Sam Peckinpah’s THE KILLER ELITE (1975)

Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) sounds like a winner on paper:  James Caan and Robert Duvall in a revenge thriller/spy movie?  The film’s first forty minutes place the film on an extremely strong foundation.  The two spies extract a target for the C.I.A. and celebrate with a night of booze and women (there’s a superb shot of Caan doing push-ups that is framed by a woman’s thigh– highlighting Peckinpah’s view of women for better and for worse).  The next day, Duvall kills the target and turns on his partner, shooting him in the knee and the elbow.  Caan spends the next act in physical rehabilitation (it’s like a prequel to Misery), trying to adapt to his handicap (karate with a cane!),  and stewing for Duvall.

Unfortunately, the next two acts lose all the momentum that Peckinpah establishes in the first 40 minutes.  It becomes a convoluted spy story; rather than cross-cut and establish a duel between the two characters, Duvall disappears for almost an hour.  The personal and vividly realized conflict is thrown completely out the window.  According to the informative commentary track with Nick Redman, Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, the script was a mess and Peckinpah and his screenwriters were making things up as they went along.  While the film features some of Peckinpah’s trademark action sequences, they seem to be devoid of much meaning and originality (one feels like an overt rehash of the opening scene of The Wild Bunch).   One of the final set pieces obviously influenced The Usual Suspects (1995)– complete with a sociopathic sniper– but that’s really the most one can say about this mess.

James Caan and Robert Duvall in Sam Peckinpah's KILLER ELITE

Like most Twilight Time releases, this is a solid HD package.  The transfer of Killer Elite is grainy and clear, the participants on the commentary are completely aware of the film’s messy construction (which makes for a pretty amusing listen), and a short featurette contextualizes the film with regard to Peckinpah’s life and career.

However, the real gem in this set– and the reason that you should seek it out– is the home video debut of Peckinpah’s television film Noon Wine (1966).  An anthology program starring Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, Noon Wine deals with a dairy farmer lost in a web of murder and self-deceit.  It’s a fantastic short film that features superb performances and a tight structure about the nature of truth and selfishness and helped Peckinpah transition into feature film production (it also gained him his only DGA Director Award nomination). Noon Wine was televised once and was long thought to be lost to the general public (ABC had thrown the negative away, a few archives had copies) and Twilight Time has secured the rights to a tape copy of the episode.

Obviously, given the source and the fact that the film was shot on a both film and early video equipment, the AV presentation isn’t exactly demo quality. However, it’s a small miracle that we have this treatment (which features another commentary by Redman, Seydor, and Simmons) of what might now become canonized as one of Peckinpah’s best films.

The Killer Elite is available as a limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is only available through online retailers Screen Archives Entertainment and TCM Shop.

About Drew Morton 39 Articles

Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication. While his students call him “Doctor” or “Dr. Drew,” he is unable to help people suffering from medical ailments (he can only prescribe films) or from sexual dysfunction (although he can be quick with a double entendre). His film criticism has appeared in Cultural Transmogrifier, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Pajiba.

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