“If I had known you were coming, I would have set the place on fire.”
Remakes are a difficult endeavor, especially in the world of film noir. There have been countless cases of remakes that rest on the iconography of the predecessor without conveying the emotions and fears that made them effective. The 1981 version of When the postman rings twice is too racy for her own good, and 1988s DOA exchanges the energy of the original for a clunky, borderline parody approach. It’s never easy. Even so, there are some remakes that manage to defy the odds and add something valuable to the canon. One such remake dates back to 1964 The murderers.
The murderers, or The killers ’64, as some call it, was supposed to be one of the early television films to air on NBC. It should be an episode of the Project 120 Series, but when the network took a look at the final product, they decided it was too violent for television and turned it over to theater. The decision turned out to be beneficial as the film did well at the box office and Lee Marvin earned a BAFTA Award for Best Actor. But how did it come about? The killers ’64 escaped the curse of so many noir remakes? What did it do to differentiate itself from its predecessor? The answer, simple as it is, is to change everything.
The film always had to go with the legacy of The murderers (1946), the pioneering noir who started the careers of Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. It was a near-perfect translation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, cementing the parameters of his doomed world while adding layers of fear and sexual frustration. Don Siegel, the director of the remake, knew the 1946 version all too well, having been fired from the project and replaced by the more established Robert Siodmak. When it came time to remake the film, the wily Siegel worked with screenwriter Gene L. Coon on a treatment that blatantly disregarded the previous (aside from the premise). He created a remake in name, but a completely original film in spirit.
The differences between the versions from 1946 and 1964 become clear in the opening scene. The former opens with a Hopperesque Diner and culminates in the shooting of the boxer Swede Anderson in a shabby motel. Clean and professional, like clockwork. The latter takes place in an institute for the blind, where contract killers Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) stroll through the lobby and harass unhappy patients. They wreak as much havoc as possible before cornering Johnny North (John Cassavetes) and burying him in the fog of gunfire. The endgame is the same, however The killers ’64 has something else in mind. It enjoys the anarchy of its lawless characters and invites us to do the same. The prevailing mood of the original was Doom, but it’s terrifyingly happy here.
The rest of the film unfolds with similar disrespect. Confused by the ease with which Johnny North has accepted his fate, Charlie and Lee decide to look into his past. They’ve already been paid, so pass the time seeing Johnny’s best friend Earl (Claude Atkins) and girlfriend Sheila (Angie Dickinson). What makes these interrogation scenes so memorable is not the discovery of information, but the brutal way Charlie and Lee get it. These are the men who ended Johnny’s life, and here they are dangling Sheila out of a window because she refuses to divulge his secrets.
Coon’s script was deceptively forward-looking in terms of how it put together seemingly incongruent noir tropes. In the past, hired killers were dismissed as loners or psychopaths doomed to die at the last reel. In contrast, private detectives were considered heroic and were given access to exclusive areas. Charlie and Lee gain access to the more personable private investigator, but their murderous tendencies lead them to abuse their power and belittle their various witnesses. We never know what they’re going to do next, and the result is as disgusting as it is exciting.
Marvin and Galugar deserve all the credit for making their hit men so personable. They have opposing but complementary styles: Charlie is the business veteran and Lee is the showboat kid who loves inflicting pain. They are united by their common concern for money, and their banter keeps the film going, like the view from their train compartment. Marvin is especially good at this, throwing quotes away like they’re cigarette butts. “Whoever signed this contract didn’t care about the million dollars, and the only people who don’t worry about a million dollars are the people who have a million dollars,” he claims. When he later has to shoot another victim, he delivers this jewel: “You see, the only man who is not afraid of dying is the one who is already dead.” Marvin later described the role as one of his best, and I would be remiss if I disagree with him.
The flashbacks describing Johnny’s fall from man are equally high-profile. The filmmakers wisely changed the character’s profession from boxer to racing driver, which goes well together when asked to man the getaway car during a robbery. The following driving scenes obviously use rear projection (a little too obvious at times), but Siegel’s implementation of real-life racing material helps sell the illusion of fear. Cassavetes’ laconic performance also works wonders for the more tense moments of the film. He’s constantly suspicious of those around him, like he knows his number is going to be high soon.
If there is an element of The killers ’64 that pales in comparison to the original, it’s the cast of Ronald Reagan as the main villain. Reagan plays the gangster who romanticizes Sheila and forces Johnny to robbery, even though he has neither the attraction nor the charisma to do it. He is hopelessly inferior to Cassavetes in scenes, and since he retired from acting shortly after the film was released, it can be assumed that his heart was not in his work. Fortunately, the limits of Reagan’s performance are saved by the finale, in which Siegel delivers some of the most daring and stylized directorial work of his career.
Charlie and Lee trace the source of the hit on Reagan’s gangster, but both men have been shot and are bleeding to death. The former struggles to maintain focus, mimicking the seal through the camera lens before raising his pistol and spectacularly popping the gangster. The image of Charlie’s gun aimed directly at the camera is the film’s most iconic moment, and one that retains its unique power 50 years later. Equally powerful, if perhaps less well known, is the last frame in which a bloody Charlie succumbs to his wounds and dies in the front yard of a suburban house. For a man as blatant and violent as he is, it’s a fitting ending.
The killers ’64 was one of the first noir remakes to go into production and it is testament to its quality that it remains one of the best. The decision to use the original premise as a starting point for another story was a stroke of genius, and Siegel and Coon’s nimble execution qualifies it as one of their best works. The 1946 version still has the upper hand, but the zippy, irreverent influence of The killers ’64 can be seen better in Neo-Noir pulp Fiction (1994) or In Bruges (2007). It’s a classic in its own right and won’t go away anytime soon.
TRIVIA: Despite a John Williams score, the opening and closing title music of the film was taken Touch of evil (1958), which was set to music by Henry Mancini.