassavetes crony Seymour Cassel (possibly best known now for his work with Wes Anderson).

#12. During the 'ole steam room torture' scene, Clu concludes things by stating the classic, groan-inducing one-liner, "Then there's no sweat, Mickey."

#13. The way Lee Marvin says "YOU WAIT!" Just wait for it, and you'll see what I mean.

#14. Ronald Reagan Eyebrow Action. The man is throwing around more eyebrows than Nicholson and Slater combined. It's all he does. Each eyebrow toss is worth a thousand words. Every single one of them is gold.

These freeze frames likely represent about 5% of the actual eyebrow action that Reagan delivers. He even raises some brow carpet at Gulager, as he pretends to crash cars on Reagan's scale model of a real estate development.

He should've been a school principal.

#15. The big punch out scene which I referenced earlier. It's probably the most premeditated slap I've ever seen. Angie Dickinson is going on about how she'd prefer to stick around near Cassavetes. "I like it here," she says. Reagan arches an eyebrow, exchanges a look with his buddies and announces, "Well, I can change that in a hurry!" He stands, winds up, and delivers a slap so hearty that I hit 'instant replay' at least half a dozen times.

But it's not over– Cassavetes gets into the fray, stage-punching Reagan, who, in the few moments prior to getting ghost-hit contorts his face into something resembling a background character from L'IL ABNER or at the very least, DICK TRACY. They don't make 'em like they used to.

#16. Gulager and Marvin's gleeful torture of Angie Dickinson. Now this little item reflects, hopefully, more on the exquisite villainy of Dickinson's character and less on some deeply buried misogynism, but I defy you not to be having a blast while it's happening. "Don't bruise her, Charlie– she's got a lotta class."

#17. According to Clu Gulager, Lee Marvin was completely and utterly shitfaced when he filmed his final scenes. Of course, he still nailed his performance, and, if you believe Clu, which I always do, it's one of the greatest scenes in film history. And it never fails to evoke applause.


-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Love this film! Hands down, my fave Lee Marvin film and my fave Don Siegel film. This film just exudes menace and sleek '60s style like no other. As you pointed out the the interplay between Lee and Clu is fantastic and you can tell that Quentin Tarantino was taking notes while watching this film over and over as the banter between these two hitman certainly anticipates the banter between some of QT's characters in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION.

That opening scene in the school for the blind is a doozy. I also like the bit at the very beginning where the kids pretend-shoot each other - a eerie foreshadowing of whats to come!

So awesome that Criterion gave this their deluxe treatment. I finally was able to throw away my beat-up VHS copy taped off late nite TV...

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, the entire sequence at the school for the blind - I can't believe it made it in to a '64 feature film, much less one that was designed as a TV movie!

I'm so glad Criterion saw it fit to release this, too- though I do remember some high-brow grumbling at the time about the mere presence of the 'trashy' '64 version sullying the '46 (whereas I prefer the '64, though I do enjoy the '46 version, too). Plus you can never go wrong with the extra of Stacy Keach reading the original story, or the ridiculous Clu Gulager interview.