How many times do you need to say Kill! In a movie title if you want to stress that it is about murder on an international scale? Apparently the distributors of this 1971 oddity were uncertain about that so they created various poster versions for the global market that ranged from four emphatic Kills! to a succinct single Kill! for promotional purposes. They covered all their bases but forgot to identify a target audience for this chaotic, frenzied and wildly improbable mash-up that freebases elements from conspiracy thrillers, secret agent exploits and sexual melodramas with a political agenda. Of course, you wouldn’t expect anything less from author-turned-filmmaker Romain Gray whose only other directorial effort was the pretentious art house mega-bomb Birds in Peru (1968), which starred his wife Jean Seberg as a suicidal nymphomaniac in the Caribbean.
There is certainly no shortage of bad films in the world but occasionally you come across one that is so spectacularly overwrought that it achieves a kind of hypnotic splendor. Kill! certainly fills the bill in this regard but besides the stunned disbelief and unintentional laughter it provokes, the film also exerts a perverse fascination due to Seberg’s participation.
Even though Seberg and Gray were already divorced when they filmed Kill!, biographer David Richards (in Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story) stated that the actress needed to work again, almost as a form of therapy, to combat her deep depression over losing a daughter from a miscarriage. This unfortunate occurrence was blamed on the FBI for the extreme duress and harassment Seberg was subjected to over her involvement with the Black Panther party.
Just a year earlier the actress was at the peak of her Hollywood career with major roles in Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Airport (1970) but Kill! represents a badly timed commercial failure which hastened her downward slide on a professional and personal level. And her co-stars James Mason, Stephen Boyd, Curd (aka Curt) Jurgens don’t fare any better either.
Boyd and Mason, in fact, were both in career slumps at the time. Boyd, once a major Hollywood player (Ben-Hur, Billy Rose’s Jumbo), was mainly working in Europe at this point in B-movies that received little or no U.S. distribution like Osvaldo Civirani’s Il diavolo a sette facce (1971, aka The Devil Has Seven Faces) and Giuseppe Rosati’s spaghetti western, Campa carogna…la taglia cresce (1973). Mason was in a similar situation, having to accept almost any role that could meet his fee due to an expensive divorce and alimony from his first wife Pamela Mason. Unlike Boyd who died much too young at 45 without ever regaining his A-picture status, Mason transitioned easily into character parts with late career triumphs in Murder by Decree (1979), Stephen King’s made-for-TV horror epic Salem’s Lot (1979), Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Verdict (1982), and The Shooting Party (1985).
Kill! is worth seeing alone just for the eccentric casting of Mason, Seberg, Boyd and Jurgens in the same movie together. As for a brief summation of the plot, Interpol agent Alan Hamilton (Mason) is assigned by his boss Grueningen (Jurgens) to locate and bring down the organization’s number one drug czar and nemesis, Cremona (Mauro Parenti). Hamilton’s mission takes him to Pakistan but his wife Emily insists on joining him and quickly ends up over her head in a convoluted series of events that involve a manic, homicidal ex-New York City cop (Boyd) and various double agents and assassins. In different hands, Kill! might have been a first class genre film for mainstream audiences but would it have been as entertainingly bad as what Gary delivers? The central premise is a compelling one and addresses the complications, corruption and failures of the international war on drugs, which is just as topical today. But instead of a realistic approach, Gary opts for a lurid comic book surrealism with nihilistic overtones and far too many turncoat characters which end up generating a sense of total confusion instead of a paranoid edginess. And various plot threads such as a disintegrating marriage (based on Gary and Seberg?) and a torrid affair (well, maybe not torrid but definitely sweaty) are equally overwrought in their depictions.
At the time of the film’s production, Gary discussed why he was drawn to the project: “For me, drugs are the most terrifying means of abasement today. Drug traffickers are the worst sort of assassins. Since I can’t kill them myself, I’ll kill them in the movies.” He also boasted, “It’s an artistic thriller in the sense that I aim to raise the level of the genre. It’s also an action film set in a strange, almost poetic environment” (from The Films of Jean Seberg by Michael Coates-Smith and Garry McGee). While Gary failed to raise the level of the genre as he wished, he did succeed in creating a one-of-a-kind pop culture curio which is distinguished by:
1) The bizarre appearance of blues legend Memphis Slim who pops up occasionally as the entertainer/M.C. of a nightclub straight out of a Jess Franco film
2) A handful of cult European supporting actors such as the gaunt, malevolent looking Daniel Emilfork (The Devil’s Nightmare, Subversion) and “The Italian Peter Lorre” Luciano Pigozzi aka Alan Collins (Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory, Blood and Black Lace, Sabata)
3) An addictive, hyperactive theme song “Kill Them All!” composed by Berto Pisano and Jacques Chaumont with lyrics by Romain Gary and performed by soul singer Doris Troy
4) A consistently disorienting mise-en-scene (Arabian sheiks on trampolines is a recurring visual motif)
5) Dialogue that is both hard-boiled as in detective pulp fiction and flippant in the mocking manner of a James Bond film. For example:
Emily: “Death is a big joke with you, isn’t it?”
Brad: “Sure, there’s nothing more satisfying than a job well done.”
Alan (to his wife upon meeting her at the airport): “This is a matter of life or death and I don’t want you to use it as an excuse for sightseeing.” (This is the day AFTER her disastrous self-guided tour of the country’s sinister backroads).
Emily: “You can’t kill them all Brad.”
Brad (spitting): “I’m not looking for perfection.”
6) Exotic locales such as Tunisia, Madrid and Alicante on Spain’s Costa Brava as stand-ins for Pakistan. When Gary completed Kill!, he chose Marseilles for the world premiere since the French port was a well known center for the international drug trade. The film was poorly received by most film critics and was not a success in France or anywhere else (It was barely distributed in the U.S.). The below review samples are indicative of the movie’s polarizing effect.
“Gary’s direction is often lurid, focusing on cripples, beggars, blood and ugliness. His stage of action is confusing while his arty cutaways to associate images don’t succeed in supplying psychological complexity.” – The Hollywood Reporter
“Romain Gary, writer of repute and budding film maker, has surpassed himself. Les Oiseaux font mourir au Pérou was already a work amusing in its pretentious pointlessness. With Kill all the records have been broken; the film is so absurd it’s hilarious.” – La Revue du cinéma
“If it were a question of some little film from one of these ‘sub’ directors, purveyors of scandal, exploiters of eroticism and sadistic violence, one would pass it by in silence. But Kill has been written and directed by one of our best writers, Romain Gary…And yet the result is a film full of mad ideas, incredible scenes, crazy images, extravagant characters.” – France-soir
“Gary’s direction is sometimes flagging, but good in action scenes and film has a sense of humor that keeps it from falling into coyness and viciousness for its own sake.” – Variety
James Mason voiced his regrets for making Kill! but admitted that he took the role because of a long-standing friendship with Gary (He had previously turned down a part in Birds of Peru that was given to Pierre Brasseur). Mason said, “It was not a film the making of which I cherish. The scenes were not terribly real, and Alicante is hardly the most agreeable spot on earth. After a while one found oneself wondering, ‘How long is this going on?”
Seberg was disappointed about her involvement as well, stating, “What Romain didn’t realize when he wrote it was that the girl is almost perpetually in a state of fear and terror, so she tends to stay rather on the same pitch all the way through.” For her nude sex scenes with Boyd, a body double was used. It has to be said that there is zero chemistry between Boyd and Seberg and when she was first informed that he would be her leading man in Kill!, she reportedly said, “Ick!”
Gary blamed part of the film’s failure on his producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, who kept pressuring him to beef up the exploitation elements after viewing rushes. He’d receive notes from them that would request “more blood and tits.” Gary also accused film critics of missing the intentional black humor that lurked beneath the surface of Kill! The movie also had the bad luck to open at the same time as The French Connection to which it was unfavorably compared. Ilya Salkind later admitted, “Whatever hopes we had for it were dashed. The picture turned out to be bad, extremely bad.”
But what is one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and Kill! should appeal to those who worship at the alter of Robot Monster, Glen or Glenda?, The Oscar and other cinematic pariahs. Paced and edited like a drug addict’s mood swings between uppers and downers, Kill! has a hallucinatory quality which yields a number of moments that will make you hit the rewind button.
Here are some of the most memorable scenes:
The blatant anti-drug messaging of the opening montage jumps from one newsreel clip to another with grim footage of a pre-teen O.D. victim and a stoned-out-of-her-mind addict with abscesses on her arms and legs, all of which is being screened for a room of Interpol agents from a 16mm projector.
For her first appearance in the film, Jean Seberg is seen wearing a black Afro wig, dressed in African fashions and listening to jungle sounds on the record player as her husband (James Mason) returns home from hunting with a dead duck. Is this Gary’s response to his former wife’s involvement with black activists? The mood quickly changes and soon Jean is brandishing a shotgun and shooting up knickknacks on the shelves of their Geneva, Switzerland home. “We have a nice peaceful life,” she complains bitterly, “and it’s driving me up the wall.” “Yes, I can see that,” Mason says dryly as he pours himself a stiff drink.
After arriving in Pakistan a day before her husband’s arrival, Jean decides to go sightseeing on her own in a flashy convertible. Bad mistake. She gets lost at night on a jungle road and stumbles into the dense forest to find help. When she encounters a group of tribesmen around a campfire, she is unable to communicate with them and returns to her car which now has a dead man in the back seat with a knife sticking out of him. She flees in terror, encounters another knifing victim emerging from the woods, returns to her car, takes off and then is startled by the surprise appearance of Stephen Boyd in her back seat. She stops the car and flees again. This entire sequence is just as bewildering and frantic as Jean’s behavior and a good example of the film’s failure to sustain disbelief or establish Jean as a woman of intelligence.
Stephen Boyd as a crazed anti-drug assassin goes for broke in an over-the-top performance that is convincingly deranged, thanks to his feral appearance; unshaven, constantly sweating, dressed in brown leather pants and the same filthy shirt for most of the film. His interrogation scene of Jean is filmed like a LSD freakout with the camera spinning around wildly as she asks of no one in particular, “What is this nightmare?” (It’s called a Romain Gary film and you’re the star!) Then the tables turn and Jean starts interrogating Boyd with a series of repetitive questions that become a mantra and recalls the worst excesses of a David Mamet play – “Who are those men you killed?”…”Why did you kill them?”…”What’s your name?”…”Why did you kill those men?” The scene ends when Boyd ties them both together with rope and flings their bodies onto a bed. Crazy, man, crazy.
Memphis Slim performs a bluesy number called “Kill” in what looks like a combination disco/sauna, surrounded by nude women and mannequins. He later appears at a club screening of a porno film in which a woman and a dog are the main attraction (we only see the audience reactions).
There is a long, elaborate car chase sequence that unfolds like a demonstration of a Rube Goldberg invention as the cars encounter increasingly absurd obstacles before culminating in a fiery crash that sets off a series of gas explosions…and then a second car chase begins.
[Spoiler Alert] The final sequence of Kill! might be the most insane of all with James Mason, Boyd and Seberg armed with machine guns mowing down scads of drug dealers in a slow-motion Peckinpah homage. In the midst of this, a mortally wounded Mason has visions of the bullet-ridden mobsters bouncing up and down on trampolines (yes, that again). There are other moments of inspired lunacy but I will leave that for your own research. Unfortunately, you will have some trouble tracking down Kill! on DVD. It is only available domestically in gray market versions but I was able to procure a good quality copy from European Trash Cinema (http://www.eurotrashcinema.com/); you’d better move fast on that option because the owner is closing up shop by the end of the year. Otherwise, you might be able to find an all-region DVD of the film with English subtitle and language options from European sources.
Other links of interest: