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Where Is Lee Marvin When We Really Need Him?

Posted: 02/28/2010 4:17 pm

Lee Marvin, tough character actor turned unlikely (and equally tough) movie star, would have turned eighty-six a couple of weeks back, but of course that event will go largely unnoticed. We lost him over twenty years ago to a heart attack, abetted by some very intense experiences and a stated fondness for tequila in quantity.

I look at the new action movies coming out, and I have to wonder: Where's our new Lee Marvin? The manly man, the bad guy turned good guy, the guy who's so ugly he's almost beautiful, the man you wouldn't mess with, the guy who takes no prisoners? With precious few exceptions, all I see is a lot of boys in Hollywood these days, both real and aging.

Marvin himself always admired Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, neither of whom could be mistaken for juveniles. He worked with Tracy, and must have known the parallels that existed between Bogie and himself: they both came from New York City; each were born into privilege; got kicked out of most every school that would have them for incorrigibility; served in a World War and got wounded for their trouble (though Bogie only slightly); and fell into acting almost because there were few other options open to them. Thank God both were so talented.

Since Lee Marvin's been gone so long, there's a whole new generation of young adults out there who likely don't even know who he was. Let's change that. What follows are eight of my favorite Marvin films, notably some early ones where he played in support, mixed with the best of his starring work in the sixties and early seventies.

(Note: Cat Ballou (1966), the Western spoof that earned Marvin an Oscar and made him a bankable leading man, is missing from this list, simply because, in my view, the picture has not aged well. Lee is still great in it, and his Oscar acceptance speech is vintage Marvin: "I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere in the valley.")

Now here's my personal take on this great actor's best work:

The Big Heat (1952) -- Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague's suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana's men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion's wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance.This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by brilliant German ex-pat Fritz Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford's portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. Heat is particularly memorable for two performances: Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Marvin cruelly disfigures -- with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, The Big Heat is one steamy ride.

Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) -- One armed war veteran John MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) ventures to a remote Southwestern town to give a posthumous medal to the family of a Japanese-American who saved his life. What appears a noble yet straightforward gesture becomes anything but. On MacReedy's arrival, the town's leading inhabitants, harboring an ugly secret, are less than welcoming. It quickly becomes apparent that a graceful exit will be equally challenging for the one-armed man. Regardless, before he goes, MacReedy wants the truth about what happened to his friend's family. One of my own favorite suspense films, we feel the tension build from the very first scene as the baking sun blankets the desolate town, and a stranger arrives. The inimitable Spence is backed by some sterling support from Walter Brennan, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger and Marvin. Don't miss young Lee putting his feet up on MacReedy's hotel bed, or that fight in the diner with Borgnine, who also made a terrific heavy. Bad Day is one lean, spare firecracker of a picture.

Attack! (1956) -- Ordering his men to attack a well-guarded German pillbox, Lieutenant Joe Costa (Jack Palance) expects backup from his senior commander, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). The captain balks out of fear, and a squadron of Costa's men die as a result. Infuriated, Costa curtly informs Cooney that if it happens again, Cooney will pay for his cowardice with his life. Days later, Cooney dispatches Costa's men to the Belgian front, where the fighting is even fiercer than before. Will the jittery Cooney make the same mistake? Offering a hard-as-nails depiction of war and the ugly flipside of frontline bravery, Robert Aldrich's Attack! revisits the decisive Battle of the Bulge with a realistic tale of mutinous revenge. The always intense Palance delivers a riveting performance as an aggrieved lieutenant at the end of his rope, but it's Albert, in a superb turn as the scurrilous, yellow-bellied captain, who earns top honors. Assured support from Marvin as Cooney's Southern, high-ranking pal, Colonel Bartlett, and William Smithers, as a conscientious soldier, round out a fine cast. This gritty, searing war drama ranks with Kiss Me Deadly director Aldrich's very best work. And he and Marvin would work again, on another war picture.

Ship of Fools (1965) -- Set in 1933, a tragic turning point in Germany's history, Stanley Kramer's psychological drama trails a disparate group of passengers sailing from Vera Cruz right into the heart of fascism. The ship's a kind of purgatory, holding a washed-up baseball player (Lee Marvin), a faded beauty (Vivien Leigh, in her last film), two combative young lovers (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley), and assorted other characters. Based on Katherine Anne Porter's novel, producer/director Stanley Kramer creates a fascinating, emotionally gripping film with a conscience. Ship stays afloat thanks to Abby Mann's sharp screenplay and a slew of memorable performances: Signoret as a Spanish activist, Oskar Werner as the onboard doctor, and Oscar-nominated dwarf Michael Dunn, whose direct-address speeches are worthy of Sophocles. And then, there's the incomparable Lee, riveting as always.

The Professionals (1966) -- When lawless Mexican revolutionary Raza (Jack Palance) abducts the gorgeous Maria (Claudia Cardinale) for ransom, wealthy Texas rancher Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires the only men he knows have a chance of rescuing his wife: horse trainer Hans (Robert Ryan), tracker and longbow expert Jake (Woody Strode), and stoic leader Fardan (Marvin), who posts bail to recruit his womanizing best pal, explosives pro Dolworth (Burt Lancaster).The trek is dangerous, with bandidos in the canyons and Raza's trigger-happy watchmen on patrol, but with $10,000 each on the barrelhead if they recover Maria, the men are highly determined. Richard Brooks's self-penned, high-energy Western, set in the waning years of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, is a tense, gritty horse drama. The teaming of Marvin and Lancaster, playing Raza's disenchanted ex-amigos, works brilliantly, while Strode and Ryan offer fine support as talented sidekicks. Italian bombshell Cardinale, in her first English-speaking role, provides plenty of oomph too, especially in league with Palance's Raza, who proves to be quite a romantic himself. Filmed on location in Nevada, The Professionals is a rousing, thoughtful action movie that deals with issues of money versus morality, and the last gasp of frontier idealism.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) -- In the months prior to D-Day, court-martialed misfit Major Reisman (Marvin) is given a last chance to rehabilitate his reputation by smug, hard-nosed General Worden (Ernest Borgnine), who gives him the task of raiding a conclave of top Nazi officers in occupied France with a suicide squad of 12 convicted felons. Under Reisman's command, this motley group of bad guys, including former mobster Franko (an Oscar-nominated John Cassavetes), pervert Maggott (Telly Savalas), moron Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), homicidal Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), and tightly-wound Jefferson (Jim Brown), are subjected to torturous combat training and molded into an efficient fighting unit. With no promises of clemency on their return, the men embark on a mission most will never come back from. Director Robert Aldrich's brutal, ultra-macho action movie is so indignant about the hollow integrity of religion, patriotism, Establishment values, and the military brass that it was bound to find a sizeable audience in 1967, as the nation found itself mired in Vietnam, with many questioning the rationale for the war. Explosively violent and spiked with whip-smart black humor, Dozen fused crowd-pleasing spectacle with curdled cynicism, boasting a dream team of Hollywood stars acting at the top of their games. One of MGM's highest grossing films, it has never waned in popularity and still packs a potent, anti-authoritarian punch.

Point Blank (1967) -- It's not a good idea to double-cross Walker (Marvin), but the Organization, a far-reaching crime syndicate thought they could get away with it. Leaving him mortally wounded (they thought) and without his cut of a lucrative heist, they become increasingly rattled when Walker is suddenly back in their midst wanting his money and not taking "no" for an answer. John Boorman's peerless crime drama is one of the great films of the 1960's. Marvin is a walking, talking time bomb as the obsessed Walker, and a slimy Lloyd Bochner looks and acts the part of chief betrayer Frederick Carter. Angie Dickinson is her sexiest as femme fatale Chris, who hops between men (and beds) with relative ease. And just wait for a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O'Connor in a pivotal role as Brewster, the big boss. One of my personal favorites, with a palpable Sixties look and feel. This one really hits the bull's eye. Pounce, action fans.

The Iceman Cometh (1973) -- At a grungy New York ale house in 1912, a group of down-and-out alcoholics gather to celebrate the birthday of bar owner Harry Hope (Fredric March), including Larry Slade (Robert Ryan) and Hickey (Marvin), a perennially cocky, silver tongued loser who believes he has alighted on the proper attitude toward a wasted life. As Hickey berates the assembled for clinging to their never-to-be-realized pipe dreams, his orations unleash a torrent of ill feeling and heart-rending catharsis. Lee delivers the goods in the central role of Hickey, the loutish sermonizer who attempts to convince his fellow losers that admitting to being a failure is the only possible redemption. In the last role of a long and distinguished screen career, March also shines as the aptly named Harry Hope, a widower who numbs his grief with work. Still it's tough guy Ryan who gives the film's most towering performance as the dying, laconic intellectual Slade (Ryan was also terminally ill when the film was shot). John Frankenheimer, normally a director of high-wire political thrillers, helms Eugene O'Neill's raw, devastating play with confidence and sympathy for the plight of his characters. Look for Jeff Bridges in an early role as Parritt, Slade's tragic young friend.

(Incidentally, Bridges, whom I profiled in my last piece, was a huge admirer of both Marvin and Ryan, proving he not only has talent, but taste.)

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