Don Siegel’s The Killers is a slick and stylish piece of ‘60s cinema – odd considering that it was originally slated to be the first ‘TV movie’. Siegel’s film was too tough for TV, which led to a big screen launch, cementing the iconic tough guy status of star Lee Marvin.
The Killers opens with two hit-men (Marvin and Clu Gulager) killing Johnny North (John Cassavetes), a down-on-his-luck racing driver who was once involved in a $1 million robbery. The duo find it odd that North didn’t run and that he accepted his fate without objection. They attempt to track down the stolen money and find out why North seemingly wanted to die. Along the way they become entangled with Ronald Reagan’s scheming businessman and Angie Dickinson’s femme fatale.
Based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, it’s hard to even envision The Killers appearing on television. It’s a classy piece and quite violent (Dickinson takes a lot of beatings). Marvin and Gulagar are too-cool-for-school as the hit men, Marvin playing the calmer more seasoned killer, while Gulagar is the young buck with more energy and a loud mouth. The film features a series of flashbacks telling how Cassavetes came to be mixed-up with Reagan and Dickinson. The two tales run alongside each other, coming together at the end. In a way, this is the film’s biggest flaw – just as you get engrossed in ones, it pulls away to another.
This was Ronald Reagan’s final film, and he was contractually forced to make the film even though he was against the violence in the piece – he went on to become Governor of California after this and ultimately the US President. On the flip-side, it helped to make Lee Marvin’s career as a tough as nails screen leading man. NBC shied away from the film’s violence once it was completed, (it didn’t help that JFK was assassinated while the film was in production) leading to a theatrical release in Europe and then the US.