Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ronald Reagan in The Killers

Ronald Reagan would have been 105 today.

One of the most inaccurate characterizations of Reagan was that he was a "B-movie actor." He was actually quite an A-list performer for most of his career. His biographer, Paul Kengor noted:
By the 1940s, he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood and received more fan mail than any actor at Warner Brothers except Errol Flynn.
His later career was somewhat harmed by his politics. Though he was at the time an FDR style liberal, as the President of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1947-52 he forcibly opposed Communist infiltration in the union and the industry--a politically incorrect stance among the media elite.

In "The Gipper on the Silver Screen," a 2004 article for National Review Online, S. T. Karnick neatly chronicles Reagan's film career. But I want to talk a little about his final movie role in the great noir crime drama The Killers (1964). Interestingly, it was the only time he played a villain.

The Killers was a quasi-remake of the 1946 film of the same name, which was in turn loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway story. Though the original was a good film, the remake was superior, with fine acting by Reagan, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes and the wonderful Clu Gulager.

The story is on the surface a bleak one with every character morally compromised in some way. Appropriately, the two professional killers of the title--Marvin and Gulager --though thoroughly amoral, are perhaps the most sympathetic or at least the most interesting. Marvin's fatherly guidance to Gulager is priceless. Reagan plays a gangster with a taste for betrayal who poses as a legitimate businessman. Dickinson is the utterly dishonest and murderously selfish gold digger. And Cassavetes is the naively besotted patsy. The film is hugely enjoyable and entertaining.

Reagan has a number of great scenes.

In this one he gives Dickinson what she arguably richly deserves (given her subsequent behavior), though in the dramatic context it was probably done out of jealously. Apparently Reagan regretted doing this scene. While I would agree that it is never appropriate to strike a woman, if any fictional female character in movie history ever did merit it, it is "Sheila Farr."

And here is the final death scene, where three out of the four main characters--played by Reagan, Dickinson and Marvin--perish in the space of three minutes. (The Cassavetes character died at the beginning of the film, but he appears in flashbacks.)

Marvin is the mortally wounded assassin who must carry out his final task. Losing blood is arguably similar to being drunk, and apparently Marvin was drunk during the filming of the scene to the point where the director almost told him to go home. Luckily he didn't. It works brilliantly.

But Reagan's understated performance rivals Marvin's physically dramatic one. "Jack Browning" is at his safe, quickly putting money in a bag, trying to outrace Marvin and the police.

I love the way Reagan looks at Dickinson as she attempts her final betrayal. "There she goes again," he notes with his eyebrows.

And then he stoically looks from the silencer equipped gun pointed inexorably at him to the money in his hand and sighs. His unsaid final words: "It's only money. I almost made it, but now this is how it all ends."

Great stuff!

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

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