Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Killer Elite (1975, Sam Peckinpah)

Like Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction, Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite is considered a minor work of a legendary director.  Both were released in 1975 to little acclaim and remain buried near the bottom of each filmmaker's oeuvre.  That said, I recently watched the Peckinpah film for the first time via Twilight Time's new Blu-ray and found myself enjoying it for the same reasons I so enjoyed The Eiger Sanction when I watched it for the first time a few years back.  Both are espionage thrillers whose pleasures have little to do with the intricacies of their main plots and everything to do with their defiantly politically incorrect attitudes, offbeat characters, said characters' interpersonal relationships, and the subsidiary story lines contained within their lengthy running times.

Given the complicated package that was Peckinpah's personal and political beliefs, it comes as little surprise that within the first ten minutes, The Killer Elite offers examples of his much-discussed skepticism of the government and his troubled and troubling relationship with women.  Onscreen text introduces us to COMTEG, the shadowy organization that agents Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) work for. COMTEG may or may not be based on reality, counts the C.I.A. as a client, and deals in the protection and / or elimination of individuals who are of special interest to foreign governments as well as our own. Locken and Hansen are partners in work and have a very close relationship outside of it, marked by both hetero competitiveness and homoerotic tension.  This is very effectively encapsulated at the start: after a successful job, Locken and Hansen enjoy a small party in their bachelor pad, which includes casually topless women, Caan impressing one of the women with his push-up prowess, and, of course, Caan bedding down said woman.

In the morning, on their way to the next part of their work assignment, Duvall taunts Caan about finding a gynecologist's note in the "chick's" pocketbook, indicating a "vaginal infection."  By way of Duvall's cackling--which turns out to be more mean-spirited than first indicated--Peckinpah appears to be poking fun at Caan's well-known reputation as an overly confident swinging dick with permanent residence at the Playboy Mansion.  After a rather surprising twist, Caan becomes a crippled dick: at close range gunshots turn his left leg into a "wet noodle" and his left arm only slightly less gimpy. It's here, in the film's best section,  that Caan loses his standing as "numero uno" in the organization, becomes the property of his nurse (Van Heflin's daughter Kate), and, in documentary-like fashion, is shown rehabbing his way back to top dog status.  Whether intentional or not, it is this digression into the seemingly quotidian, mostly removed from the film's requisite C.I.A. mumbo jumbo, where the film is at its most satisfying.  It's much the same way that Eastwood's Eiger Sanction is at its best when Clint is learning how to scale mountains with George Kennedy rather than engaging with C.I.A. spooks in the interest of spy thriller conventions.

Once this happens, the film goes into men-on-a-mission mode and becomes less interesting, despite the considerably enjoyable dual presence of Bo Hopkins as Locken's permanently Vietnam War-damaged gunman and Burt Young as his surprisingly philosophical and soft-spoken wheelman.  It is interesting that at this point in the film, as Caan gets his mojo back and loses his vulnerability, he becomes more of an asshole, type-A guy again.  Of course, because he's Caan and this is the persona that made him a star, I like him anyway. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Caan equivalent in today's Hollywood, certainly no one as hirsute and probably no one willing to be as willfully unlikable and non-cerebral--i.e. an unrepentant meathead--as Caan, as when he cooly tells dissident Mako's twenty-ish daughter (Master Gini Lau) that he "really doesn't give a shit" after she admits to being a virgin in a failed attempt at intimacy.

Caan enjoying the sun on what I believe are the grounds of the Playboy Mansion.

Given less inspired roles as the COMTEG bosses are Arthur Hill, who was previously seen to great effect in another San Francisco film of the era, Petulia, and Gig Young, rightfully seeming disinterested and, more sadly, quite visibly and audibly slowed by his debilitating alcoholism.  In addition to the aforementioned appearance of Van Heflin's daughter in one of the key female roles, Sondra Blake, ex-wife of Robert, appears as Young's disturbingly shell-shocked girlfriend--shell-shocked by what or whom, exactly, I want to know.

Peckinpah and d.p. Philip Lathrop offer numerous scenic looks at '70s San Francisco and like '70s New York films, The Killer Elite gives viewers a valuable look at an American metropolis in a now-yearned for pre-gentrified, pre-chain store form.  Perhaps my favorite sequence in the the film has Caan participating in an outdoor martial arts class in Chinatown overseen by an elderly instructor and including men and women of various ages, colors, and body types. It's one of those casually egalitarian and unpretentious scenes that appears seemingly un-staged and which belongs firmly to that moment in time.

In keeping with that '70s thing, that I never tire of talking about, this is another of those archetypal '70s PG films, so it contains: a little casual nudity (just because), some off-the-cuff drug references, an attempt at some serious political commentary, and some docu-real violence and blood (if you don't cringe a little during the ER scene at the beginning of the film, you've got ice water in your veins). And, since it was the '70s, it was violence, not the nudity, that had to be cut in order to achieve a PG rating.

A piece on The Killer Elite cannot pass without a mention of the fact that it was the last collaboration between Peckinpah and Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) who died way too young at 57 and who remains unheralded outside of film score aficionado circles. Happily, since this is a Twilight Time release, his varied score, which is at different times muscular, soaring, haunting, and dissonant, appears in isolated form on one of the audio tracks.  Also, equally noteworthy is the fact that the great Monte Hellman, in between directing gigs, edited The Killer Elite, in what was, I'm pretty sure, his only collaboration with Peckinpah.  The disc contains a transfer that looks to be pretty recent and that has not, thankfully, been digitally scrubbed, as well as a number of lovingly-curated bonus features, most notable of which is Peckinpah's rarely seen 1966 telefilm Noon Wine (which I've not had a chance to view yet).

The Killer Elite contains one of the more unorthodox director title cards that I've ever seen.  The "Directed by" text appears over some blown-up-from-16mm nature footage of a bird feeding its young--a reference to the "Peck" in the director's name?  This is followed by several more shots of the main characters carrying out their mission and then a return to the unrelated bird footage, this time with the "Sam Peckinpah" title card.


Tiffany Perez-King said...

Holy cow Ned - Now I reaaaaaallly wanna see this. I'm in. This will be my viewing for this week.

Charley Brady said...

I'm really glad I came across this -- it's a fine piece and thanks. I saw this during its release (all these years later I'm still a huge Peckinpah fan) and as a teenager had the poster on my wall, with the amusing slogan:


One minor correction: there was another collaboration between Hellman and Sam: Hellman directed him, believe it or not, in the odd western, 'China 9, Liberty 37.'

Ned Merrill said...

You're right, Charley. I'm a big fan of CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 and I forgot about Fuller's appearance in that film. Thanks for visiting!