Don Siegel was one of the key directors in the undervalued period of American cinema that took place just before the New Hollywood palette cleanser. His 1964 effort The Killers is pure pulp bliss; a testosterone-driven comic book noir that simmers with violent intent. It’s the second Hollywood adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story and, while Robert Siodmark’s 1946 version is more faithful to the source material, Siegel’s rendition is arguably more interesting for exposing the surprising proximity between Hemingway’s unadorned minimalism and the hard-boiled rat-a-tat of a cheap novel.
The titular killers in question are Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager), two men who are paid by a mystery individual to take out a hit on former drag racer Johnny North (actor and director John Cassavetes). While Lee is impulsive and sadistic, Charlie – the older of the pair – is more reflective and wants to learn the reason they were paid to kill North, and why he didn’t run. The story is told in flashbacks that gradually unfold as they visit a variety of individuals connected with Johnny. The path appears to lead to shady criminal Jack Browning (future US president Ronald Regan) and North’s former flame Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). What stands out most in Siegel’s The Killers is its unfaltering commitment to pulp fiction.
From the garish colour scheme to the bas-fonds criminality, the worn, recycled feel works beautifully. It’s a quintessential American crime story that picks and scavenges from the noir aesthetic but purposefully avoids the genre’s ingrained postwar anxieties. The picture is entirely focused on narrative and aesthetics; the former moves briskly and loudly while the latter is built on the pop-cult iconography of girls, guns and cars. This devil-may-care breeziness results in a hugely enjoyable and propulsive picture – wider resonance be damned. It’s ironic that a film so emblematic of a certain type of American crime cinema was initially made for television, but the violent content pushed it towards a theatrical release.
Like much of Siegel’s work, the violence here is swift and uncompromising. For the men that populate his films, whether policeman, soldiers or hitmen, it’s a vocation, and is dispensed with as such. One can always feel Siegel’s distance; there’s the sense of a man not so much enjoying the myriad misadventures in front of him as viewing them as frivolous inevitabilities in a world gone wrong. The resulting nonchalance is where his pictures find their masculine force and cool edge. People may point to Godard’s Bande à part (1964) as a key influence on Pulp Fiction (1994), but the truth is that Tarantino’s stylised vision of criminality starts and ends with films like The Killers.