Don Siegel



USA, 1946


There are two versions of The Killers. The first utilises the short story by Ernest Hemingway for a never to be forgotten opening scene. The 1964 Don Siegel version abandoned Hemingway and used the remainder of the first movie as the basis for an alternative and reworked story. Both movies are great and have qualities that the other lacks.   The second version has a brutal edge, Lee Marvin terrifying just about everyone, a fabulous climax and a convincing relationship between the male victim and the femme fatale.  The 1946 version has the directorial style of noir master Robert Siodmak, dazzling black and white photography, the complicated eleven-part flashback structure, a unique payroll robbery shot in one take and with an overhead camera, that marvellous opening scene, and, of course Ava Gardner.


There is no doubt that Gardner was beautiful. The evidence consists of a trail of broken men that straddles continents. In the end, bored with crushing male hearts, she settled for the company of the domestic cat. Actresses have testified that no one arrived on set in the early hours of the morning looking more glamorous than Gardner. And yet in The Killers that beauty only convinces briefly, in her first scene when we see her through the eyes of the girlfriend of Lancaster and at the end of the film when the callousness and treachery of Kitty Collins is revealed. One of the great mysteries of The Killers occurs in the scene when Kitty tells insurance investigator Jim Reardon about what happened after the robbery.  Reardon has a work ethic, integrity and heroic status but for a moment we wonder if he might crumble and fall into the arms of Kitty. He tells her how he would have liked to have known the old Kitty Collins, and they make arrangements for the two of them to visit a hotel. This may be innocent. Reardon thinks he is helping Kitty to go into hiding. But there is a curious look on the face of Reardon, and we wonder. In that moment Ava Gardner looks like a woman who can conquer all.

The puzzle is why the beauty of Gardner is less impressive in the other scenes. The wardrobe may be a factor. After the party scene and until Collins meets Reardon the clothes that Gardner wears are not flattering.  In her meeting with Reardon it is different.  Collins wears an elegant trilby that is intended to make her appear respectable. The brim of the hat looks desperate to touch her eyes. More important than previous wardrobe errors may be the presence of Burt Lancaster. He was as handsome as Gardner was beautiful. His athletic frame was packed with charisma and physical strength. We can believe in the more ordinary looking Reardon making a Faustian pact with Kitty.  Lancaster looks like the kind of man who would dictate his terms. Something odd happens in their encounters because Gardner should be the centre of her scenes with Lancaster, and she is not.


All this, though, is an aside. The Killers is a masterpiece. It makes the occasional stumble, and not all the cameos are flawless, but the movie is a product of the combined efforts of some fabulous talents.  Anthony Veiller is the name mentioned in the credits but Richard Brooks and John Huston wrote the sharp script. They even managed to keep the tone of the short story by Hemingway.  The Killers was the only movie adapted from his work that the author liked.   Papa, though, would have been aware of its flaws. As an insurance investigator, Reardon has duties well beyond his pay grade. He integrates himself into the police force, gives orders to bureaucrats who should tell him to go away, and has shootouts with gangsters. The weakest scene in the movie involves hiding stolen jewellery in a bowl of soup. The idea that Kitty Collins could be arrested for wearing a brooch that happens to be stolen is nonsense. The policeman rinses the soup stained brooch in a cup of black coffee. Somehow that moment sums up the movie.   If there are weak moments, artistic redemption is only ever a few minutes away.

The glories can be cherished. We watch a flashback of the payroll robbery as the boss of Reardon reads a newspaper account of what happened. The single high overhead shot shows men going into work, the actual robbery and the escape into waiting cars when a policeman is killed. The smooth and remote role of the camera is not just impressive but important. The episode or event exists now as an isolated memory.  The notion that the past is fractured and unreliable is emphasised by the eleven-part flashback structure. Some characters even have more than one flashback, and the revelations are often given by unreliable narrators.  Blinkie tells his tale when he is close to death and rambling. Charleston is drunk and sentimental when he remembers his friendship with the Swede. Their accounts are not barriers to the truth. The camera of Siodmak exists as an independent force and it both edits and amplifies what the characters say.


Nothing in The Killers is as good as the opening scene. The wide-angle deep focus shot of the gangster behind the diner window is almost as great as the dialogue of Hemingway. The payroll robbery, though, comes close. The voice over makes it clear that what happens is beyond the imaginations of the insurance men. The final shootout between the gangsters and police is not as good but the music makes it memorable.  We hear a frantic and strange jazz piano. Reardon escapes death but he has witnessed chaos rather than defeated villains. The music, like the short pre-credits sequence, was in 1946 revolutionary.  Siodmak was a jazz fan, and in the earlier film noir Phantom Lady he created one of the best jazz musical sequences in cinema. The Killers also has a great hard-hitting theme tune that must have inspired Elmer Bernstein and others.


And if that is not enough, there is gang member Dum Dum Clarke.   Jack Lambert is the actor who plays Dum Dum. There is a physical resemblance between Lambert and popular Liverpool comedian John Bishop. The two men have a similar manner and way of talking. They both have the confidence of outsiders, those men and women who know that their presence puts others on edge. When Lambert and Bishop talk it as if they are waiting for the words to roll off the edges of their tongues. They act like men whose next step will even be a surprise for them. While all that happens they give you a condescending look. Lambert is perfect as the damaged, wary but still superior Dum Dum. He is so good that George Kennedy impersonated Lambert in the 1960 movie Charade.


The Killers is designed to entertain and it succeeds but there is a cynicism that suggests more than mere fatalism about human nature. Money is important in the world of The Killers.  The Swede is a boxer but breaks his hand. The reaction of his fight manager is that the accident will cost him $10,000. The fight manager consoles himself with the idea that he will find another fighter who will earn him his lost income.   The policeman who is a friend of the Swede suggests a job in the police. He quotes the salary and pension rights. The robbers view the other gang members as people who will earn them money.  The boss of Reardon explains how the insurance business operates. The explanation is meant as a motivational message but at the end of the film we discover that the success of insurance investigator Reardon will have no impact on the fortune of the company and its customers.

People are there to be used. In the final scene Collins pleads to her husband not to die and ‘come back’. Her desire is that she will be able to use him to fake her innocence. When the Swede walks home after his boxing defeat, he walks into a tunnel of light where he disappears. The camera shot is marvellous and it indicates the kind of moment that Proust described as a small death.   In The Killers death and rebirth are defined as those moments when we change how we earn money.  Reardon, of course, is dedicated to his job, which is to collect money for the insurance company.   Kitty uses various lies to persuade the Swede to betray the gang but her offer consists of money and her. This is a romance that consists of two people who can be bought and who set out to buy each other. When Kitty sings a song about love, she forgets the words in the verses and hums the tune.  Her mystery is rooted in ice-cold avarice.


The Killers is now over 70 years old. Since then we have had books about how first the market became monetised, how only profit could determine business decisions, and later how society itself was being shaped by monetary decisions. All decisions including how we treat people had to be determined by profit and the return from capital. Think of it that way, and it becomes obvious why in the USA the subprime crisis was allowed to happen and why financial executives ignored toxic debt. In the UK we have a Government that believes the NHS should exist as a business that will yield profits and income streams to their plutocratic friends rather than provide care for the sick.  Not everyone who watches The Killers will think the long-standing corruption in human behaviour is sourced by a twisted relationship with cash.   But if what happens in the film is nothing more than a consequence of flawed human nature, our reliance on money to make moral decisions is only making a bad situation worse.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   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.










USA 1964


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.

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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.