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“I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run. Why all of a sudden he’d rather die.”

So muses hitman Charlie (Lee Marvin) after his high-priced victim Johnny North (John Cassavetes) gives in without a fight. Obsessed with the answer, Charlie and his hot-headed associate Lee (Clu Gulager) track down Johnny’s associates, and uncover a complex web of crime and deceit involving his femme fatale girlfriend Sheila (Angie Dickinson) and ruthless mob boss Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan in his last screen role).

Loosely inspired by the Ernest Hemingway story, and directed by Don Siegel (whose many other taut, efficient thrillers include Dirty Harry and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers), The Killers was commissioned as the very first ‘TV movie’, but was given a cinema release because of its violence – although a cast like that really belonged on the big screen in the first place. (Taken from the Arrow synopsis.)


Video


The Killers arrives on Blu-ray with a choice of 1.33:1 or 1.85:1 framing, encoded in the usual 1080/24p (AVC). Here are a couple of excerpts from the accompanying booklet that explain the reasoning behind the dual-ratio presentation:

Aside from showcasing Lee Marvin's career breakthrough and Ronald Reagan's last screen performance, The Killers has a place in history for being the first purpose-made American TV movie, at a time when television sets universally came in the squarish aspect ratio of 4:3 (1.33:1).

Because of this, and because its original audiences would have seen the film in widescreen, this Arrow Academy edition offers a choice of both "television" and "cinema" framings. On a modern 16:9 shaped television or monitor, the former will have thick black bars at the sides, while the latter will have black bars at the top and bottom – both are perfectly normal. Although the "television" framing will reveal more of what Siegel and Rawlings actually shot, neither version is more "correct" than the other, so which one you select is down to personal preference.


Both transfers are generally strong, with extremely vibrant colour palettes the likes of which are rarely seen in today’s pictures. The overall level of detail is also impressive, although there are a few softer shots peppered throughout. There’s also a fair amount of grain on show, some of it on the heavy side, but I’d rather have that than suffer the usual de-graining nonsense of Universal’s in-house catalogue releases. Film artefacts are periodically visible, manifesting as everything from minor nicks and scratches to vertical lines and a series of black dots that are actually quite distracting. These issues are exacerbated on the widescreen version of the film by virtue of the zooming that occurs when matting. Compositionally the widescreen version does seem a little cramped, even without a direct comparison with the original Academy ratio version, but then the beauty of this release is that you can pick your preferred version. As usual the compression is of a high standard, with no obvious issues to report.

Audio


Arrow provides a solitary uncompressed audio track for this release in the form of an LPCM 1.0 Mono effort, which delivers what is best described as an ‘authentic’ listening experience. Obviously there is no channel separation or surround effects to speak of, but the various constituents of the track are all well-represented through the single channel, with no one element overpowering the others. Fidelity is also pretty decent for a film of this age, with crisp, clear dialogue and effects. There’s not a lot of low end, but again this is to be expected given the mono source.

Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for those who need them.

Extras


The disc includes a fairly modest collection of bonus material by Arrow’s standards, but what few extras there are prove to be fairly interesting.

  • Screen Killer: interview with Dwayne Epstein, author of ‘Lee Marvin: Point Blank’
  • Reagan Kills: interview with New York Times bestselling writer Marc Eliot, author of ‘Ronald Reagan: The Hollywood Years’
  • Archive interview with Don Siegel (1984) from the French television series ‘Cinéma Cinémas’
  • Gallery of rare behind-the-scenes images
  • Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mike Sutton, extracts from Don Siegel’s autobiography and contemporary reviews, illustrated with original lobby cards
  • Reversible sleeve featuring the original poster and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh

The ‘Screen Killer: Dwayne Epstein on Lee Marvin’ interview run for around half an hour and covers a fair bit of ground. Epstein touches on things like Marvin’s the PTSD suffered by Marvin after his service in World War II, his subsequent drinking problems, and his dislike of Reagan. Obviously the runtime is too short to allow for a seriously in-depth account of Marvin’s life, but it’s still an interesting piece.

Next up is another interview entitled ‘Reagan Kills: Marc Eliot on Ronald Reagan’, which runs for around twenty minutes. The discussion focusses on Reagan’s acting career, and is quite candid about his limitations (he was never leading man material). As you might expect there is also plenty of talk about his political leanings and eventual two-term tenure as President of the United States. It’s another interesting interview that taught me a few new things.

The final interview is an archival one with director Don Siegel himself. It runs around ten minutes and was originally recorded in 1984 for France’s Cinéma Cinémas television show, and as such it has undefeatable French subtitles burnt-in to the video stream. I don’t know if Siegel just had an extremely dry sense of humour, or whether he was simply in a bad mood when this interview was shot, but he doesn’t come across as the most likeable or passionate guy. In fact, he comes across as a mercenary character who worked more for money than any love of the art form.

The final on-disc extra is a still gallery. As with their other releases, Arrow has also included a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mike Sutton, extracts from Don Siegel’s autobiography and contemporary reviews, illustrated with original lobby cards. The usual reversible sleeve is also included, offering a choice between the original and newly-commissioned artwork.

Overall


While The Killers isn’t the sort of film I’d usually gravitate towards – pictures from this era usually aren’t ‘gritty’ enough for my tastes – I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It’s still pretty tame by today’s standards (how it warrants an 18 certificate is beyond me), but its influences on people like Tarantino are readily apparent (Charlie and Lee are a sort of proto Jules and Vincent). Although not an in-house transfer, Arrow’s release is still audio-visually pleasing and includes some informative bonus content, if not quite as much as is usually found on their releases. Still, it’s sure to please fans and comes recommended.

Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

 Killers, The
 Killers, The
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 Killers, The
 Killers, The
 Killers, The
 Killers, The
 Killers, The


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