“The current cycle of crime films is a vicarious way to participate in the crime wave without committing a crime. That feeling is latent within each of us. Everybody wants to get even with somebody.” – Lee Marvin in a January 1969 interview with Playboy magazine
The first feature-length adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers” was directed by Robert Siodmak in 1946 and featured a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner as the two leads. It was a simple tale of a man who had hit rock bottom so badly that he allowed two hitmen to kill him. The doomed man was the focus of Siodmark’s film while, on the surface, it may seem that Don Siegel’s 1964 film version is all about doomed race car driver Johnny North. After all, he is given the bulk of The Killers’ screen time through flashbacks by the people that knew and loved him. However, Siegel drops in subtle visual clues throughout the film to suggest that the film is actually about the two professional killers with an emphasis on the elder more experienced one, Charlie, played by Lee Marvin. It is interesting to note that the first and last image of the film is of Charlie – the first tip off that this is his story and not North’s.
A great, menacing soundtrack by John Williams plays over the opening credits and immediately establishes the tough tone of Siegel’s film. Charlie and Lee (Clu Gulager) are ultra-cool, well-dressed hitmen that have been hired to kill ex-race car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes) — now working as a teacher at a school for the blind. Even though he’s warned in advance, North does nothing and just lets the two men kill him. Afterwards, Charlie is bothered by the job. Something just does not feel right. And so, he and Lee decide to track down the people that knew North and find out why their victim didn’t run when he had the chance.
Along with Point Blank (1967), The Killers is one of the finest performances of Marvin’s career. He exudes a calm, malevolent nature through the simplest gesture or look and has a deep, weathered voice that conveys a lifetime of experience. For example, in the opening scene when Charlie and Lee question the receptionist at the school for the blind about North, the younger hitman fidgets with the furniture, taking some flowers out of a vase, sniffing them while pouring the water out onto the desk. The veteran killer concentrates on the frightened woman. Marvin uses that great voice of his to get the information he wants, uttering the immortal line, “I’m sorry lady, we don’t have the time.” This won’t be the last time he says that line. This scene is simultaneously funny and filled with tension in the way that the two men carry themselves. And yet we never lose sight of the fact that Charlie and Lee are there for only one reason: to kill North. Nothing is going to get in their way.
After they kill North, we see a more relaxed, casual side of Charlie. He and Lee are traveling on a train. The younger hitman still has his tie, vest and sunglasses on while the elder killer looks much more relaxed with the top button of his dress shirt undone, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his tie and sunglasses removed. However, something is bothering Charlie. Why didn’t North try to make a run for it? Charlie and Lee got paid a lot of money for a simple hit. They also find out that North was part of a million dollar heist – where’s the money? They don’t know who hired them but Charlie wants to find out. He wants that million dollars as he tells his partner, “But me, I’m getting old. My hair’s turning gray, my feet are sore and I’m tired of running.” It this slight admission that he’s getting older that humanizes Charlie for a brief moment and provides motivation for their quest. Half of a million dollars would certainly allow Charlie to retire in style.
Charlie and Lee decide to track down the other accomplices in the heist. In order to do so, they find North’s mechanic (played with blubbery bluster by Claude Akins). As Charlie puts the pressure on him, he says once again, “We don’t have the time.” There is now a bit of urgency in Charlie’s methods. As he said earlier, he’s tired of running and it is this urgency that motivates him to track down the money.
However, Charlie and Lee hit a dead end with the mechanic and go out for dinner. An interesting thing happens during this scene. At first, a mildly depressed Charlie is unable to eat his “fine steak,” but after he gets an encouraging call and a tip on the whereabouts of another one of North’s accomplices, his mood changes instantly and he happily begins cutting into his food. Charlie has become reinvigorated and tells Lee that it just isn’t the money that he’s after: “But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run. Why all of the sudden he’d rather die?” (Incidentally, this question is what also convinced Marvin to do the film) However, it is this curiosity that will ultimately be Charlie’s undoing.
Marvin delivers an economic performance which helps convey the all-business attitude of his character. He belonged to a dying breed of actor that you just don’t see anymore. Most actors today, if they’re lucky, take a whole film to convey the kind of toughness that Marvin has naturally. “Tough guys” of today – Russell Crowe, Jason Statham, Clive Owen, et al – don’t even come close to someone like Marvin. You can just tell from the way he looks and acts that he would kill you if you ever got in his way. And this kind of hard living attitude carried over into the actor’s real life as he alluded to in a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine and in Don Siegel’s memoir, A Siegel Film. The director recalls how Marvin showed up drunk the first two days of principal photography. The actor became such a disruptive influence on the set that Siegel had to intervene. Instead of dressing him down in front of everybody, he talked to Marvin in private. According to Siegel, Marvin never showed up to work drunk again.
When Charlie and Lee finally confront the film’s heavy, Jack Browning, played by Ronald Reagan in an inspired bit of casting. It was the first and only time that he played a bad guy in a movie. Browning would also be his last film role before he went into politics. It’s great to see a casually intense actor like Marvin square off against a limited one like Reagan. Charlie paces back and forth across the room with a gun in his hand while Browning sits there stiff as a board playing dumb while he’s accused of ordering the hit on North. Marvin does an excellent job working the room and questioning Reagan’s character. He clearly owns this scene.
Charlie shows just how brutal he can be when he questioning North’s girlfriend, Sheila (Angie Dickinson), and doesn’t like her answers. So, he and Lee hang her out of a window high above the street, scaring the answers out of her. Sheila pleads for her life at the end of the film putting all of the blame on Jack who says nothing, grimly accepting his fate at the hands of the uncompromising Charlie. Even after Charlie shoots and kills Jack, Sheila continues to pathetically plead for her life and Charlie utters that immortal line, “Lady, I don’t have the time,” before shooting and killing her. He kills her last because it is revenge for North’s death. Through flashbacks we learn that she not only double-crossed the doomed race car driver but she broke his heart too.
However, the damage to Charlie has been done. He has been mortally wounded by a sniper rifle at the hands of Jack earlier on. Charlie staggers out onto the front lawn of Jack’s house just as the police arrive. In a haze, he points his right hand like a gun and collapses dead, the precious money he spent the entire film pursuing fluttering all around him. Siegel then cuts to a long shot of Charlie’s dead body with the money lying in the heart of suburbia with its manicured green lawns and tract houses.
Siegel’s film takes place mostly during the day with a bright color scheme. This is due largely because the picture was originally intended to be a made-for-television movie (the first of its kind) but the harsh depiction of violence was too much for NBC and it was eventually released theatrically. The artificial T.V. look, with its extensive use of rear projection, gives The Killers an almost surreal kind of feel that works surprisingly well. Even though it is bright and colorful, the attitude of the film is pure, gritty film noir. Life is cheap and the film concludes on an uncompromisingly nihilistic note as Siegel ends things with a hell of a final image that underlines the very thing that resulted in everyone’s demise: money.