Monday, October 28, 2013

Lee Marvin: The Wanderin' Star

Film actor Lee Marvin (1924-1987) came across on screen as a quiet, intelligent  but perhaps dangerous man who knew the darker side of life .    He was not a stereotypical actor, his Oscar for a duel role in the film "Cat Ballou" (1965) came from his ability to play both comedy and menace with equal apparent ease.

Until his major success  in films (after a stint as a supporting player and the lead of a early 60's Cop show called  "M Squad") Marvin played a great variety of characters, from heroic parts in movies like "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), to the American black market fur-dealer in Michael Apted's Moscow -based crime drama "Gorky Park" (1982) to the anti-hero Walker in director John Boorman's "Point Blank", made in 1967.   Marvin could hold his own on screen with all major actors he played opposite--including John Wayne, who probably wished he could had  Lee Marvin real life biography.    

  The first clip is part of his unforgettable portrayal of a predatory frontier outlaw  in  John Ford's  1962 classic film, "The  Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" with John Wayne and James Stewart.  Neglected when it was first released, this I believe is in important film in understanding the tension between American cultural passions for "freedom" and the dangers of a society where lawlessness leads to terror and  violence  when some, through greed or brutality,  abuse the vacuum of law and order in a civilized place.

Marvin knew a lot  about terror and brutality.  As a young  man, he was a combat Marine in the Pacific Theater, and received a Purple Heart medal valor in the Battle of Saipan in 1944.   The effects of the war left him, according to a recent biographer,  with what would today be called post-traumatic stress disorder. He led a hell-raising, heavy-drinking lifestyle in the early post-war years--trying to erase the incredible terrors he saw on the faces of his comrades..   Returning to his hometown of Woodstock, New York, he worked as a plumber with his father and, as legend has it,  found his way into a local theater company when he showed up to fix a leaky sink and the director saw the coiled potential for violence and raw energy he needed for the part of a tough guy in play set in a  saloon.    Whatever the truth of this, that streak of violence and rawness mixed with a quiet and believable authority worked.    Twenty year later, Marvin, an international star, would return to Woodstock to care care of his ailing father and, after two failed marriages and several affairs with his leading ladies, reconnected with his high school sweetheart and married her.  He turned his back on the Hollywood scene apart from his film roles and lived the rest of his life in New York state and a comfortable suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.

In this next clip Marvin waxes melancholy singing an off-key version of "I Was Born Under a Wanderin' Star" from the California Gold Rush musical "Paint Your Wagon".  The film is uneven and too long, but it has its moments and Marvin "sells"  this ballad of  wanderlust with a great mix of sadness and gusto.  Few actors other than Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney could have brought  such conviction to this scene.  

Marvin's quintessential role for my money is as "Walker" in John Boorman's film noir classic "Point Blank".  The material is from a Donald Westlake novel. Walker is a determined man, a career criminal who has been double-crossed by his friends in a heist job.  He comes out of prison looking to get his share of the  money he is owed and extract a calculated revenge.  Marvin's character is a  man who only wants what is due to him.  It turns out that the crime group he once worked for has gone corporate and crime is now in the hands of white collar operators who can't understand why a man would want butt his hard head against this new Corporate Crime Establishment?   Why won't Walker change, and accept his place as part of The System? He is a man out of place in the new order of American White-Collar Crime.  It is that unwillingness to do so that makes him an American Rebel, AKA, a figure to root for despite his violent nature.

  Walker is a haunted man--an old-time robber lost in a world of the late 1960's Los Angeles psychadelica, with the criminals now faux hipsters toting wallets full of credit cards and living in penthouses, sheltered from their crimes by pay-offs to the law made with money managed by fat, sharp -eyed accountants who have  twenty-year mortgages on a house in the valley, nice offices with corner views in the city and pretty secretaries.  The world has moved on and his kind of "eye for an eye" restitution befuddles these suburban crooks and bagmen who just want a quiet life.   Walker moves  too fast, is too single-minded and unreasonable, and won't stop.  He   wants $93,000, what he feels is his due, and nothing more.

Marvin went on to other major parts and made a lasting mark in American cinema and with critics all over the world.      There may be a few "Lee Marvin" types around today , but only one was the genuine article.


  1. I remember Lee Marvin from that monochrome cop show on TV, but I hadn't remembered it was called M Squad Doug. I always admired him as an actor when I was a regular cinema goer and I actually went to see films like Paint Your Wagon. I don't think I ever saw Point Blank though, I wish I had it looks like an interesting movie, thanks for posting the clip Doug.
    My brother used to have a single of the theme tune from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Gene Pitney, we used to listen to it on an old mono record player that was made from some red and white synthetic material. Marvin was certainly a great shot until he came up against a box office hit bigger than him, he blinked first and rest is it isn't, what am I saying?
    Anyway thanks for a reminder of Lee Marvin's charismatic presence Doug on both the big and the small screens, he was part of the mass entertainment tidal wave that was the mid 20th century and an icon of those days. Great review Doug.

    1. Thanks for your comments, AA. By coincidence one of the first .45 records I remember buying (around 12) was that very same Gene Pitney song! I had a mono set-up for a time as well. When I got a small stereo set from my parents later on my next-door neighbor friend's older brother across the fence line from my room complained about how loud I was playing my music...but he only complained when I put on "Liberty Valance"! Just no accounting for the taste of others, AA.

      When I actually saw "Liberty Valance" for the first time I recall being disappointed that it wasn't on the film soundtrack....but the movie is a classic. Lee Marvin had a way of making you think he was the meanest dude up on was just bad judgement for him to ever draw on the likes of Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne...the deck was stacked for poor Liberty.

      He got some of his own back in "Point Blank", a movie worth seeing if you can rent it. It bears some resemblance to the British noir films like "Robbery" with Stanley Baker and the Michael Caine vehicle, "Get Carter" (1971). All all are examples of great late film noir. Ironic that three of the best examples of all-American urban crime dramas filmed in this period were done by British directors: John Boorman (who did this film) and Peter Yates' "Bullitt" (1968) and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973). Yates also did "Robbery" which interested Steve McQueen so much he signed up Yates for "Bullitt", a film that cemented his legacy as the epitome of cool.

      Thanks for your positive feedback as always.

      PS-- Glad you got to see "Paint Your Wagon" on the big screen, where it belongs. I can't think about those old boom towns of the old west without recalling "Wagon" and the more somber and realistic Robert Altman film "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", which I know is one of your favorites.