Film noir is like the blues or country music. There is the hard-core element that insists upon an aesthetic tradition and argues for an alternative view of the world. The rest plays the same notes but tilts towards the mainstream and avoids giving offence. In hard-core film noir the handsome men are losers foiled by vindictive fate and a terrible world. The tough guys are not noble heroes but bullies. The women are treacherous. This definition does not excuse the misogyny in film noir. Feminists are correct to criticise what are the grievances of the privileged gender. The dispossessed wish their lives away, and those in control who tread over others and the cracks in the world are cursed. The misogyny in film noir was the male response to the perceived plight of soldiers in the Second World War. While the soldiers were risking their lives their girls were running the society they had left behind and having sex with the snakes who had money and good jobs. It may have been unjustified paranoia but this was the grievance that inspired film noir.
There are two versions of The Killers. Both were inspired by the classic short story by Ernest Hemingway. Don Siegel directed the 1964 version and was considered for the 1946 film. There are no soldiers in either film but both male leads are modern day warriors. In the later film John Cassavetes plays a racing car driver who needs Angie Dickinson.
Some critics have interpreted the short story by Hemingway as an example of his belief in grace under pressure, the noble acceptance of death. In the Hemingway story the boxer lies on the bed and refuses to run when he hears that two gunmen are in town and they want to kill him. There is acceptance of death but it is not noble. There is no heroism that transcends the tragedy. The boxer lies on the bed because he understands that he has been defeated by what conquers all of us. Time, death, the lies of others and our own dishonesty ensure that we are all casualties. Faced with that the only option is to stay in bed and wait for death. In the 1964 version Johnny North is teaching blind students how to repair motorcars when the killers arrive. The students do not have his sight. They do not understand that life consists of nothing but avaricious time and bewildering deceit. Johnny North feels the bullets go into his chest and shrugs. His name suggests ironic ambition.
The legend is that the film was made for TV but, because of the assassination of Kennedy, it was considered too violent to be shown to families in their living rooms. Perhaps but The Killers was filmed in a deliberate way. The square shape is suitable for TV but, because Siegel left plenty of space above the heads of the characters, a widescreen version is also available. Siegel was a cunning operator and he always had options. The violence in the film is both restrained and shocking. The femme fatal is smacked across the cheeks by Ronald Reagan, and the killers thump her in the face and hang her out of the window of a tall hotel. At this point there are few in the audience who are sympathetic to Angie Dickinson. She plays Sheila the woman who has betrayed Johnny North. The innocent female receptionist at the blind school is manhandled and threatened. The screams of Sheila and the receptionist ensure that we remember the violent scenes. In most movies women are encouraged to use a high pitch when they scream. Siegel has them use their voices like opera singers. In The Killers the women produce roars from somewhere deep in their diaphragms. The great blues singer Bessie Smith would have been proud of these screams.
The robbery that is planned involves deceit amongst the robbers, and Sheila uses lies and her beauty to dazzle and confuse the men she meets. This is how she prospers and survives. Sheila may be in a different league but everyone tells lies in The Killers. Even Johnny North lies to his partner Earl. Time is referenced throughout the film. The robbery depends on split second timing. When we meet Johnny North, he is racing his car against the clock. Johnny takes Sheila to a nightclub and they hear the talented jazz singer Nancy Wilson sing a song called Time After Time. Charlie is the killer who wants to know why Johnny North accepted death and what happened to the money he was supposed to have stolen. Both ambitions will help him face old age. Charlie realises that he has limited time left in his life. He says more than once that he does not have the time. The partner of Charlie is young and misguided. He does exercises and counts proteins and thinks he is in control. He is mistaken and suffers the consequences.
Don Siegel had the ability to handle low budgets and be audacious. He directed Elvis Presley in the great Western Flaming Star. The Killers can be viewed as a noir version of the Elvis movie Viva Las Vegas. There is a talented racing driver and a beautiful blonde except this time they are not so young and not so nice. In The Killers Angie Dickinson walks into the racing pit wearing a tight white jump suit. She looks as if she has mistaken the set for a musical. Ann Margret makes a similar entrance in Viva Las Vegas. The audacity of Siegel explains his decision to abandon what was the best scene in the original film version, two killers repeating the glorious dialogue of Hemingway. Siegel succeeds because the invasion of the blind school by the two killers is memorable. There are two people who can see in the blind school. Johnny North has seen so much he is ready to die. The other teacher is shaped by his responsible work and fails to see what is happening. Also audacious is the robbery of the mail van. The audience is obliged to watch it being rehearsed twice. When the robbery finally occurs, the drive is much faster. Progress has been made in the race against time,.
The second rehearsal of the robbery is a fine sequence and ranks amongst the best in Hollywood cinema. George, a gang member, drives a car along a back road and substitutes for the mail truck that they intend to rob. In less than two minutes Johnny North has to overtake George and make the journey to where the planned robbery will take place. He achieves this with seconds to spare. When Johnny stops the car, the gang members and Sheila talk amongst themselves. There is conflict and friction amongst them, and we anticipate further drama. At the end of the conversation Johnny North looks in his rear mirror and says, ‘Here comes George.’ The moment is brilliant and a powerful surprise. The audience, of course, had forgotten about George.
Although beautiful, Angie Dickinson is not the charismatic equal of Ava Gardner. She lacks the mystery and condescending sophistication and intelligence of Gardner. The character Sheila shares a weakness with movie star Gardner. Sheila likes boxers and bullfighters. The line is smart and a knowing reference to Hollywood gossip. It also reinforces the grievance behind film noir. Not only do these beautiful women humble men, they destroy the best and bravest of them, the warriors. Dickinson may not be as gorgeous as Gardner but her acting range is greater. Like Citizen Kane, the film is told in flashback by different characters. In each of the three sections Dickinson is different. Earl, the partner of Johnny North, describes a girl who wants a man she can adore and whose excitement she can share. The camerawork does not flatter Dickinson in these scenes. Often her hair is wrecked by a wind machine. In the next section she is stylish, glamorous and cool, a survivor dressed in pastel colours. She is making deals and playing the odds. Eventually the truth emerges, and she becomes excitable and desperate. The confident smile disappears, and the wardrobe changes into something darker. There are no easy judgements that can be made about Sheila. She is prepared to abandon and destroy Johnny North but she also loves him and delights in his company. Sheila has a great figure and a marvellous wardrobe but something or someone has warped her view of happiness.
Ronald Reagan is not a great actor but he contributes a fine left eyebrow. When raised, it threatens like a fist. The film, though, is dominated by Lee Marvin as Charlie. This killer is amoral but he has curiosity. He is a tough guy who knows what is at stake and what is illusion. Marvin was a great actor but he was at his best playing violent men who have existential weight. The best heroes of Marvin are impressed by nothing and no one. They lack morality but have a terrifying integrity. Only the brutal and violent Charlie can confront and match the not to be trusted Sheila. This is the despair and bleak optimism that defines film noir. Feminists are right to condemn the message within film noir. The good news for common sense is that its time has passed. Cinematic achievement, though, remains.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.