Professional hitmen Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) bust into a school for the blind and rub out auto-mechanics teacher Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who meekly accepts his fate. This puzzles Charlie. What could make a man give up his life so easily? Intrigued by this mystery and getting their hands on the million dollars Johnny was reputed to have stolen, the two killers interrogate various characters from his past. Gradually they piece together the sorry story of how a successful racecar driver got suckered into an armed robbery orchestrated by mobster Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), thanks to his involvement with seductive femme fatale Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson).
Don Siegel was the original choice of producer Mark Hellinger to direct the superb original version of The Killers (1946) but, because Warner Brothers would not lend him to Universal, had to wait eighteen years for a chance to deliver his take on Ernest Hemingway’s short story. Siegel’s version was made for television under his preferred title: Johnny North but bumped to theatrical release after the Kennedy assassination brought a moritorium on violence on the small screen. Critically despised on first release and still arguably a lesser work compared with Robert Siodmak’s film, the 1964 Killers is now widely considered a pivotal crime thriller. Siegel’s stark and brutal depiction of a dog-eat-dog amoral world convinced fans such as Michael Reeves, the tragically short-lived British wunderkind behind Witchfinder General (1968), he was the greatest filmmaker in the world. Besides establishing Siegel as a cineaste hero, the film marked a key point in the evolution of Lee Marvin’s screen persona from scene-stealing villain to leading man. His charismatic performance here was more or less a dry run for his iconic role in Point Blank (1967).
Although Siegel claimed he did not want to lift any scenes from the original nor use any of Hemingway’s dialogue, aside from a few cosmetic changes his film is a fairly close remake. Shot in broad daylight with heady comic book colours in place of Siodmak’s shadowy noir nightmare, the TV-level budget shows through in overused stock footage and some cramped sets, yet the violence is quite jarringly brutal right from the opening scene where the hitmen menace a blind secretary (Virginia Christine, who played the Swede’s jilted girlfriend in the 1946 version, making an interesting cameo). Screenwriter Gene L. Cohn retains the original mulitiple narrator story structure but crafts his own distinctively snappy dialogue. Siegel fashions the film in a manner highlighting the symmetrical nature of its plot, opening with a game of “shoot-’em-up” between two little boys that foreshadows Charlie’s final gesture to the police and replaying variations on the key line: “I don’t have the time” to underline its fatalism.
Of course the most notable diversion from the original plot is the removal of the insurance insvestigator hero, as the killers themselves probe the mystery of why Johnny North gave up the ghost. Thus, by the movie’s end, moral order has not been re-established but rather an existential puzzle is solved, memorably, if bleakly surmised by Charlie: “The only man that is not afraid to die, is a man who is already dead.” Quirky and sadistically playful, stone-faced Marvin and sneering Clu Gulager are so compelling they tip the balance too far towards the killers, leaving the flashbacks to Johnny North’s story dull by comparison, when they are meant to be the heart of the story. Things aren’t much improved by John Cassavetes oddly diffident performance, which makes Johnny seem like a broken shell of a man even in his racing driver heyday, although Angie Dickinson - whose tight outfits alarmed TV executives as much as the violence - is up to the task. Sheila seems to feel more for Johnny than Kitty Collins did for the Swede, sticking by him even after the accident till spurned and driven back to Browning. Which makes her late hour unveiling as an amoral bitch all the more cruel, if slightly perplexing. Also credible - and surprisingly so - is Ronald Reagan giving his best performance in his last role before becoming governer of California and starting on the road towards president of the United States. Features a great bossa nova jazz score by John Williams although the theme song by Henry Mancini was lifted from Touch of Evil (1958).