Screen Violence

film 2 of 5

The Killers (1964)

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

Some cast. The opening sequence is, in its own fast-and-loose TV production way, as arbitrary and precipitous and horrifying as the one in the properly celebrated 1946 version. Those actual blind people, and the actual faces and auras of Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes, create a sense of real menace, and fatality. After that the menace and fatality continue unabated, and multiply unrelentingly, so that in the end menace and fatality simply turn into a pretty tiresome, pretty one-note misanthropy and brutality.

I guess the exception to that would be in the romantic interludes, which are actually ardent and effective, in a weird way. They suggest similar scenes in Peckinpah and Leone, for heaven’s sake, which means that the actual, dramatized interaction has much more to do with the flesh than with love and regard, or the H-wood conventions relating thereto. That’s actually fair, and important; let’s acknowledge and explore the desires of the flesh, and the difficulties they can get us into. Mind you, while these actual people are becoming subject to their physical impulses, the insistent musical conventions of H-wood still pretend that it’s still all springtime and blossoms. 60s cinema!

So, romantic interludes, but all eventually leading us back to that most particular and ardent of misanthropies, which is misogyny, here contrived so emphatically as to be almost hysterical. This is a pretty important and very common component of film noir; the 1946 version is, again, one of its most pungent manifestations. (Significantly, little or none of this comes from Ernest Hemingway’s original story, which is very lean and efficient. The misogyny is all in the cinematic elaboration, or opening up, or that story.) The female character as written, and the story revolving around the character as written, leads us there, almost forcing us to endorse it all. The bitch! Beware, though, or stay awake: this is all contrived so emphatically as to be almost hysterical. And inappropriate. And not without productive contradictions. The character that the superb Angie Dickenson actually creates, against the grain of noir’s gender conventions, starts to make you think or want or require different.

The aforementioned fast-and-loose TV production is actually really interesting. Here is an economic expedience, so it’s not really fair to blame anyone for it. And though it’s all on the cheap it’s still, frequently, stylish. The screenplay has something to do with that—are they channeling Citizen Kane? The Killing? Its several episodes and their conflicting, spiraling accounts more or less force us into modernist and relativist contemplation. Also, there are dramatic camera movements and effective bits of parallel montage and such. The eventual chase down that dirt road actually becomes kind of hallucinogenic—like the last part of Apocalypse Now, in fact, but so much more efficient and effective. Then again, sometimes the TV stuff is interesting because of how profoundly tacky it is. Consider the go-cart sequence, and its rear projections. This is so crazily fakey and implausible and transparently threadbare that it has to have been intentional.

After that, eventually, everyone just kills everyone.