Thanks to Dwayne Epstein’s labor-of-love biography of tough-guy Lee Marvin, I’ve just spent a fascinating week with The Killers. Epstein, a veteran show biz journalist, devoted almost two decades to researching his new Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Many of the Hollywood luminaries whom Epstein interviews are, alas, now long gone. But their words help him paint a vivid picture of a man who brought to the screen the raw savagery of his real-life experiences in the jungles of World War II.
Marvin, one of Hollywood’s favorite anti-heroes, took on Marlon Brando in The Wild One, acted opposite Vivien Leigh in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, played the title character in the John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and won a Best-Actor Oscar for an outrageously comic role in Cat Ballou. As a Roger Corman alumna, I’m struck by how often Marvin crossed paths with Cormanites. He worked with early Corman protégé Monte Hellman on Avalanche Express, and starred in Sam Fuller’s gritty war drama The Big Red One, produced by Roger’s brother Gene. Long after Marvin’s death, Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers paid tribute to one of his most popular films, The Dirty Dozen.
Then there’s The Killers, which has a most unusual provenance. It began as an Ernest Hemingway short story, a mere eleven pages long, that was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. The story opens with two hired killers entering a small-town diner, looking for a loner nicknamed the Swede. When the Swede is warned by a local that his life is in danger, he shows no inclination to flee. That’s pretty much the whole story: it ends with the diner’s counter-man pondering the Swede’s mysterious situation. Nothing really happens, but the story’s ending is steeped in a sense of foreboding.
Hollywood, of course, can’t leave it at that. The 1946 version of The Killers, a classic film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, starts off just as Hemingway does. When the Swede (played by Burt Lancaster in his movie debut) hears that two thugs are after him, he grimly implies that he deserves his fate. Soon he is dead, and the rest of the film (told in intricate flashbacks) involves a cop and an insurance investigator tracking down exactly what brought him to this pass. The Swede took part in a payroll robbery, it seems, and he apparently double-crossed his partners, keeping the loot for himself. But there’s also a girl, played by the glamorous Ava Gardner. She’s got eyes for Lancaster. But her heart—who can say?
In 1964, The Killers was redone by Don Siegel as the world’s first made-for-television movie. Though the basic thrust of the plot is similar, the set-up of this full-color version is markedly different. Star Lee Marvin plays not the victim, but rather one of the killers. They ruthlessly gun down their victim (John Cassavetes), a former racecar driver who’s now teaching auto mechanics at a school for the blind. The fact that Cassavetes, though forewarned, chooses not to escape from his killers’ clutches sets Marvin to wondering about the whereabouts of the $1 million with which Cassavetes apparently absconded after a mail robbery. So he and his sidekick spend the rest of the film tracking down the rest of the robbers and figuring out who double-crossed whom. The girl in this version is the deliciously dangerous Angie Dickinson. But the big surprise is the #1 bad guy, who’s so slimy he even slugs women. Yes, it’s our 40th president, going mano à mano with the deadly Lee Marvin. Which of the two is more evil?