Siegel’s film was made in 1963 and was originally intended as a television movie. In fact it was one of the first modern made-for-TV movies. Ironically NBC decided it was too violent and Universal released it theatrically instead, in 1964.
The movie opens with two hitmen arriving at a school for the blind. Their target is one of the teachers, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). When they find him he offers no resistance whatsoever. This greatly upsets Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin), one of the hitmen. It becomes something of an obsession with him. He has to find out why a man would willingly choose death. In the course of obsessing over this problem Charlie recalls a rumour that Johnny North had been mixed up in a million dollar mail van heist. The money disappeared without trace after the robbery. Charlie is prone to philosophical musings on the nature of his job but he also has a keen interest in more pragmatic matters, such as the possible whereabouts of that missing million dollars.
Johnny had been a racing car driver, and a good one. That was before he met Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) and before his crash. These two disasters were inter-related. Sheila, as Johnny found out too late, was the girlfriend of wealthy gangster Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).
The crash leaves Johnny with slight eye problems, but these are enough to have him banned from competitive driving. He pretty much hits the skids. Then Sheila makes him an offer he can’t refuse, although he would refuse it if he had any sense. All he has to do is the driving in a mail van robbery planned by Jack Browning. Browning is willing to use Johnny’s driving talents but their common interest in Sheila leads to a good deal of tension and sets the stage for the double-cross that you know has to come eventually.
The Killers was made on a very tight budget and most of the movie’s problems (and it has some serious problems) stem from this. There’s an excessive use of stock footage, the sets are limited and not always impressive and there’s a huge reliance on process shots. Most of the process shots are done reasonably well but some are quite poor. There’s one brief sequence where Johnny takes Sheila go-karting. It’s a sequence that really should have ended up on the cutting room floor - the process shots in that sequence are embarrassingly clumsy.
While the action of the movie takes place in various locations all the locations look the same because they’re all shot on the Universal backlot or on a sound stage. The lighting most of the time is the overly bright and overly flat lighting one associates with television.
Angie Dickinson on the other hand is quite solid in the femme fatale role. She’s certainly a
very convincing gangster’s moll. Dickinson had the ability to be both brassy and classy at the same time. At times she seems like she’s too good for Johnny and at other times she seems like she’s too bad for him.
The other character that we’re interested in is Charlie Strom. Lee Marvin is in tough guy mode, but he’s (mostly) a controlled sort of tough guy. He’s vicious but it’s a calculated viciousness. It’s almost as if he’s vicious because he’s a hitman so he’s supposed to be vicious. Marvin manages to make Charlie’s philosophical ponderings seem convincing rather than a gimmick. It’s easy to see that this movie and this performance had a considerable influence on Tarantino. Clu Gulager as Lee is amusing and occasionally disturbing but he’s a more obvious psychopath than Charlie.
Despite the serious budgetary constraints and the poor central performance by Cassavetes The Killers is an interesting movie from the point of view of film history. In content it’s very much film noir while in style it looks forward to neo-noirs like Point Blank. Given the fact that it’s a remake of a 1940s film noir classic it can almost be described as being itself more neo-noir than noir, with a characteristic neo-noir self-awareness. Even with its problems I still recommend this one.