Movies should be judged on their own, but with remakes, it’s impossible not to compare them to the originals. And in every way (except one) the second version of The Killers is inferior to the 1946 version.
The plots are basically the same: Johnny (John Cassavetes) refuses to run from Charlie and Lee (Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager), two hitmen sent to kill him. Interested in why Johnny didn’t try to save himself — and in a million stolen dollars Johnny was somehow linked to — Charlie begins to track down people who knew the doomed man.
There are two major changes between the two films:
1) Instead of a boxer, Johnny is a race car driver. This idea is developed to explain why a non-criminal got involved in a heist, and why the robbers wanted his participation.
2) In the original Killers, the main character was an insurance investigator; in this version, it’s one of the hitmen who takes an interest in Johnny’s previous life.
In both cases, the changes streamline the plot, but they also oversimplify the film. Given that this version was originally meant for TV (before being deemed too violent), that may have been the intention.
The flashbacks that comprise most of the film are incredibly dull. When Johnny takes Sheila (Angie Dickinson) for a drive in his racing car, we’re forced to watch the entire sequence…even though the two characters don’t speak. At another point, Jack (Ronald Reagan) runs through his robbery plan; when the heist actually takes place, we get the entire thing over again, and at the same uninvolving pace.
The Killers was made in the days when a character was considered tough even if he smacked a woman. In this film, Sheila gets hit twice, while another woman gets knocked out of her chair. The latter happens off-screen, but this kind of brutality is off-putting and unnecessary. It could be argued that I’m ignoring how this sort of thing happens in real life, but from a narrative point of view, it just isn’t necessary. It’s an unwelcome leftover from earlier movies when women were slapped casually and with dismal regularity. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that The Killers wasn’t a leftover from earlier times so much as the beginning of an age when film violence against women was about to get worse.
Fans of older SF movies, like myself, learn to accept movies with lower budgets. But the cheapness of The Killers is distracting. In one scene, stock footage is used to show a car crash…and then the problem is compounded by cutting to Cassavetes staggering away in a high angle shot that’s obviously trying to avoid showing the nearby wreckage. In another scene, an actor’s shadow appears on a painted backdrop that’s suppose to be the city outside a window.
I’m not too keen to force movies into categories, but The Killers dropped the Film Noir aspect of the original version to its detriment. Gone is the atmospheric use of shadows; instead, we have a film that is so uniformly lit, it’s almost gaudy. And while a femme fatale shouldn’t follow a predictable pattern, Dickinson is neither sultry nor seductive.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare too well either. Reagan’s role as a hood simply foreshadows his performance as a future president; Norman Fell and Claude Akins, capable character actors, certainly aren’t big screen perfomers. And even Cassavetes fails to rise above the material.
The only standout, and the one way in which this version is superior to the original, is Marvin. Here, he’s at his tough guy best: restrained and cool, but always managing to project a menacing aura. Gulager provides good support as the second hitmen, but this is Marvin’s picture all the way.