The 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon
Although they’re loosely based on the same Ernest Hemingway story, The Killers (1964) bears little resemblance to director Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir classic. Directed by Don Siegel, the 1964 adaptation was initially made for television. Fake looking process shots and stock footage detract from any sense of realism. Visually, it resembles an Elvis Presley drive-in classic, in particular Speedway (1968), which has a similar race car theme. With a slim heist plot, The Killers works as an action picture with an ensemble cast led by John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin and today’s TCM star, Angie Dickinson.
Johnny North (Cassavetes) is a washed up race car driver on the lam, teaching at a school for the blind. When Charlie (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), a pair of sharply dressed hit men, storm in with guns drawn, Johnny knows his number is up.
On the train out-of-town, Charlie speculates on the reasons why their victim didn’t attempt to flee. He also wonders what happened to the million in cash that Johnny supposedly got away with. That leads to some detective work and near comic interrogations as the assassins try to piece together what really happened.
Under duress, Johnny’s former mechanic Earl fills in some of the story and a possible reason for his death wish. In flashback, Johnny is a hot-shot racer. When Sheila Farr (Dickinson) shows up driving a blue Cadillac coupe de ville, there’s instant chemistry.
Dickenson and Cassavetes both had extensive experience acting in television. Best known for his heavily improvised independent films, Cassavetes acted in commercial projects such as this throughout his career. Here, the repartee with Dickinson is sharp and sexy and leads quickly, perhaps too quickly, to the bedroom.
Charlie and Lee literally “sweat out” more information about Johnny from a hood named Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) while he’s having a sauna.
Of course, Mickey doesn’t know where the money went but he does cough up the name Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). Mickey worked for Jack, the brains behind a scheme to rob a mail delivery truck. The gang needs a professional driver and that’s how Johnny got pulled in.
It was President Reagan’s last film role and he was badly cast. Always believable as a good guy, the permanent sneer is unconvincing. While there’s ironic value in seeing Reagan as a villain, the humor of his performance is certainly unintended.
Reagan and Dickinson lack chemistry which makes their few scenes together awkward and unbelievable. After The Killers, Reagan made a few television appearances then it was on to politics.
It’s not a great movie but worth watching for several reasons including Siegel’s controlled violence in the scenes with Lee and Gulager, which were deemed too violent for television at the time. The jazz based score by John Williams is another plus. And, of course, Angie Dickinson is a stand out as Sheila Farr, an unforgettable femme fatale.
Thanks to Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film for hosting the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Click to see all of the entries.