Personal to Private to Killer
Opening in New York 41 years ago tomorrow, director Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) – prescient in its themes of moral corruption and malevolent unlawful activity in high places during that decade’s outburst of paranoiac thrillers – nonetheless fell victim to bad marketplace timing. The storyline of the James Caan/Robert Duvall action tale about CIA-deployed assassins fit the times, as the Pulp Serenade website essayist Cullen Gallagher writes: “The plot is a strange mixture of ’70s cinematic trends (political paranoia, martial arts action, and urban thriller) with Peckinpah’s characteristic concerns about the culture of violence, the bonds of masculine friendships and anachronistic characters who have outlived their time….Like the children toying with the scorpion as it is devoured by ants during the opening of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah presents a social order in the throws of chaos. Off-balance with a perverse sense of justice, it isn't clear who the hero or villain is, what is right or wrong, where one should go or if one should stay put. In The Killer Elite, snipers could be on any roof, ninjas around any corner, bombs under any car. Your partner could be your enemy, your boss your enemy's boss. And your mission, your purpose for living, might not mean a damn thing.” Intriguing, but perhaps not the first choice for moviegoers during the year-end holidays and just shortly after the fall release of the more slickly executed and similarly themed Three Days of the Condor. And in the estimation of certain critics, who found more to celebrate in the more polished and intricate craft of the likes of Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to scrutinize that year, The Killer Elite felt too off-the-cuff, unwieldy and unfocused, despite its effective and frequently exciting use of San Francisco area locations and a strong supporting cast that included Arthur Hill, Mako, Burt Young, Bo Hopkins and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia veterans Gig Young and Helmut Dantine. Someone who took The Killer Elite’s desultory reception particularly hard was a staunch Peckinpah partisan, critic Pauline Kael, who published one of her most memorable blends of appraisal and championing in The New Yorker’s January 12, 1976 issue, entitled Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah – The Killer Elite. Proposing that “his new film…is set so far inside his fantasy-morality world that it goes beyond personal filmmaking into private filmmaking,” she assesses “there are so many elisions in The Killer Elite that it hardly exists on a narrative level, but its poetic vision is all of a piece. This film is intensely, claustrophobically exciting, with combat scenes of martial-arts teams photographed in slow motion and edited in such brief cuts that the fighting is nightmarishly concentrated – almost subliminal. Shot by Phil Lathrop in cold, five-o’clock shadow green-blue tones, the film is airless – an involuted, corkscrew vision of a tight, modern world.” She went on to blast the film’s handlers with both barrels: “Peckinpah was forced to trim The Killer Elite to change its R rating to a PG. Why would anyone want a PG-rated Peckinpah film? The answer is that United Artists, having no confidence in the picture, grabbed the chance to place it in 435 theatres for the Christmas trade; many of those theaters wouldn’t have taken it if it had an R and the kids couldn’t go by themselves. The film was flung into those neighborhood houses for a quick profit, without benefit of advance press screenings or the ad campaign that goes with a first-run showing. Increasingly, his films have reflected his war with the producers and distributors, and in The Killer Elite this war takes its most single-minded form.” If the scrappy and single-mindedly personal The Killer Elite is not a prime exemplar of an all-cylinders-firing Peckinpah perennial, consider that its Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray presentation is top-notch, available here – http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27855/THE-KILLER-ELITE-1975-NOON-WINE-1966/ – and boasting a warts-and-all Peckinpah experts Audio Commentary, a revelatory making-of featurette, a comprehensive promotional materials gallery and a particularly stellar extra, the rarely seen Peckinpah-helmed and -adapted 1966 TV movie of Katharine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine (in standard-def) starring Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland, Theodore Bikel and Per Oscarsson. There’s no bad timing ever involved in checking out TT’s disc or Kael’s readily accessible and anthologized full piece.