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“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man.”
The most iconic line from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven succinctly encapsulates the narrative’s driving force: what a lifetime of taking lives can do to a man. The American auteur ended his masterpiece with the message “For Sergio and Don,” a tip of the hat to the two directors who most influenced his career.
Almost three decades before the 1992 release of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s acknowledged mentor Don Siegel had made a film that, when viewed today with hindsight, serves as a feature-length precursor to the aforementioned line and its implications.
In 1964, shortly after the July 4th holiday, American moviegoers were treated to The Killers, a second theatrical adaptation of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous and anthologized stories. It narrates the tale of two assassins, Charlie and Lee, who carry out a seemingly routine hit on a man named Johnny North but are surprised when their target is expecting — almost welcoming — them instead. They decide to investigate the job’s origins, find out why North didn’t flee, and claim the million dollars he apparently possessed. As they trek to Miami, New Orleans and finally to Los Angeles, they unearth a shady past involving fast cars, a femme fatale, and double- and triple-crosses. Soon, they are entangled in a mess beyond their comprehension.
Ernest Hemingway’s writing was known for its “manly men,” and Siegel’s adaptation — while tenuously connected to its source material otherwise — carries this streak forward with aplomb. Both Lee and Charlie, played by Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin respectively, are as masculine as can be, and a running theme in the film is what empowers and what threatens a man’s masculinity.
The viewer’s biggest exposure to Johnny North (John Cassavettes) is through the recollections of different people the two protagonists track down. Their accounts reveal a man who, like Nite Owl in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, only feels like himself when he is in costume. After a massive accident on the race course ends his competitive career, North goes through a period of depressing mundanity: working in a garage and living in a squalid tenement. It’s only when Sheila Farr, the “dame” who wrecked his career and life, returns to his universe with an offer to help out on a robbery that he stops existing and starts living. Farr, whose biggest gripe with him was that he had changed from the dashing man she once fell in love with, remarks with a sensual smile, “You look familiar.”
The looming spectre of being “man” enough looms over the protagonists too, so much so that it’s embedded into their very fiber. Just before executing the hit in the beginning of the movie, Lee pauses to put his hair in place. And the onset of the climax is not signified by a stinging retort or cold kill as much as it is implied by Lee putting his glasses on, slicking his hair back, and striding out in step with Charlie.
Gulager plays Lee as a carefree and ever-smiling psychopath. Meanwhile, Marvin’s portrayal of Charlie paints a laconic man who would rather care only about the money and whether there’s enough of it, but has a code he can’t help but abide by. Marvin, who is famous today (but not famous enough) for the numerous hard-boiled, macho men he embodied over the years, owns The Killers with his gruff act. He’s rough around the edges, which is understandable; this persona hadn’t become a routine for him yet.
Charlie is so brusque he may have walked on from the set of a Billy Wilder noir. The King of Cynicism would have admired the incessant bleakness in Gene L. Coon’s screenplay for The Killers. At one point, upon seeing Sheila enter his room, Johnny quips, “If I knew you were coming, I would have set fire to the place.”
Sheila is a menacing presence herself, and while Angie Dickinson may not have the jaw-dropping grace of Ava Gardner (who starred in the earlier adaptation of Hemingway’s story) or Greta Garbo, she exudes her share of sheer vivacity and cunning. She has a spark in her eyes that only ulterior motives give to a person. She knows when to play vulnerable and seek Johnny’s help in crossing a railing, but can come up with the most stinging putdowns when needed. In one icy conversation after a botched rehearsal for the robbery, she looks at her boss and says, “You’re not driver enough.” The underlying emasculation is overwhelming.
Said boss is Jack Browning, who — in the film’s most interesting casting — is portrayed by Ronald Reagan. The Killers was the 40th U.S. President’s last film before he entered politics, and it’s hard to think of a more discordant farewell. Browning was the only time Reagan ever played a villain, and his is such a loathsome character it’s no wonder the actor hated working on the movie. One scene in particular shamed Reagan, and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve ever wanted to see an American president bitch-slap an adult woman and then be punched in the face as punishment, The Killers is the movie for you.
It’s not just Reagan’s casting that makes the film a fascinating historical artifact. John F. Kennedy was assassinated during The Killers’ shooting, and the incident delayed production. Dickinson, a longtime friend and rumoured lover of Kennedy, revealed later that politics was never brought up as a topic of discussion on sets. Perhaps the Democratic leanings of every cast member apart from Reagan were a factor.
When NBC greenlit The Killers, they were hoping to broadcast it on TV, which would have made it the first “made-for-TV” movie. They did not bargain on the film’s frank sexuality or ugly, brutal violence. The opening scene, set in a school for the blind, depicts two blind children enacting a rough game of cops and robbers as the hitmen infiltrate the premises, messing up everyone on their way to the kill. Siegel’s steadfast insistence on casting real blind people as extras renders the sequence even more unnerving. By the time Sheila is hanging out of a skyscraper’s window with Lee and Charlie barely bothering to hold on to her heels, one may even feel glad this was not premiered on primetime television.
The Playboy Library earlier covered When Eagles Dare, a thrilling ride that probes and reinvents a popular “manly” genre: the men-on-a-mission story. The Killers is a similar inversion of tropes, taking aim at the “hitman” archetype. But, more than that, it’s an exhilarating 93 minutes, from its snazzy red-and-blue opening credits (that use Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil soundtrack) to its bitter but satisfying final shot.
Laya Maheshwari is an Indian film and culture journalist currently based in London. He has written for The Guardian, The LA Review of Books, VICE, among others. He tweets his titanic struggles with everyday life at @lazygarfield.