Originally intended to be a television movie, THE KILLERS was deemed too violent for network broadcast. So the studio went ahead and gave the film a theatrical release. I don't have a clue if the movie had any success at the box office. With it's start studded cast I bet it did alright for 1964. And probably had longevity in the drive-in and grindhouse circuit.
By today's standards the film would be considered not very violent. However, the opening is still pretty dark and brutal in terms of tone. Two hitmen burst into a school for the blind and kill their mark. They get rough with the receptionist (who is blind) to get information. And they kill the target in broad daylight. For the rest of the picture the violence is pretty tame, but THE KILLERS holds up nicely as a tough guy movie .
Murder usually ain't no thing to a hitman, but Charlie (Lee Marvin) can't seem to shake the thought that the target just stood there and died willingly? So Charlie and his partner decide to backtrack and find out why they were hired to kill the man.
It turns out that the contract was once a professional race car driver who got wrapped up with a crime boss because of a woman. The driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes) falls in love with Sheila (Angie Dickinson) but gets double crossed by her fella Jack (Ronald Reagan), the crime boss.
Charlie and his partner Lee put the pieces together by talking/interrogating several friends and business partners of Johnny and Jack respectively. All their information and clues lead to a dramatic conclusion leading them to Sheila and Jack.
I won't spoil the ending but the movies final shot is one of the best death scenes in cinema! It's for sure now one of my favorites anyways!
So the set-up and story in THE KILLERS is nothing new, even for 1964. The original film from 1946 was also mostly told in flashbacks. Both movies play like a detective story. But in that film the main character solving the mystery was a insurance claims investigator.
What I think is so cool about the 64' version is that the hitmen are playing detectives. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play these two so cool that there has to be a little inspiration for PULP FICTION hidden somewhere!
If you are a Lee Marvin fan, I highly recommend the movie. It's some of his best work! Other than that, you could probably take a pass on this one.
The film that I ended up liking more was the original from 1946, staring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and directed by Richard Siodmak. Both versions are available as a double feature on the Criterion Collection. Which if you are a fan of film is the way to go!