“If I knew you were coming, I would’ve set fire to the place.”
Remakes are a risky endeavor, especially in the world of film noir. There have been countless instances of remakes coasting on the iconography of its predecessor, sans the emotion and angst that made them impactful. The 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is too lewd for its own good, and 1988’s D.O.A. trades in the electricity of the original for a broad, over-stylized approach. It’s never easy. That said, there are some remakes that defy the odds and add something worthwhile to the noir canon. One such remake is 1964’s The Killers.
The Killers, or The Killers ‘64, was set to be one of the early TV movies to air on NBC. It was pitched as an episode of the Project 120 series, but once the network got a look at the final product, they decided it was too violent for homes and repurposed it for theaters. The decision proved to be a beneficial one, as the film performed well at the box office and earned Lee Marvin a BAFTA Award for Best Actor. But how did The Killers ‘64 escape the curse of so many noir remakes? What did it do to differentiate itself from its predecessor? The solution, simple as it may be, is change everything.
The film was always going to have to contend with the legacy of The Killers (1946), the landmark noir that launched the careers of both Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. It was a near perfect translation of the Ernest Hemingway short story, bolstering the parameters of his doomed world while adding layers of angst and sexual frustration. Don Siegel, the director of the remake, was all too familiar with the 1946 version, as he had been fired from the project and replaced with the more established Robert Siodmak. When it came time to remake the film, the wily Siegel worked with screenwriter Gene L. Coon on a treatment that disregarded most of what came before. He was crafting a remake in name, but a wholly original film in spirit.
The differences between the 1946 and 1964 versions are evident from the opening scene. The former opens with a Hopperesque diner, and culminates with the shooting of boxer Swede Anderson in a seedy motel. Clean and professional, like clockwork. The latter takes place at an institute for the blind, where hitmen Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) saunter through the lobby, bullying hapless patients. They instigate as much chaos as possible before cornering Johnny North (John Cassavetes) and subjecting him to a hail of gunfire. The endgame is the same, but The Killers ‘64 has something else on its mind. It savors the anarchy of its lawless characters and invites us to do the same. The overriding mood of the original was doom, but here, it’s psychotically gleeful.
The rest of the film unfolds with similar irreverence. Charlie and Lee are confused by the ease with which Johnny North accepted his fate, and decide to look into his past. They already got paid, so they kill time by looking up Johnny’s best friend Earl (Claude Atkins) and on/off girlfriend Sheila (Angie Dickinson). What makes these interrogation scenes so memorable is not the discovery of information, but the brutish way Charlie and Lee go about getting it. These are the men that ended Johnny’s life and here they are dangling Sheila out of a window because she’s refusing to disclose his secrets.
Coon’s screenplay was quietly radical in terms of how it stitched seemingly incongruent noir tropes together. In the past, hitmen had been dismissed as loners or psychopaths, doomed to die before the final reel. By contrast, private detectives were seen as trustworthy, and given access to exclusive information. Charlie and Lee are given the access of the more congenial private detective, but their homicidal tendencies lead them to abuse their power and belittle their various witnesses. We never know what they’re going to do next, and the result is as sickening as it is exciting.
Marvin and Galugar deserve all the credit in the world for making their hitmen so magnetic. They have contrasting but complimentary styles: Charlie is the economic veteran and Lee is the showboat kid who loves inflicting pain. Their shared concern for money bonds them, and their banter keeps the film hurtling along like the view from their train compartment. Marvin is particularly good here, tossing off quotables with palpable disdain. “Whoever laid this contract wasn’t worried about the million dollars, and the only people that don’t worry about a million dollars are the people that have a million dollars”, he asserts. Later, when faced with having to shoot another victim, he delivers another gem: “You see, the only man that’s not afraid to die is the man that’s dead already.” Marvin later referred to the role as one of his best, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t agree with him.
The flashbacks detailing Johnny’s fall from grace are similarly kinetic. The filmmakers wisely changed the profession of the character from boxer to race car driver, which dovetails nicely with his eventual getaway driver gig. The subsequent driving scenes make use of rear projection (sometimes a little too obviously), but Siegel’s implementation of real life racing footage helps to sell the illusion of anxiety. Cassavetes’s laconic presence also does wonders for the film’s quieter moments. He’s constantly leery of his surroundings, as though he knows his number will soon be up.
If there’s one element of The Killers ‘64 that pales in comparison to the original, it’s the casting of Ronald Reagan as the antagonist. Reagan is the gangster who romances Sheila and pushes Johnny into the heist, despite not possessing the moxy to do either. He’s hopelessly outmatched in scenes opposite Cassavetes, and given that he retired from acting soon after the film’s release, one can assume his heart wasn’t invested in his work. Fortunately, the limitations of Reagan’s performance are salvaged by the finale, where Siegel delivers some of the most brutal and stylized directorial work of his career.
Charlie and Lee trace the source of the hit to Reagan’s gangster, but both men have been shot and are bleeding out. The former struggles to maintain focus, which Siegel emulates through the camera lens, before lifting his pistol and popping the gangster in spectacular fashion. The image of Charlie’s pistol aiming down the barrel of the camera is the most iconic in the film, and one that maintains its singular power some 50 years later. Equally powerful, though perhaps less known, is the last frame, where a bloodied Charlie succumbs to his wounds and dies on the front lawn of a suburban home. It’s an appropriately twisted ending for such a sadistic man.
The Killers ‘64 was one of the first noir remakes to go into production, and it’s a testament to its quality that it remains one of the finest. The decision to use the original premise as a jumping off point for another story was inspired, and the nimble execution by Siegel and Coon qualifies it as some of their best work. The 1946 version may still have the upper hand, but the splashy, irreverent influence of The Killers ‘64 can be seen more readily in neo-noir like Pulp Fiction (1994) and In Bruges (2007). In other words, it manages to be a classic all on its own.
TRIVIA: Despite having a John Williams score, the film’s opening and end title music was taken from Touch of Evil (1958), which was scored by Henry Mancini.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.