Sunday, May 13, 2007

From Fred Blosser

Ed, there was a fine essay by Manohla Dargis about Lee Marvin in "The New York Times" on Friday -- a must-read if you haven't seen it.

The article's comments about Marvin's performance in Don Siegel's "The Killers" prompted me to pull out my video copy and watch it again for the first time in several years. As I remembered, it's a great crime film with an amazing cast and a tight-knit Gene L. Coon script wonderfully directed by Siegel. Except for some ancient production techniques, such as back projection and some rather blatant stock footage in a few scenes, it hardly seems dated at all. While Dargis remarks that Marvin "owns the film up, down and sideways," the rest of the cast ain't shabby either -- John Cassavettes, Ronald Reagan, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins, Norman Fell, and Clu Gulager.

You know, the critics in the '60s fell all over themselves praising Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut for "reinventing" the pulp noir story by using the genre as a coat-rack for exisential musings, but "The Killers" goes them one better, in my opinion. It works equally well as a standard gangster thriller and as an existential statement. The movie, as you'll recall, is centered on a quest by Marvin's character, a contract killer, to find out WHY: Why did his latest victim (Cassavettes) face death willingly and resignedly, without running or pleading? Seems to me there are two existential scenarios there. One is the mystery of the victim's seemingly inexplicable acceptance of a premature and violent death. The other is the mystery of why it matters to Marvin's character. Logically, there is no reason for Marvin's character to care at all, but his irrational obsession drives the movie in its irrationality.

The last time I watched the film, back in the '90s, I was most struck by the casting and how, from the vantage point of 30 years on, it was amusing to see that the mail-car heist that lay behind the death of Cassavettes' character was engineered by a future President of the United States and by an actor who may be best remembered today, thanks to TV Land reruns, as comically irascible landlord Stanley Roper in "Three's Company."

Now, nine years on, I am equally struck by the look of Marvin's and Gulager's hit men with their sunglasses and bland business suits. I couldn't have predicted it in 1998, but the sunglasses and bland-suit look would come back big time as a model of sinister cool in the Matrix movies. The sunglasses in "The Killers" come into play in the first scene of the movie, where the gunmen invade a school for the blind to find their victim. (Pretty chilling and prescient image when you come to think of it, in hindsight of the shootings on the campuses of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other schools.) Presumably, Marvin and Gulager wear shades as a sort of camouflage, in order not to arouse suspicion as outsiders mingling with the blind residents and employees of the school who also wear dark glasses. Later, Gulager continues to wear his dark glasses in inappropriate situations, a touch that reinforces his character's odd, unpredictable, unsettling vibe.

Hm, maybe Dargis is correct in saying that Marvin "owns the movie," but Gulager gives him a good run for the money. (With some thanks to Siegel, according to Stuart Kaminsky's 1974 book on Siegel's movies, which claims that Gulager's "wild role [was] created entirely by Siegel.") My brother-in-law refers to the Method acting by Gulager, Michael Parks, and others in the early '60s as "the slouch and mumble school of acting," but as delivered by Gulager, it hits the precisely right note to distinguish Gulager's younger killer from Marvin's business-like, straight-on character.

The opening scene also features the most brutally unsettling bit of violence in the movie, to my mind, when Marvin and Gulager hit and terrorize a blind secretary (Virginia Christine) who greets them in a friendly way when they walk into her office to ask the whereabouts of the man they have come to find. Nowadays, NOW would probably picket a movie featuring a scene like that, and in principle, I would agree with their outrage, and I suspect Siegel would have too; but I don't see a sexual/misogynistic undertone to the act that often characterizes violence against women in the movies. It is simply a display of force against an innocent person who happens to be a woman, exerted because Marvin and Gulager are inherently if dispassionately violent men who need to locate their target and complete their job as quickly as possible. It sets the tone of the film in the most disturbingly effective way imaginable.

In the Times article, Dargis laments: "For younger audiences, especially those who believe film history starts with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Marvin may well represent a question mark. (“Who?” a young friend asked.)" Don Siegel, too, I imagine. But I suspect that today's kids and 20-somethings weaned on extreme video games and Quentin Tarantino would find something familiar and resonant in "The Killers" and in Lee Marvin's performance. What do you think?

Fred Blosser


Anonymous said...

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Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I've never seen this movie, but now I'm going to have to track down a copy.

"the victim's seemingly inexplicable acceptance of a premature and violent death"

Is the film loosely based on Hemingway's short story of the same name?

Ed Gorman said...

The original movie didn't have much to do wiith the Hemingway story, this has even less. The problem with the story, great as it is, is that it's basically a one-act play.

Anonymous said...

But the basis of the idea, as used by Hemingway, is capable of almost infinite reworking and development. Just over a year ago I used it as a starting point for a western, "Misfit Lil Fights Back", which will be appearing in July. (There's a brief synopsis if you click on the title in the publisher's Coming Soon area at

Juri said...

I've seen the film only once, but on screen. It was over 15 years ago, though, so my memory is not fresh anymore. Some of the driving scenes (with back-projection) were a bit too long, but the ending is superb. (Imagine Ronald Reagan saying: "Homicide is not my business.")

About suits and sunglasses: I really liked the opening credits of the film. Should see this again, Fred makes it sound a damn good.