The Killers 1964 lobby card set image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
Producer-director Don Siegel and Universal Pictures brought The Killers to movie theaters in 1964. Ronald Reagan plays a ruthless crime boss, with Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as a pair of vicious contract killers.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers
The Killers is loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. “The Killers” first appeared in the book Men Without Women, published in 1927.
In 1946, producer Mark Hellinger and Universal Pictures brought Papa Hemingway’s The Killers to the silver screen. The movie starred Burt Lancaster as an ex-boxer who is snuffed out by two hired killers played by Charles McGraw and William Conrad.
The Killers 1964 Remake
Donald Siegel produced and directed 1964’s The Killers for Revue Studios. Gene L. Coon and an uncredited Siegel wrote the violent screenplay, with John Williams and Fred Steiner creating the original music score and Richard L. Rawlings serving as cinematographer.
The movie’s theme song, “Too Little Time,” with music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Don Raye, is performed by cool hipster Nancy Wilson at a nightclub.
Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan Head The Killers Cast
Lee Marvin (Charlie Strom), Angie Dickinson (Sheila Farr), John Cassavetes (Johnny North) and Ronald Reagan (Jack Browning) head the cast. Other players include Clu Gulager (Lee), Claude Akins (Earl Sylvester), Norman Fell (Mickey Farmer), Virginia Christine (Miss Watson), Don Haggerty (Mail Truck Driver), Kathleen O’Malley (Receptionist), Robert Phillips (George), Burt Mustin (Elderly Man), Richard Lane (Demolition Derby Announcer), Ted Jacques (Gym Assistant) and Don Siegel (Cook at Diner).
The Killers marked the final big screen appearance of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), whose Hollywood film career had started in 1937 with Love Is on the Air. “When Universal asked me to play a gangster in the remake of The Killers, my instinct was to say no,” Reagan wrote in his 1990 autobiography, Ronald Reagan: An American Life. ”But I’m afraid they took advantage of an actor’s ego.”
Although The Killers did mark the end of Reagan’s career on the silver screen, the future President did appear in seven dramatic episodes of TV’s Death Valley Days in 1965. The last segment, “A City Is Born” (10/22/65), featured Reagan in the role of Charles Poston.
The Killers Filmed in California
The Killers was filmed at Universal City in 1963, with Toluca Lake in Los Angeles and Riverside International Raceway employed for on-location shooting. The latter was used to great background effect, serving as the locale where Angie Dickinson meets speed king John Cassavetes.
As originally conceived, The Killers was intended as a two-hour TV pilot titled Johnny North. But when NBC deemed the movie too violent for television, the picture was repackaged and released to theaters instead.
The Killers did experience a few problems during production. The November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy halted filming. In deference to the other cast members, most of whom were Democrats, born-again Republican Ronald Reagan politely refrained from discussing politics once production resumed.
The Killers: Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager Hit Men
The Killers opens with two contract killers, Charlie and Lee, making their way to the Sage Home of the Blind. Inside, the two hoods ask for a Jerry Nichols, later filling him with lead from their silenced pistols.
After fulfilling their $25,000 murder contract, Charlie and Lee discuss the hit during a train ride. Jerry Nichols was actually Johnny North, a former race car driver who was involved in a million-dollar armored car robbery in California. The two killers decide to pursue the mystery further, heading down to Miami where they hope to confront North’s partner, Earl Sylvester.
In flashback form, Sylvester relates the story, beginning with North’s first meeting with a woman named Sheila Farr. Johnny and Sheila become “close,” but when Johnny discovers that his new doll is really crime boss Jack Browning’s girl, he sends her away.
Charlie and Lee later track down the principals involved in the armored car heist. A mortally wounded Charlie finds Sheila and Jack Browning at home, where Browning is unloading bundles of cash from a wall safe. Charlie disposes of Browning with a shot to the stomach, with a tearful Sheila begging for her life.
“Lady, I don’t have the time,” an unmoved Charlie declares. He then fires a single shot, killing the scheming Sheila. Charlie staggers out the door, bleeding profusely and carrying the briefcase full of cash. When a police car pulls up, Charlie collapses, dying on the front lawn as the mail truck money spills out in front of him.
The Killers Premieres in New York City
The Killers premiered in New York City on July 7, 1964.
“Uninspired remake of the old yarn. Barely a trace of the original Hemingway…Ronald Reagan fails to crash convincingly through his good-guy image in his portrayal of a ruthless crook,” reported Variety (5/27/64).
“…Angie Dickinson is all woman as the femme fatale and Lee Marvin plays one of the killers with laconic authority. John Cassavetes is merely dull, Ronald Reagan ill at ease, and a newcomer, Clu Gulager overdoes the companion killer role. Hemingway is the victim in all of this,” observed Eugene Archer in The New York Times (7/18/64).
The Killers, to use the film’s own vernacular, is a real gas to watch. The movie features a jazzy music score, hip language, inventive camera angles and some real, over-the-top performances. The latter come from Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, two Blues Brothers-type hit men clad in dark suits and sunglasses who come out smoking. Marvin is at his usual sinister best, with Gulager not far behind as the breathless Lee, his partner in murder who likes to gargle with whiskey.
Of special note is Ronald Reagan’s final movie performance before he found a new calling in politics. It’s certainly not Reagan’s best role, but the 53-year-old actor does his best, getting into the spirit of things by calling leggy Democrat Angie Dickinson “Baby” several times.
Conservative Republicans, Reagan Democrats and other supporters of “The Gipper” who later blasted Hollywood for violent content apparently never tuned into Ronald Reagan’s final motion picture. Had they done so, they would have witnessed Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager slapping around a blind receptionist, shooting up a home for the blind, torturing Norman Fell in a steam cabinet and dangling the unfortunate Angie Dickinson from a seventh story window.
Now, why the hell can’t they make good family values movies like this anymore?
The Killers Trivia, DVD
- Officially titled Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, the 1964 remake bears little resemblance to Papa’s original story.
- The Killers, according to Ronald Reagan, “didn’t ring many bells at the box office.”
- Virginia Christine – the blind receptionist Lee Marvin knocks around in the film – played Lilly Lubinksy in the 1946 version.
- Johnny North is offered $100,000 to drive the getaway car.
- When Ronald Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes retaliates with a punch to “The Gipper’s” jaw.
- The two contract killers find Angie Dickinson in room 725.
- On DVD: The Killers – Criterion Collection (2003).
“I approve of larceny. Homicide is against my principles,” Ronald Reagan declares.
Good advice, especially for a future politician…