Lawrence Russell

The Killers (1964) dir. Donald Siegel writ. Gene L. Coon cine. Richard L. Rawlings edt. Richard Belding music John Williams, Mancini, et. al. star. Lee Marvin (hit man), Clu Gulager (hit man), John Cassavetes (Johnny North), Angie Dickinson (Sheila Farr), Ronald Reagan (Jack Browning), Claude Atkins (Bob Sylvester), Norman Fell (Mickey Farmer)

Killers '64: too violent for TV

Two hired killers in blue and wearing conspicuous heavy black shades enter the Sage House of the Blind, proceed to harass, then rough-up the blind secretary when she's slow in telling them where "Jerry Nicols" is. They go upstairs, start looking in the classrooms with about as much subtly as stockmen at the abattoir... everyone is friendly but then, what do the blind know about evil? "Jerry Nicols" is an alias, of course, the real target being one Johnny North, a cashiered hot dog from the race car circuit now teaching auto mechanics. Johnny (Cassavetes) is warned at the last moment by a phone call, but instead of taking the window or barricading the door, he calmly, then angrily, dismisses his class. As the blind swarm like cattle into the corridor, the killers arrive... and Johnny wordlessly accepts his fate with the passivity of a man already dead but still standing.

Cut To: the transcontinental heading west, the two hitmen relaxing in their roomette over drinks as the American landscape streams past. It's nice to know that these two gentlemen have some degree of normalcy and you almost forget their criminality as they reflect upon Johnny's strange "passivity" like two shrinks at a convention. Is it Johnny's existential psychology or that he was part of a major heist that drives their curiosity? The boss hitman Charlie (Lee Marvin) is no fool. He's been in the business long enough to know that ancient scores are settled for more reasons than simple hatred. He smells money here -- the cool scent of a lost million....

Thus the search for the lost money becomes a parallel search into the mystery of Johnny North, the man who greeted his execution with the indifference of an impotent lover.

Cut To: the killers have detoured to Miami and the West Palm Beach specialty garage of one Bob Sylvester (Claude Atkins), former partner of Johnny North, the mechanic who set the trim of the muscle AC sports car North drove in competition. Once again the killers operate as a sort of "good cop/bad cop" tandem, the older, more genial Charlie allowing his apprentice sociopath Lee (Clu Gulager) to do the punching and malevolent clowning.

Bullied and boxed in his office, Bob tells them Johnny was destroyed by a woman:

Charlie: What's her name?

Bob: Sheila Farr... the wrecker... he met her before the accident....

The Killers: Johnny and Sheila Mickey gets steamed Johnny North

Before the accident.... Thus Bob Sylvester's monologue/story cross fades into the flashback that tells the story of Johnny North and his tragic involvement with the track groupie Shelia Farr (Angie Dickinson). Sheila is a pure sixties femme fatale -- slim, leggy, urgent and smart... and definitely dangerous. She and Johnny have what appears to be an immediate sympatico, like male-female twins broken from the same addiction mould. After he takes her for a hot imprudent spin on the race track in the AC, she invites him for lunch. Her 1960 Cadillac convertible awaits, an elegant sheen of blue, just like the cloudless Californian skies above. She slips behind the wheel... but Johnny will have none of that:

Sheila: I thought I'd drive you --

Johnny: (motioning) Slide over -- nobody drives me.

Nobody drives me... this elliptic statement is the movie's greatest irony, central to the self-deception that is always part of the male chump in the classic film noir. Their love affair begins, and Johnny's professional discipline erodes in a toll of late night assignations in clubs and his smartly appointed bachelor pad. Key questions are raised, yet Sheila's mystery remains intact, like the prerogative of a woman's purse. Where does she get her money? Could be an inheritance, could be she's lucky... and Johnny doesn't press, as if, unconsciously, he recognizes that she's taboo, another man's woman, and he prefers the package the way she comes -- unknown, like a serial dream or the outcome of a race.

Judas, Jesus and the passive lover

Just how Sheila gets by becomes evident at the big race, The Western Grand Prix for Sport Cars. Seems she's been running wild from a shady business man called Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) who shows up in the pits in the company of his edgy capo Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) to reclaim her. The question of just how sincere Sheila's love for Johnny is or was remains circumspect, even to the treacherous finale of this use-and-abuse melodrama. Was the fix in from the beginning? Her allegiance to Browning is more like that of a truant daughter... or maybe an employee. You never see them kiss.

Only one kiss really matters in this drama, and that's when Sheila leads Johnny into the doorway of the motel unit where Browning stands waiting with a gun. That she plays Judas to his Christ is perhaps the key to understanding his passivity when the two killers come for him in the school for the blind. He's already been crucified -- all that remains is for him to die.

where is Oswald now that we need him

1967. Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California. Ronald Reagan has been Governor of California for one year, having emerged from the Presidency of the Screen Actor's Guild, and a stint as a media icon for General Electric. His acting career is behind him -- or is it? The Killers was his last movie before going media verite.

Reagan as Jack Browning... as copDowntown Berkeley, Antonioni's Blowup and Fleischer's Fantastic Voyage are showing. Vanessa Redgrave or Raquel Welch, take your pick.

In the washrooms of Telegraph, graffiti appears: "Where is Oswald now that we need him?"

This piece of dark witticism reflects the counter-culture's general perception that the "arch conservative" Reagan is a man to be feared. Old "blacklist Ronnie" doesn't like campus radicals, tried to get the President of Berkeley U. fired. Given the outlaw character of Californian culture in the time of Reagan, you have to wonder if he ever thought of himself as a heavy. Thus The Killers becomes an artifact of considerable interest, a moment in history like the Zapruder film, where fate and circumstance draw together in a document that history can't ignore. The voyeurism is embedded in the fantasy of the actor, a Hollywood Buddism of transformation and sexual duplicity.

Reagan's Jack Browning looks quite normal for a hoodlum. He doesn't drink, he doesn't swear, he doesn't even use violence -- if you can believe it when he says, "I approve of larceny -- homicide is against my principles..." This statement of principle doesn't include gallantry, as he punches Sheila in face within a couple of minutes of this declaration. Mind you, it has to be admitted she provoked him with her brazen conduct with Johnny North... or could it be that this punch is just part of the deception that Browning and Sheila have been engineering all along?

If Sheila is ambiguous, Browning is even more ambiguous. When she commands him to shoot Johnny, you wonder if this is part of the plan... if Sheila forced this man of principle across the threshold. When he hires Charlie and Lee to kill Johnny, you don't know if this is by Sheila's directive or if this is merely the judgement of a jealous guy. Whatever the motive, it proves to be his undoing. In a tower above downtown L.A. he disguises himself as a developer with a grand office and a secretary -- just as he earlier disguised himself as a cop in the mail truck heist. Ergo, Browning is an actor, a man who could easily pass himself off as a politician.

Reagan punches Angie... Cassavetes punches Reagan... Reagan shoots Cassavetes... Gulager punches Angie... Reagan shoots Gulager and Marvin... Marvin shoots Angie and Reagan....

Seems odd now, but in 1964 The Killers was considered too violent for TV, for which it was originally intended.

Lady, I don't have the time

Speed is Sheila Farr's drug, so her liaison with Johnny North is the bond of two addicts. Yet Johnny's addiction is pure in contrast to the political raison d'etre of Sheila, a woman who always has an agenda. Her anorexic beauty allows her a false innocence, a sense that she's a victim rather than a manipulator. While Johnny's crash might be due to his carelessly aggressive driving, the risk he took is entirely for the approval of his lover. Broken, he allows Browning to reclaim Sheila... although maybe he never really had her in the first place.

He drops down the ranks, becomes a short track oval jalopy racer. One day he's spotted by Sheila, so when they resume their affair, his biggest "crash" comes when she recruits him into Browning's gang, something that seems like a natural solution to their desperate situation. Does he trust her? "From now on, I take my orders from you," he says. Strike two for the love chump. Still, you wince when Browning punches her... and you wince again when Charlie and Lee catch up to her in a hotel room, punch her, threaten to throw her out the window, and you long for her innocence. The Angie in the Sheila has you buffaloed. She's wearing a green satin robe, is just a vulnerable woman who has emerged from the shower... and when these homicidal brutes stuff her through the window, you notice the parked car directly below, also green, a symbolic coffin that marks her final destination in this final dream.

Angie Dickinson as Sheila Farr Lee Marvin settles up

But we've all been duped, just like Johnny, for this woman is a bitch extraordinaire. When she and Browning are surprised in their suburban house by the wounded journeyman killer Charlie as they empty the safe in anticipation of their flight to another jurisdiction, what does she do? She moves away from the man who is now her husband. And Browning? He says nothing, as if her betrayal is yet another twist in a plan that he believes is still his. Charlie shoots him, and Sheila makes her pitch: "Please...," she begs her executioner, as if here is another man who can be pussywhipped. Charlie, a professional to the end, says, "Lady, I don't have the time...."

'46 or '64

By the middle of the twentieth century a weariness in the human spirit becomes evident, where Man loses his will to fight, to care about his survival. It's a death-wish, a malfunction in the Darwinian instinct, a sort of disease of the socialized personality, an alienation of the self. Classic examples: Meursault, the condemned man in Camus' L'Etranger who remains disinterested in his fate... and the Swede in Hemingway's story The Killers, the man who remains in his bed, turns his face to the wall, indifferent to his fate when warned that two assassins have arrived in town.

While a comparison with the celebrated 1946 Siodmak-Veillers version of The Killers is worth making, the Siegel-Coon film is no mere refit. Both scripts use the Hemingway short story as a starting point only. Both scripts feature a femme fatale who brings down the men who love her. Generically, the story of a young boxer (Burt Lancaster) who becomes the patsy is much the same as that of a young race driver (John Cassavetes) who becomes the patsy. Structurally, the Siegel-Veillers film is far more sophisticated than its predecessor, and its bright external locations and pastel interiors remove the traditional noir atmosphere from the scenes. In a way, its smooth 60's modernism presents a life-style more than a moral, the visual imagery supporting the action more than the dialogue. Strong character acting in the '46 version makes up for its uneven narrative, but the moral inversion of having the story told from the POV of two professional killers makes the '64 unique.

© LR 10/2000


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