The Killers, sometimes marketed as Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, is a 1964 crime film directed by Don Siegel, starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan, and released by Universal Studios. The movie remains notable for being future U.S. president Reagan's last theatrical film before entering politics as well as the only one in which he plays the role of a villain.
One morning, hitmen Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) enter a school for the blind and terrorize the principal until she reveals the whereabouts of a teacher, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). As the hitmen walk toward North's upstairs classroom, the teacher receives a call warning him of their arrival. Johnny sadly responds, "It's okay. I know them." As he calmly waits at his desk, Charlie and Lee enter and shoot him multiple times.
As they are departing the town by train, Charlie admits that he is bothered that North refused to flee, and that they were paid an unusually high fee for such a simple hit. He and Lee run through what they know about the man they have just killed. Johnny was once a champion race car driver whose career ended in a violent crash. Four years before his death, he was involved in a million-dollar robbery of a mail truck. Tempted by the missing million, Charlie and Lee visit Miami to interview Johnny's former mechanic.
Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), who considers himself Johnny's only friend, is devastated to learn of his death. In between sobs and gulps of whiskey, he tells the story as he remembers it. Johnny North was at the top of his profession when he met the beautiful Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). Despite Earl's suspicions, Johnny fell deeply in love and planned to propose marriage after winning his next big race. However, Johnny's late nights with Sheila had left him disoriented from lack of sleep. As a result, his racing career ended with a fiery crash.
At the hospital, Earl revealed to Johnny that Sheila was the mistress of mob boss Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). Known for her extravagant taste, Sheila has already cheated on Browning with several other sports figures, all of whom met bad ends. Enraged and heartbroken, Johnny rebuffed Sheila's attempts to explain and cut his ties to her.
Intrigued, Charlie and Lee approach a former member of Browning's crew, who also reveals his memories. Some time after the crash, Sheila found Johnny working as a pit mechanic during another race. Although Johnny bitterly attempted to drive her away, Sheila insisted on telling him that a much better job might soon be his for the taking. Meanwhile, Browning was in the process of planning the robbery of a U.S. postal truck. On Sheila's recommendation, he agreed to take Johnny on as his getaway driver.
After Johnny refused to return her calls, Sheila called at his dilapidated tenement. Although Johnny still felt betrayed, Sheila said that she had always regretted losing him and could not live without him. Deeply moved, Johnny agreed to forgive her. He also helped Browning by souping up the getaway car.
However, Browning was deeply enraged when he learned that Sheila had returned to Johnny. In a deliberate provocation, Browning brutally slapped Sheila in front of Johnny, after she defied him. Enraged, Johnny instantly punched Browning in the face and threatened to kill him if he ever hurt Sheila again. However, they both agreed to "settle this" after the job, and went back to planning the robbery.
Browning and North placed a phony detour sign to send the mail truck onto an isolated mountain road, while Browning's other accomplices blocked the road by staging an accident. When the truck stopped, the gang held it up at gunpoint, loading more than $1 million into the getaway car. Johnny then forced Browning out of the moving car, and drove off alone with the money.
After listening to this story, Charlie and Lee pay a visit to Jack Browning, who is now a real estate developer in Los Angeles. Browning, however, insists that he is now an honest businessman and has no idea what happened to the money. He does, however, reveal that Sheila is staying at a downtown hotel and agrees to arrange a meeting with her.
To deprive Browning of time to plan an ambush, Charlie and Lee call at Sheila's hotel room several hours earlier than agreed. At first Sheila denies all knowledge of Johnny or the money. However, Charlie and Lee beat her and dangle her by the ankles out of her seventh-story window. Terrified, she agrees to tell them the truth.
The night before the robbery, she entered Johnny's room and told him that his life was in danger. Browning, she said, was planning to kill him and pocket his share of the robbery. Enraged, Johnny wanted to leave and kill Browning on the spot. Sheila, however, insisted that she had a much better idea. On her advice, Johnny threw Browning out of the car and drove off with the money. Later that night, he met with Sheila.
As the two lovers departed with the money to a nearby hotel room, they were confronted by Browning. Sheila asked Browning to "do it quickly," and the gangster shot Johnny in the torso. Although severely wounded, Johnny escaped into the night. Unable to find him, Sheila expressed fear that Johnny would cause as much trouble as his predecessors. Therefore, Browning hired Charlie and Lee to murder him.
As Sheila comes to the end of her story, Charlie understands at last why Johnny refused to flee. The only man who refuses to run is a man who considers himself to be already dead. Sheila's betrayal had already killed Johnny long before the bullets ever touched him.
Charlie and Lee, with Sheila in tow, then leave the hotel to confront Browning; but he is waiting nearby with a sniper rifle. He kills Lee and wounds Charlie.
Browning and Sheila return home. As they prepare to flee with the money, Charlie, mortally wounded, enters. Sheila, at last revealing her sociopathic nature, frantically denies any role in Johnny's death, insisting that her husband alone was responsible. Charlie calmly shoots Browning dead and turns his revolver toward Sheila. When she again pleads for her life, Charlie snarls, "Lady, I don't have the time!" He kills Sheila with a single bullet and staggers out the door. He falls dead on the lawn while still gripping the money, as a police car in the background makes its way towards the house.
- Lee Marvin as Charlie Strom, a professional killer
- Angie Dickinson as Sheila Farr, Johnny's mistress
- Ronald Reagan as Jack Browning, a gangster, now posing as a legitimate businessman
- John Cassavetes as Johnny North, the man Charlie and Lee are hired to kill
- Clu Gulager as Lee, a professional killer, Charlie's accomplice
- Claude Akins as Earl Sylvester, Johnny's best friend
- Norman Fell as Mickey Farmer, gang member and associate of Browning
- Virginia Christine as Miss Watson, the blind secretary
- Don Haggerty as Mail Truck Driver
- Robert Phillips as George Fleming, gang member and associate of Browning
- Kathleen O'Malley as Miss Leslie, the receptionist
- Ted Jacques as Gym Assistant
- Irvin Mosley as Mail Truck Guard
- Jimmy Joyce as Salesman
The Killers was Ronald Reagan's last acting role before entering politics, and the only villain role in his career. According to Kirk Douglas' autobiography The Ragman's Son, Reagan regretted doing the movie, particularly because of a scene in which he slaps Dickinson.