Ever since my biography, LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK became the all-consuming project it eventually became, the one question I get asked more than any other is “Why Lee Marvin?” My answer varies depending on the mood I’m in but the simple truth is I’m a dedicated admirer, which is something I was lucky to encounter as I settled in for the long haul. Even his first wife asked me at one point, “Aren’t you getting sick of Lee? I know I would if I were you and I was married to him.” Surprisingly, that never happened which is due in large part to the man’s truly fascinating performances.
The follow-up to ‘Why Lee?” is usually, “What’s your favorite film of his?” Which, being a fan, is akin to asking a parent to name their favorite child. Making the choice even tougher is the fact that his 4 decade long film career took many twists. I may like his brief appearance in GORILLA AT LARGE (1954) as a bumbling cop but only sat through it because I had to. There were many such appearances in Marvin’s canon of work in which his all-too-brief appearance highlights a sometimes otherwise lack luster films. He had great moments in such non-leading roles in THE WILD ONE (1953), THE BIG HEAT (1953), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955), SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), ATTACK! (1956), RAINTREE COUNTY (1957), THE COMANCHEROS (1961), DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) SHIP OF FOOLS (1965), even THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE came close but none of them can truly be called Lee Marvin movies. There were also projects that could be called Lee Marvin films but the films themselves were ultimately valiant disappointments, such as HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968), POCKET MONEY (1972), PRIME CUT (1972), DEATH HUNT (1981), and GORKY PARK (1983). So, what follows is a top ten list of my favorite Lee Marvin films in which he is always worth watching and the films themselves are worthy of his considerable talent.
I strove to be unbiased in LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK when it came to his work so the reader could judge for themselves what worked and what didn’t. Now, the gloves are off and the opinion is unbridled. Being a firm believer in building towards a conclusion, I start with the least and end with the best.
DWANYE EPSTEIN PRESENTS
THE TOP FILMS OF LEE MARVIN
10. SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955)
Let’s start with a film that really does defy description on many levels. Even the basic premise is one for the books. Most of the action takes place in the title roadside beanery owned by Keenan Wynn. Marvin is the short order cook aptly named Slob. The waitress is Terry Moore, whom every male star in the film drools over, including cowardly Whit Bissell, delivery man Len Lesser (SEINFELD’S Uncle Leo), and the local nuclear scientist (!?) Frank Lovejoy. It being the 1950s, what plot there is revolves around the possibility of one of the characters, being a…gulp…Communist Spy!
I first saw this uber-weird flick at a B-movie film festival, long before I began work on the biography and like everyone else in the audience at the time, I was slack-jawed and dumbstruck. There is nothing subtle in this little ditty, even in moments of intimacy, such as when Bissell quietly asks Wynn if he’s in love Moore. Wynn bangs his fist on the table and roars, “I’m on the hook and I can’t get off!”
Towering above all these strange proceedings is Marvin, who always seems to go for broke in his time on screen, whether comparing body parts with Wynn while working out, or playfully beating the hell out of Lesser in a macho game of one-upmanship. It ain’t Oscar material, that’s for sure, but you’ll enjoy it more than most Oscar worthy films.
9. THE KILLERS (1964)/POINT BLANK (1967)
Why two films in one? Think of it this way: one is sort of the logical extension of the other. An unofficial sequel, if you will. In the TV-movie remake of THE KILLERS, Marvin & Clu Gulager are professional hitmen –long before it became the fun-filled movie cliché it is today — trying to figure out why John Cassavetes just stands there and takes it when they riddle him with bullets. What follow is a flashback story of robbery and double crosses involving femme fatale Angie Dickinson, future president Ronald Reagan as an unlikely mob boss (his last performance before becoming a real-life mob boss in politics), and a plot summation pulled off brilliantly by Don Siegel’s direction and Marvin’s masterful acting.
In 1967’s POINT BLANK, based on the novel by Donald Westlake (a.k.a. Richard Stark) Marvin plays Walker, double-crossed and left for dead by his wife and best friend during a botched robbery on Alcatraz Island. The highly stylized direction of John Boorman takes the viewer on a journey with Walker, who has literally comes back from the dead to get what’s his.
Without giving away the ending of either film, there are enough similarities to make a strong case for the films being the seamless follow-up to each other. The styles are of course worlds apart but Marvin’s Charlie Strom in THE KILLERS and Walker in POINT BLANK are two men inhabiting the same environment in which no one can be trusted and violence is as common as breathing. Obvious flaws aside — THE KILLERS restrictive TV budget is glaringly apparent and POINT BLANK is in dire need of some tension relieving humor — if there’s any moral to be drawn at all it may be simply that Marvin is the king of such cinematic doings….that, and it’s better to have Angie Dickinson helping you than double-crossing you.
8. CAT BALLOU (1965)
After more than a decade of struggling through tough guy roles in mostly unworthy projects, Marvin climbed out of the dung heap of mediocrity to become a major star while basically parodying his previous screen roles up to that point.
Purposely filmed more like a musical than a western comedy by director Elliot Silverstein, Jane Fonda plays the title character who along with her ragtag gang (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman & Tom Nardini) elicit the aid of drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen (Marvin) to take on the evil businessmen who have forced her off her land. Their top gunman is a black clad silver-nosed killer named Tim Strawn who bears a striking likeness to Kid Shelleen….
Time has not been kind to this mid-sixties comedy which seems quaint compared to most comedies made nowadays. What has not aged a whit is Marvin’s dual performance(s). He earned an Oscar keeping the audience amused and entertained during every single frame film dedicated to his presence. Quite simply, he commits first degree robbery by stealing by being at turns hilarious and surprisingly poignant. Silverstein has said he cast Marvin instead of a major star because he didn’t think a major star would be willing to look as foolish on screen as the part demanded. A task Marvin was not only up to doing, but one he continued to do throughout his career. Take that Clint Eastwood!
7. THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973)
Eugene O’Neill’s marathon play of the hopeless, pipe-dreaming 1912 denizens of Harry Hope’s Last Chance Saloon was written with the stipulation that it not be produced in the author’s lifetime, and with good reason. Like LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, it’s companion piece of dysfunctional family turmoil, the makeshift family of ICEMAN was one O’Neill couldn’t bear to see enacted, but had to expel from his creative wellspring, if only to get those derelict days of his youth flushed from his system once and for all.
The 3-hour film version was part of the defunct American Film Theater and remains an enigmatic experience because of it. The rarely seen project was directed subtly by John Frankenheimer, using the bar tables like cast adrift rafts on the sea of life as each of the characters recount their unattainable pipe dreams. The ensemble cast is uniformly brilliant with such actors as Bradford Dillman, Sorrell Booke, Moses Gunn, Clifton James and John McLiam giving the performances of their veteran careers. The cast includes a cinematic symmetry with the great Robert Ryan and Fredric March putting the capstone on their impressive careers and a young Jeff Bridges just beginning his.
To this amazing roster comes Lee Marvin as Hickey, the traveling salesman they’ve all been waiting for to enliven their days, only to be disappointed to learn he intends to burst all of their pretty balloons. He doesn’t appear until well into the proceedings but once he does, he is mesmerizing. The nearly 20 minute monologue he delivers at end of the story is one of the most enthralling you’ll ever see, capped with a single line of dialogue that rumbles from Marvin’s core being and explodes volcanically in a frightening full-throated roar that seems to catch even the actor himself by surprise. So grab a bottle of 90 proof rotgut, prepare to settle in for some life-altering drama and relish one of the most emotionally charged performances Lee Marvin or anybody has ever given in a film!
6. PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969)
Homer Simpson may have said it best when looking forward to seeing this notorious film: “Thank god for Lee Marvin. He’s always drunk and violent!” However, once he started viewing the home video version of the updated musical, his reaction is similar to most audiences when the film was released in 1969: “What the hell is this?!” Homer Simpson’s review aside, time has been kinder to this once embarrassing flop than when it first came out. Based on a popular Broadway musical but with an entirely new storyline, WAGON succeeds with the viewer in spite of itself. Granted, Clint Eastwood and the tragic Jean Seberg look woefully lost in the beautiful Oregon mountains that doubled for northern Calif. but a robust score, Harve Presnell’s full-voiced resonance on “THEY CALL THE WIND MARIA,” Ray Walston’s comic turn as a hot-tempered Scotsman, and of course Lee Marvin as Ben Rumson, make the lush film a feast for the senses.
Sure, Marvin can’t sing but so what? He isn’t supposed to sound like Robert Goulet, he’s supposed to look and sound like an opinionated, life-loving, nefarious gold mining mountain man of 1849 and in 1969 nobody could come close to doing that better! Thankfully the woeful tales of the film’s mishaps and costs are buried in the history books. What’s left is a better than remembered film to be savored and enjoyed long after the sneering jokes have passed.
5. THE BIG RED ONE (1980)
Fate does not allow legendary stars to decide what their last film will be, nor the legacy it will leave. For every appropriate John Wayne swan song like THE SHOOTIST there’s an Errol Flynn embarrassment like CUBAN REBEL GIRLS. Lee Marvin was no different, having to suffer the permanent indignation of his last film being the live action Chuck Norris cartoon, DELTA FORCE (1987). However, if Marvin was allowed a choice of his last screen performance, I think it would undoubtedly be writer/director Sam Fuller’s brilliant and underrated WWII opus, THE BIG RED ONE.
Largely panned and forgotten when released in 1980 and later restored by film critic Richard Schickel in 2004, either version remains one of the best films of Marvin’s entire career. Playing the nameless sergeant responsible for a rifle squad’s young foursome of actors, Marvin sees his charges through such WWII battles as Sicily, D-Day, North Africa, Bastogne, you name it. His four decade long career brought a wizened nobility and grittiness to his performance, whether he was tersely advising his squad that “We don’t murder, we kill!” or violently fending off the advances of a gay German (“I don’t mind you being horny but you’ve got bad breath!”)
The film itself is purposely episodic and done in Fuller’s trademark style akin to a punch in the face followed by rapid-fire belly punches. It may not be everybody’s preferred style of filmmaking but I challenge any viewer not to be moved by the ending of the film. Marvin’s stony stoicism in the face of near overwhelming emotional agony has never been done better by him…or anybody else!
4. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973)
Imagine for a moment you’re a studio chief and this idea is being pitched to you: During the height of the American Depression a legendary hobo, known only as A#1, makes a bet that he can survive a ride on the train of the equally legendary but sadistic conductor known as Shack. Along the way a bragging novice constantly gums up the works for both men culminating in a brutal battle on a speeding flatbed train car. Keep in mind, there’s no CGI effects, no half-naked, nubile teenagers, no pre-sold comic book characters and no plans for a franchise. Would you green light?
In 2013 it’s doubtful a producer would but thankfully, back in 1973 they did. This is not a warm, fuzzy Capra view of the Depression, or a philosophical one ala Preston Sturges or John Ford. No, this is a primal muscular, gritty and bawdy view of the Depression, which is to be expected from director Robert Aldrich and the rest of the filmmakers who made THE DIRTY DOZEN, including costars Ernest Borgnine as the demonic Shack and Lee Marvin as granite-chiseled A#1. He lives by his considerable wits, in spite of the constant nagging provided by novice Keith Carradine. The film holds up well to this day and is worthy of multiple viewings, if only to relish Marvin’s period dialogue (“You could be a meat eater, kid, and I mean people, not their garbage.”) The climatic clash of the titans includes such as weapons as 2x4s, chains, axes, anything the adversaries can get their roughhewn hands on. It also answers the persistent question, who needs CGI?
3. THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)
Having been a veteran of almost 2 dozen Marine landings during WWII, it is not surprising that many of Lee Marvin’s films maintain a similar story structure of presenting a mission, training for it and then the exciting execution of it. Of such films it’s hard to top THE PROFESSIONALS from every viewpoint possible. The straight forward premise takes place towards the end of the Mexican Revolution as a rich U.S. businessman (Ralph Bellamy) hires four expert men of action (leader Lee Marvin, dynamiter Burt Lancaster, horseman Robert Ryan and tracker Woody Strode) to reclaim his beautiful young wife (Claudia Cardinale) from the clutches of a Mexican Revolutionary (Jack Palance). Along the way there are expected turns and a few unexpected twists in what is arguably writer/director Richard Brooks’ best and most satisfying film.
The title of course refers to the four experts but could easily be in reference to the filmmakers themselves. The cliché rings true here that they don’t make movies like this any more and the reason is there aren’t filmmakers like these around to do it. Lean and silver crew-cutted Brooks was a martinet on the set, driving his cast and crew in the sweltering Nevada desert to produce this classic gem. Even Lancaster and Marvin proved their professionalism with a great onscreen chemistry, despite the fact the two men didn’t really like each other. You’d never know it watching this movie. It’s an adult adventure made by adults for adults with great action, great characters, Conrad Hall’s great cinematography and the best final line of dialog Marvin has ever uttered in a move. Don’t miss this one!
2. MONTE WALSH (1970)
There used to be an unwritten law in Hollywood that if you want to make money, make a Western. Sadly, the encroaching urbanization of America made that law obsolete. Another contributing factor is that it seemed by the mid-60s filmmakers had run out of ideas, ironically just when filmmaking techniques had gotten better than ever. Instead, the westerns that were made were revisionist versions of well-known mythology and worse, the recurring theme of the death of the west.
Enter MONTE WALSH, a film that did both but still maintained a level of class and artistry heads and tails above the rest of the run-of-the-mill fare. Marvin is the title character, who along with his best friend Chet Rollins (Jack Palance, in a rare sympathetic role), are two old cowboys forced to confront the end of the lifestyle they had always known. More character study than horse opera, this elegiac film was the directorial debut of cinematographer William Fraker who crafted a loving look at a bygone era and a fading lifestyle. French actress Jeanne Moreau provides Marvin’s onscreen rarely experienced love interest and apparently did so offscreen as well, making their scenes together that much more believable.
Despite nervous producers, who clipped away at the film just prior to its mainstream release (it shows, based on Marvin’s constantly changing facial hair), the poignancy and poetry survives intact. What remains is a wistful film in dire need of rediscovery by an audience willing to accept it on its own terms.
1 .THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967)
What can be said about this film that has not been said already? This is the one. The one that made me a fan of Lee Marvin’s films and not so coincidentally, the film that made him the number one male boxoffice star in the country. For the uninitiated, if there are any, the film has one of the greatest and most eclectic ensemble casts in movie history. Check out this testosterone-driven roster: Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, Robert Webber. With the understandable exception of Trini Lopez, all these actors have toplined films at some point in their careers. The main and unequivocal star of this production, however, is Lee Marvin, playing a WWII-era renegade Army Major ordered to train a dozen condemned military prisoners for a mission deep behind Nazi lines the night before D-Day.
It’s impossible to elaborate further as fans know it backwards and forwards and novices to the film should not have it spoiled for them. Suffice to say it is a classic for a reason and as the great Lauren Bacall has said about classic films, “It’s not a classic to someone who has not seen it before, and for anyone seeing a classic for the first time, I envy them.” Bogie’s baby said it best and like her, I envy them.
Our sincere thanks to Mr. Epstein for sending this over to us. If you haven’t already picked up his book LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK, we highly recommend you hit the link below and grab it.
It’s a great read on a legendary career.