Tough guy supreme
Part of my holiday reading was Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press, 2013) and in light of that I’d like to revise my February 2021 article on Marvin’s Westerns. So today, some more Marvinography.
Mr Epstein opens with Lee Marvin at the Actor’s Studio in Manhattan in 1950 and famed acting coach Lee Strasberg critiquing Marvin’s performance as a man dying of gangrene as inadequate because he didn’t show pain, Marvin retorting that he had seen men die of gangrene in the Marines and knew exactly what such a death was like, shouting an Anglo-Saxon expletive at Strasberg and storming out, never to return. As Epstein describes, Marvin had stormed out of (or been kicked out of) so many schools already that one more didn’t make much difference, but this was a school that any number of aspiring actors were yearning to get into, and it was typical of Marvin that he would not conform there, he would throw it all over, and leave with a four-letter insult too.
That set the tone for Marvin’s career. Lee Marvin was not a gentle man (though often a gentleman) and he knew violence in all its forms. He believed that, to quote Epstein, “Man is a violent animal, and the American male the most brutal of them all.” True or not, that principle defined his roles in movies more often than not. He would go on to get parts as thuggish heavies in any number of films, including Westerns as we shall see, before, as Epstein says, “Middle-aged and not movie-star handsome, the most unlikely of film superstars, he would go on to forge a unique screen persona.”
Chapter 1 is interesting on Marvin’s early life, where his “predisposition to aggressive behavior” was established. His father was a World War I vet and an alcoholic, his mother a snob, of whom Lee’s later wife Betty said, “I don’t think there was a maternal bone in her body”. Lee ran away from home first at the age of four. He hated school, and his then-undiagnosed dyslexia made studying very hard. His parents tried public, progressive, Quaker, military and finally Catholic schools, all a disaster. The only area he had any success in was athletics.
In 1942 with the war in full swing Lee joined the Marines, “the best place for someone that wants to fight and raise hell,” as he put it. Epstein deals in some length with Marvin’s war, and in fact also has quite a long (if rather amateurish) video on YouTube about his war service (search Point Blank – Lee Marvin’s War) and though I speed-read that bit in the book, I’m afraid, wanting to get on to the Westerns, obviously, I still found it informative. Marvin was clearly one of those previously square pegs in a round hole who found in the armed forces his métier and a home. His time in uniform clearly affected him deeply, almost defined him in a way. He wrote in a 1944 letter home, “I can tell you one thing and that is I have had my fill of war.” He certainly suffered from what would later be termed PTSD.
Back home, Lee became a plumber’s apprentice at $1.25 an hour. But when he discovered the local theater, he said, “It grabbed me, just like that.” As Epstein puts it, “With absolutely no professional training, he came to acting fully endowed.” Hollywood was a magnet. Audiences after the war craved more realistic movies and performances. So did Lee. He answered a call for ‘realistic’ actors put out by Henry Hathaway and got hired as an extra – he was In the Navy Now. “Charlie Bronson and I both got speaking parts later on.” Lee signed with agent Meyer Mishkin, who took few clients but was instrumental in the early careers of Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Richard Widmark and Jeff Chandler. Mishkin saw talent in Lee and got him a gig as a homicide suspect in a 1952 episode of Dragnet where he impressed the show’s creator and star Jack Webb. Lee got five movie parts in ’52, and two of them were in Westerns.
Epstein is rather dismissive of these early Western pictures Marvin did, referring to “the forgettable Randolph Scott western Hangman’s Knot”, for example, but actually that picture, directed by writer Roy Huggins, was pretty good, and Marvin’s small part in it memorable too, as it was in the other ’52 Western he did, The Duel at Silver Creek, an Audie Murphy oater directed by Don Siegel. From the outset, Marvin had this knack of endowing potentially bland (and small) ‘heavy’ parts with something special, a spark, some electricity. He stood out from the ranks of run-of-the-mill henchmen. As the thuggish Tinhorn in Silver Creek, he was brilliant in his poker game with Audie. In Hangman’s Knot¸ CSA Major Stewart (Scott) and his men attack a shipment of Union gold. They succeed, with Lt Bainter (Marvin) gleefully shooting down the boys in blue. “What’s happened to you?” the major asks Bainter. “Is it that easy to kill a man?” The lieutenant answers, “Well, isn’t it? What else have we been doing for the last five years?”
Marvin was back with Randy the following year in Columbia’s The Stranger Wore a Gun, a Harry Joe Brown production directed by André De Toth. He was memorable again as a henchman (with co-worker Ernest Borgnine), though the picture was not one of Randy’s or André’s finest. Marvin is about the best actor on the set after Scott. Randy and Lee have a proper quick-draw showdown (you may imagine who wins). Lee himself said of these years, “I was just a dog-assed heavy, one of the posse” but in fact he was already more than that.
In fact Lee did three Westerns in ’53. As well as the Randy one, he did two with Rock Hudson: he was army Sergeant Magruder in Seminole, directed by Budd Boetticher and released by United Artists in March, and he was again a henchman, Blinky, in Columbia’s Gun Fury, directed by Raoul Walsh, which came out in October. Epstein thinks he was “wasted” in Seminole, which he probably was in one sense but I think the author meant they didn’t make the most of him. The writer calls the picture “lackluster” and he’s probably right about that (it certainly wasn’t up to Boetticher’s usual standard) but Lee was strong as the hard-bitten vet. In Gun Fury he was even more striking as a violent type with an eye for the ladies, to gang boss Philip Carey’s annoyance. It was shot as a 3D picture, all the rage in ’53, so Marvin gets to fire his Winchester directly into the camera to frighten the audience.
So by the end of 1953 he had not only been memorable in five oaters, he’d been directed by André De Toth, Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher and Raoul Walsh. He was certainly getting good Western experience there.
Wife-at-the-time Betty said, “He was a menacing person when he was the bad guy and he was almost always the bad guy.” She said he loved doing the fight scenes. It wasn’t that Marvin glorified violence. On the contrary. He said, “When I incorporate violence in my performances, I make sure there’s a point to it” and he felt that if violence was realistically shown on the screen it would put people off committing it, not encourage them.
After some major films such as Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat with Glenn Ford and The Wild One with Brando, it was back to Westerns in ’54 with admittedly a more modest effort, The Raid, directed by Hugo Fregonese, which starts with the usual mendacious ‘This is a true story’ claim and tells of the Confederate raid on St Albans, Vermont, in October 1864. Van Heflin leads the raid, Peter Graves is the captain, James Best and Claude Akins are lieutenants and Marvin is the unreliable, violent soldier who nearly ruins the whole operation. The picture has an almost Dirty Dozen vibe to it, with the dangerous raid behind enemy lines, so maybe Lee was practicing, but it was all a bit lame. Epstein says, “Marvin’s cowering death scene provided the film’s highlight.”
The following year (after auditioning for the role of Jud in Oklahoma!), Marvin added John Sturges to his list of top Western directors and landed a great part in MGM’s A-picture Bad Day at Black Rock (if you call that a Western). It’s a superb movie, Western or not, and Marvin excelled in it. In a way it’s a reverse High Noon because the scared but gritty lone good guy (Spencer Tracy) comes in on the train and finds a whole town of bad men. It’s an anti-Western in the sense that the good guy wears a suit and is from the city, while the country-town Westerners are the corrupt ones. Marvin is (obviously) one of those. He is made sheriff at one point and straps on a revolver which he attempts to twirl. He is playing at cowboys. He and Ernest Borgnine are (again) a pair of lowlife thugs who act as henchmen to ruthless and menacing town boss Robert Ryan. Lee’s line delivered to the one-armed Tracy, struggling with a suitcase, “You look like you need a hand”, was as memorable as it was nasty. On the set Marvin became good friends with screenwriter Millard Kaufman, another former combat Marine.
In 1956 Marvin teamed with Randolph Scott for the third time, and Budd Boetticher for the second, and was cast (very well) as Masters, the charming, lowdown, clever villain, in his flamboyance the antithesis of Scott’s character, in Seven Men from Now, the first of that great series of Westerns that Boetticher and Scott did together at the end of the 1950s. They all featured a charismatic antagonist, and Marvin’s was one of the very best. It was a great part, Marvin’s biggest Western role to date. In fact Scott was partially responsible for that, telling Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy, “This kid is good. You should give him more lyrics.”
Lee’s death scene was superb and Boetticher said that when Randy outdraws him, “He just stood there for a minute and stared at his hands in disbelief. The audience loved it. The reaction, when we previewed it at the Pantages, was something I had never seen before. They stopped the film and reran the scene.”
Just the following month (Warners released Seven Men in August ’56) Universal came out with Pillars of the Sky, also featuring Marvin, though he has a more minor role in this one, as a sergeant (what else?) with a not too convincing Irish accent who dies gallantly. Epstein calls the picture, with some justification, “an over-ripe western” and “a serious let-down”. In fact one of the better scenes of the movie is the carousing of Marvin, Ward Bond (with whom Marvin fell out) and Jeff Chandler (another Mishkin client) on a hilltop as their comrades slip away in the night and they remain to convince the Indians that the camp is still occupied.
Westerns were put on pause for a bit now. There were two semi-Westerns, or movies with vaguely Western tinges, Raintree County (1957) and The Missouri Traveler (1958), and he did a couple of Wagon Train episodes, but the next ‘true’ Western was John Wayne’s The Comancheros in 1961.
Just briefly, Raintree County was a plush MGM picture directed by Edward Dmytryk, a slightly soapy romance/war drama with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, in which Marvin was entertainingly cast as Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins. The picture bombed. The Missouri Traveler (Jerry Hopper) was a syrupy family picture which was Brandon de Wilde’s last ‘Western’ (not really) as a child star (he was noted for Shane, of course). Marvin? Rarely has such a good Western actor been so weak, but it was a poorly written and directed picture which gave him little scope.
As for the Wagon Train episodes, that was a quality show and Marvin’s ones are very good. “Lee Marvin hated television,” says Epstein but he led in (and produced) the successful Dragnet-style crime show M Squad to make a buck (when asked the message or purpose of M Squad, he replied, “The purpose is to enable me to get rich”) and he appeared in a lot of other shows of all types. He was frustrated and couldn’t wait to get back into movies, though.
A five-pack-a-day cigarette habit, continual heavy drinking, bar fights, drunk driving, marital strains and so on were also taking their toll.
The Comancheros in 1961, nominally directed by Michael Curtiz (though he was out of it by then and John Wayne effectively helmed) was a pretty formulaic Wayne Western of the period but Marvin had the best part, in a ten-minute show-stealing scene as the partially-scalped Tully Crow. Most regrettably, Duke is obliged to shoot him after only one reel, just when his character was getting interesting.
It is said that Marvin was to have been in MGM’s monster How the West Was Won in 1962 but it is not known in which role. Anyway it never happened.
Instead, in 1962 came what many regard as Lee Marvin’s best Western, again with Wayne, this time with “the director who had practically invented the American western,” as Epstein calls him, John Ford. Lee was the titular Liberty Valance of Ford’s black & white almost post-Western with Duke and James Stewart, and Lee really wanted to do the picture.
It was fortunate that it was in black & white because at the time he had a bruised, swollen and discolored nose and that showed less than it would have in color, and the black eyes he had could be covered with make-up. Ford, who took an instant liking to Marvin, also arranged for shooting to start with a scene in which most of Liberty’s face is covered with a black bandana. LQ Jones, who was visiting the set, said, “Ford gave Lee a piece of direction I don’t think the old man ever told anybody else before or after. He told him, ‘Lee, take the stage!’ And he did!” Indeed he did. As Epstein puts it, “In just a handful of riveting scenes he conveyed the anger, maliciousness, and sadism of a man who symbolized all the lawlessness of the old west.” Ford and Marvin had much in common – periodic alcoholism, a passion for the sea, notable service in World War II, as well as quite liberal politics. And, as Scott Eyman says in his biography of Ford, “the fact that Marvin was descended from a brother of George Washington didn’t hurt either.”
There was more TV that year, an episode of The Virginian and a Bonanza one, but the next feature Western would be in 1965. Marvin passed on the lead of The Hallelujah Trail, the Burt Lancaster-produced and John Sturges-directed failed comedy, a real clunker, in favor of a part which would scoop up the awards for his double performance as Kid Shelleen and his doppelganger Strawn in Cat Ballou. He got the Best Actor Oscar, Best Actor Comedy or Musical Golden Globe, Best Foreign Actor BAFTA and National Board of Review Best Actor prize, as well as Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival. Not a bad haul. In the Oscars he beat nominees Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Rod Steiger. Crikey! And in fact he showed a considerable gift for comedy (though he said that they really ought to have awarded the prizes to his horse). It is indeed a highly entertaining performance, as the drunk who cleans up (he was sure playing to type there) to fight the sinister false-nosed gunslinger killer, and also playing said killer. Marvin was drinking vodka constantly throughout shooting, and raising hell off-set, but always somehow managed to get it right when the cameras rolled. He was very professional in that sense. He always knew his lines, for example.
He wasn’t first choice for the role, Burt Lancaster, Jose Ferrer, Jack Palance and, especially, Kirk Douglas all having been in the frame. Producer Harold Hecht was appalled at Marvin’s behavior and wanted him fired and replaced but Lee finished the film, just. At the end of shooting, co-star Michael Callan said, “He had to be poured into the car, and then the plane. Somehow he had gotten hold of a .45, and started shooting things on the road as we drove.” Lee Marvin was not a restrained or sober man. But he was a darn good actor.
Years later, TIME staff reporter Stefan Kanfer interviewed Marvin and said, “I don’t think that Cat Ballou is your best performance, by a long shot.” Marvin said, “I do agree with you. But y’know, you run this track and that’s the track that racers are on; it’s the Oscar track. It really isn’t based on skill as much as it’s based on luck and popularity.”
There was talk of a sequel to Cat Ballou but Marvin never wanted to repeat; it was always on to something new.
Another comedy Western (though much less successful) would follow in 1969 but first, in 1966, Marvin led the team of The Professionals (though in fact Burt Lancaster got top billing) as they went south of the border on their dangerous mission – again with tinges of The Dirty Dozen. It was Richard Brooks’s best Western (not that he did that many) and he was Oscar-nominated for it; it was one of the best pictures the genre gave us in the mid-60s, probably the best. Marvin is tough as all get out as the gritty soldier leading the platoon, and there are enough plot twists, one-liners and stirring action to make this one of his best Westerns. It was a major box office success too.
Non-Westerns The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank then made Marvin into a major Hollywood star. Paramount’s big-budget comedy musical Paint Your Wagon in 1969 was Marvin’s first million-dollar payday. It was not received kindly by the critics, nor did it do well at the box-office, but it did mean that Lee Marvin’s (wandrin’) star rose because his ‘song’ (I think even his fans will understand the inverted commas) stayed at No. 1 in the UK charts for three weeks in March 1970, toppling the Beatles, one of the unlikeliest hits ever. Clint Eastwood was hardly Pavarotti either. Once again Marvin was nominated for a Golden Globe – Best Actor, Comedy or Musical – though this time he didn’t win. It was anyway pretty bad as a film.
Amazingly, Marvin turned down the part of Pike in The Wild Bunch to do it – or so he said. He and a friend, Roy Sickner, had worked on a screenplay and given it to Malibu neighbor Sam Peckinpah. In fact many revisions followed and Marvin maybe lost interest or just moved on to other projects. It was one of the great might-have-beens. It may have been sour grapes or perhaps hidden disappointment but Marvin later said, “I told [Peckinpah] I’d already done The Professionals, and what did I need The Wild Bunch for? And when the picture came out, I don’t think it really succeeded.”
A much better Western followed hard on the hooves of Wagon when the rather charming picture Monte Walsh came out. Adapted from the episodic novel of Jack Schaefer, it was an elegiac end-of-the-West account of cowpokes out of place in the new world with Marvin top-billed in the title role and “more involved in the production than on any other film of his career”, Jack Palance (the real star of another Schaefer novel-as-film) as his decent pard Chet Rollins, and icon Jeanne Moreau as the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Martine. It was very well done. Marvin, still under 50, was great as the aging puncher who can’t bring himself to believe that the Old West is no more. But as Chet says at one point, “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever, Monte.”
It was Marvin who convinced The Professionals and Paint Your Wagon cinematographer William Fraker to make his directorial debut on the picture, and it was Fraker and Marvin who flew to Paris to persuade Moreau to do the film (Deborah Kerr was slated for the role). Western film historian Neil Summers worked on the movie and said, “Lee Marvin was not … acting like a tough guy. Lee Marvin was a tough guy.” Of course Lee was drinking but they worked round that. At one point they had a sunset scene, needed for the tone of the picture, and by sunset Lee wasn’t usually in a condition to work, so they all got up at 3 a.m. and shot sunrise for sunset.
Regrettably, nervous producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts trimmed the picture by a quarter of an hour, and Hollywood Reporter’s Larry Cohen wrote, “The decision to cut the film is unfortunate, for the picture I saw [presumably before the editing] was one of the best American films of the year.” The picture did well in Europe but didn’t wow the box-office in the US, to Marvin’s great disappointment. In the last years of Marvin’s life fellow Monte actor Mitch Ryan said he and Lee watched the film at Lee’s Tucson home. “We watched Monte Walsh together once and he was a little upset at the cut. But he said, ‘It’s all right. What the fuck. The guys gotta do what they do.”
Epstein says that Budd Boetticher had written Two Mules for Sister Sara with Marvin in mind, but that went to Clint Eastwood in 1970.
Pocket Money in 1972, a present-day story in which Marvin co-starred with Paul Newman, had Western touches but… Marvin and Newman were engaging opposite each other in a tale about a naïve Newman and rather slow-witted Marvin who get mixed up in a cross-border cattle smuggling scheme, with Strother Martin entertaining (as ever) as a crooked rancher. But the picture flopped badly and Marvin publicly blamed Newman, whose company helped make it. Lee said, “At the beginning, it was understood that Newman and I would earn the same amount and have roles of equal importance. Well, I’ve never seen a situation so much reversed. It was Newman’s company who produced the film and when they came to show it, Newman had become the sole star and I was nowhere.”
Only two Western features remained for Lee Marvin and sadly, neither was especially good.
Personally, I find The Spikes Gang, in 1974 rather endearing, with Marvin as grizzled old outlaw Harry Spikes, who takes under his wing some green youths. The picture, which Epstein calls “a well-intentioned misfire”, was fashionably shot in Almeria, Spain, but it wasn’t terribly well received, and it got nowhere at the box-office. Epstein says, “the end result looked like a TV-movie and came and went just as quickly.” Still, Marvin entered into the spirit of it with gusto. Director Richard Fleischer said that he told Marvin that Spikes was in fact the devil, leading the innocent astray, “and Lee ate it up”. After the picture sank, Fleischer said, “I really don’t know what Lee thought, because by the time he screening was over, he was gone. I never did talk to him about the picture. I never saw him again.”
Certainly in the 1970s and 80s Marvin’s film career did not flourish. Others of his generation made late successes, such as Paul Newman in The Verdict or Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City, but not Lee. He made a series of flops, such as the post-Spikes The Klansman, which Marvin later called The Clownsman, on the set of which even Lee was drunk under the table by co-star Richard Burton, and which was jeered and laughed at by audiences. Marvin’s last great performance was in Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One in 1980, but even that failed commercially. There was Gorky Park in 1983, which I liked, but it was essentially a cameo for Lee. And that they had to rehearse in hospital (where Lee was removing his oxygen mask in order to smoke).
Marvin’s last Western (unless you count the 1930s Yukon action/adventure yarn Death Hunt in 1981 with Charles Bronson) had come in 1976 when he led the cast in yet another comedy, the slapstick, raunchy The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, which AIP wanted to make in order to move up-market from its usual drive-in fodder for teenage audiences. The picture was an unfortunate farewell for Lee, with a miscast Oliver Reed, another legendary boozer, as co-star. In fact Marvin saved it from oblivion. The role was written with James Garner in mind, which one can understand, but Marvin did it as well as the script allowed. Lee later said, “I can’t say this is my greatest film … I wanted a let’s-have-another-beer type film and I liked the script.” But audiences did not agree, and stayed away in droves.
No more Westerns. Lee Marvin’s last film was the dire Chuck Norris actioner Delta Force in 1986, best forgotten by all.
Even his death was eclipsed in a way, overshadowed by the news the same day of the passing of John Huston. Marvin has become something of a cult figure since, with that not-terribly-secret society of Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits and Nick Cave The Sons of Lee Marvin and so on.
It was the end of a fine career in the noble genre. For me he was best as the villain, especially the charming-rogue kind. He worked with some of the greatest Western directors and opposite some of the greatest Western actors, and he was one of those people the camera seemed drawn to. Certainly the viewer always is, when he is on screen, even to the point of eclipsing the good-guy star.