‘The Killers’ or — The Lethal Transience of Movies?

In Robert Siodmak’s ‘The Killers’ (1946) two hitmen kill a man. The curious thing is that the man makes no attempt to escape. Why? An insurance investigator attempts to put the pieces together.

In Don Siegel’s ‘The Killers’ (1964) two hitmen kill a man. The curious thing is that the man makes no attempt to escape. Why? The two killers attempt to put the pieces together.

This change between the two films might seem trivial but the impact on the viewing experience is profound because it automatically makes us collude with Lee Marvin’s hitman as both he, and we, want answers to this story. Are we not interrogating this movie as much as Marvin does? Audiences are always demanding answers and we know the characters on screen are going to give them to us eventually… or else. So in the ’64 version we are the killers.

The other big difference is the brash energy. Siodmak’s film is dark and brooding, like sitting in a room at night waiting for death. Siegel’s is bright and exposed, where colours blister in the dazzling daylight and even the cool grays seem to be sweating. A couple of times people are told they look pallid or pale which is hilarious as everyone on screen is deeply glowing like a radioactive walnut. I ADORE this Sixties, over saturated look and ‘The Killers’ is a gorgeous example of it. The music compliments this colour scheme with John Williams’ score packing a satisfyingly brassy punch.

Another change also amps up the energy as the target of the hit (Burt Lancaster in the original and John Cassavetes here) is no longer a boxer but, instead, a racing driver. This allows for some rather exciting driving sequences (if you’re a fan of 60’s period American racing cars you’ll be in heaven here) with some beefy sound design and editing adding to the momentum. It also takes Siegel’s ‘The Killer’s into a different narrative direction, often having more in common plot wise with Richard Quine’s ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ (1954) where a racing car driver is manipulated by a dame into doing a high-speed job for a gang of crooks. It’s all quite exciting and fun.

Yet the real attraction here are those two implacable assassins as they interrogate the film on our behalf (did we hire these guys?). Marvin’s killer is a close cousin of the character Walker he would play in Boorman’s ‘Point Blank’ (1967), a figure always in motion and containing an unstoppable level of violence as well as seeming oddly removed, almost detached from the rest of reality (how can a man so ruggedly physical seem so at home dwelling in almost abstract realms?!). Notice how he doesn’t have an appetite for actual food, but if a red telephone rings with information that can keep him moving he immediately pounces on it with ravenous greed.

‘The Killers’ was intended to be the first feature film made for American television yet it was deemed too violent to be broadcast. And I can understand why! Not only is there an air of menace in almost every shot but that menace is frequently ramped up to incredible degrees. We soon discover that arguing with these two is pointless and their victims know this too. These killers want what they want and everyone in their way can, and will, be disposed of. Violence is everywhere.

Obviously these two killers can’t survive either. They are killers after all. Yet they’ve also been our guides through this story doing our dirty work for us. But all good stories must come to an end which means we, the viewer, must also undergo a form of death; part of us must pass along with the experience. That’s why we are Lee Marvin at the end of the movie. We got want we came here for — to be thrilled and boy, we got it — and now it ends and we must exit the movie, furiously clutching our precious fleeting pleasure to our chest whilst coughing up blood.

That’s cinema, folks!

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.