By MANOHLA DARGIS Published: May 11, 2007
Lee Marvin moved across the screen like a shark coming in for the kill. Long and lean, with shoulders that looked as wide as his hips and hair as silver as a bullet, he seemed built for speed. He roamed across genres, excelling at gangsters and cowboys. Romance was not his thing. He could make you laugh, at times uneasily, but it’s his bad men that stick in your head. They are scary as hell, sometimes seductively so, because their every punch and twist of the knife seems delivered not in the heat of violence but in its chill.
Marvin did much of his greatest work in the 1960s; he was passed over by New Hollywood auteurs who could have immortalized him for succeeding generations. He died in 1987 at 63 of a heart attack. For younger audiences, especially those who believe film history starts with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Marvin may well represent a question mark. (“Who?” a young friend asked.) I can find no DVD box sets of his work, though he shows up in a few John Wayne collections playing second fiddle and comic foil. Several of these titles, notably John Ford’s melancholic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1962), are included in the first-rate series “Lee Marvin: The Coolest Lethal Weapon,” opening today at the Walter Reade Theater, courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
He’s cooler than cool in Don Siegel’s pulpy 1964 classic “The Killers,” where he plays an intellectually curious hit man, and in John Boorman’s masterfully fractured 1967 thriller “Point Blank.” In “The Killers,” the hit man turns detective because he can’t figure out why one of his victims (John Cassavetes) doesn’t run when he has the chance. (Later, when a woman tries to talk him out of killing her, the hit man says, “Lady, I just haven’t got the time.”) The eye-popping cast includes Ronald Reagan wearing a meringue of glossy hair, Angie Dickinson as the prettiest of poisons and a fabulous Clu Gulager. Marvin, who showed up drunk on the first day of production, owns the film up, down and sideways.
Booze played a recurring role for Marvin behind the scenes and on screen: he took his noisy cues from a real biker called Wino Willie for “The Wild One” and brings real hurt to the role of the tragic, alcoholic Ira Hayes, one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, in John Frankenheimer’s 1960 television drama “The American.” In 1966 he won the best-actor Oscar for his dual roles in the strenuously unfunny western “Cat Ballou,” including that of a hired gun so pickled in alcohol his horse looks soused. (Accepting the statuette, he joked that the horse deserved half the credit.) Yet even this cringingly dated comedy, made when terminal drunks were still good for laughs, can’t disguise his graceful gestural performance, the way he doesn’t so much fall as sway.
He was a remarkable physical specimen. Born in New York in 1924 to an advertising executive and a fashion editor, he knocked around prep schools before joining the Marines. In 1944, the year he turned 20, he was a scout sniper in the Pacific Theater, where, on Saipan, a bullet severed a nerve. He spent 13 months recuperating in a hospital and was awarded the Purple Heart. Decades later, in the last great film he made — Samuel Fuller’s World War II epic, “The Big Red One” (1980) — Marvin’s sergeant leads a group of young soldiers who are around the same age he was when he took on the war for real. Neither the tenderness nor the hate in this performance seem feigned.
After he healed, he apprenticed as a plumber before moving into stage work. He performed on and off Broadway and frequently on television. He first hit the big screen with a small role in a 1951 film, “You’re in the Navy Now,” and soon began specializing in reprobates. Bosley Crowther’s take on him in “The Wild One” in 1953 is worth quoting at length from The New York Times: “And in a second wolf-pack leader, whom Lee Marvin gruesomely portrays as a glandular ‘psycho’ or dope-fiend or something fantastically mad, there is briefly injected into this picture a glimpse of utter monstrosity, loose and enjoying the privilege of hectoring others in a fair society.” I’m not sure about the fair society, given the populace, but fantastically mad is right on.
The Walter Reade series doesn’t include “The Wild One,” perhaps because it’s so familiar, but it’s amazing to watch Marvin holding his own easily against that new force in cinema: Marlon Brando. With his lewd laugh and loose gestures that give him the jangling affect of a marionette without the strings, the grizzle-faced, gravelly-voiced Marvin comes across as the realer and rawer deal. Flanked by his gang of toughs in their matching motorcycle jackets and cute little hats, his plush mouth jutting suggestively, the beautiful Brando looks almost prissy. By comparison, Marvin looks dirty in body and in spirit; he’s rough around the edges and, you imagine, just about everywhere else too.
His character is trying to play it smoother in Fritz Lang’s noir standard “The Big Heat,” which was also released in 1953 and, happily, is in the series. This is the film in which Marvin brutally ups the bad-boyfriend ante by tossing a steaming-hot pot of coffee into the face of his girl (Gloria Grahame), leaving her terribly scarred. Decades earlier, James Cagney was content to push a grapefruit into his moll’s kisser. These days, movie scum feed their prey to the dogs, but there is something still shockingly raw about the fervor that Marvin brings to this scene, as if his character were experiencing sexual pleasure from his violence. Part of this is Lang, a sadist of the screen, but Marvin is the one with the wet lips.
There’s a little softness and a lot of shading in one of his best villains, a gold-hungry gunslinger in Budd Boetticher’s magnificent western “Seven Men From Now.” The first in a series of westerns that Boetticher made with the older Randolph Scott, this near- perfect film gives Marvin plenty of room to prove what he can do, whether he’s taking another man down with brutal psychology or practicing his quick draw. There’s soul in this characterization as well as a hint of the dandy, notably in the green scarf knotted at his neck. Marvin wears similarly silky scarves in both “The Wild One” and “The Comancheros” (1961), a slog of a western that he steals from John Wayne for his 10 showboating minutes onscreen.
Those scarves are lovely flourishes. Maybe he liked the way they looked on him, or maybe he didn’t like his neck. Or maybe this professional tough guy, who lived through World War II and was paid handsomely to keep the fight going on the big screen, wanted to show a side of himself that wasn’t immediately obvious. He twirls his guns with flair in “Seven Men From Now” (off screen, he often handled a gun) and takes on a veritable army without batting an eyelash in Richard Brooks’s entertaining western “The Professionals” (1966). In real life Marvin had been a good guy, but with his hooded eyes and a voice that sounded as if all the gentleness had been scraped from it, he seemed destined for villainy.
He was, certainly. But the best of these are not cartoon creeps or thrill-kill sadists. They are generally complex men, interested, trigger tempered, yes (watch how impatiently he moves through a school for the blind in “The Killers”), but also nimble-witted and at times dry-as-dust funny. In the 1970s, during an infernally long court battle that dragged on for almost the entire decade, he became more famous for being the defendant in the first legal test of palimony (spurring the sale of “Free Lee Marvin” T-shirts) than for any of his contemporary roles. There were still worthy parts and juicy performances, including Michael Ritchie’s venomous satire “Prime Cut” (1972) and, of course, “The Big Red One.” It seems fitting that after 30 years of playing the heavy, the sap, the sneak and the clown, here he was: a hero.
“Lee Marvin: The Coolest Lethal Weapon,” a comprehensive retrospective by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through May 24 at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 496-3809, filmlinc.com. In connection with the series, the Museum of Television and Radio is showing two dramas in which Marvin appeared, including “The American,” today through Sunday and May 18-20; 25 West 52nd Street, Manhattan, (212) 621-6600, mtr.org.