The not so quiet American: Lee Marvin

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin was no softy. He was a man who held his own in war pictures, westerns and action-soaked media from the 1950s all the way to his death in 1987. From his spectacular performance as Chino in The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953) to his television appearances in M Squad (1957-60) and finale in Menahem Golan’s Delta Force (1986), Lee Marvin worked it all out. Behind the scenes, stories on him are legendary: raging drunk, womanizer, loyal veteran, consummate professional…the list goes on and on, each description contrary to the other. Lee Marvin is, it seems, a real urban legend. There is even rumored to be a secret society dedicated to the actor called the “Sons of Lee Marvin,” which includes such upstanding individuals as musicians Tom Waits and Nick Cave, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and actors John Lurie and Richard Boes. Why such a fuss over one man? Because he’s that f*cking cool.

So… facts about Lee Marvin: he was, in fact, a war veteran. After being kicked out of a variety of schools in his youth, he served as a Scout Sniper in the U.S. Marines, but was shot in the buttocks area during WWII by Japanese fire, severing his sciatic nerve area. He was thus given an official medical discharge. Don’t let this fool you, however: most of his platoon lost their lives in that very same battle. Lee Marvin went forward into off-Broadway theater almost directly following this, and then Hollywood soon after, focusing primarily in war films. Do what you know, right? However, Lee Marvin’s importance to the film world goes beyond rumored tales of his drunken set antics causing a punch-out by a very frustrated Burt Lancaster or stories of his kinesthetic working relationship with John Boorman. He is, quite literally, the subject of male character actor worship for anyone who loves action cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. While many fans may not have bothered with Edward Dmytrk’s Raintree County (1957), their experience with Marvin has been enough to solidify him as an icon of high-level masculine culture. His strong participation in our moving image heritage that has created Masculine Media has made him a central and much beloved figure. The Marvin persona and identity knows no bounds.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin is the epitome of “tough guy.” He is the actor who smiles rarely and behaves in a manner that the rest of the film-watching public can associate with the concept of masculinity based on his lack of emotionality or highly controlled feelings. These characteristics are those that society has deemed endemic to the “real man” identity. They are also are part and parcel to Lee Marvin’s performer image, and are the underlying themes behind much of his work. As lacking in feeling or unsentimental as many of Marvin’s characters may appear to be, they are, in actuality, quite the opposite. The acting resumé of Lee Marvin reads like the life of a hermit crab. Each time he changes roles, he changes shells at the same time. Like these crustaceans with the tender underbelly, Marvin’s “tough guy” characters have a tendency towards the hypermasculine and the overtly violent, creating a space around themselves that is, like the hermit crab’s solid casing, visible and protective, and meant to shield the vulnerable inner form. That said, it is entirely possible that the films and icons that we have been accepting as the most masculine due to their primary characters showing a complete lack of emotion and a heightened ability to kick everyone’s ass are actually the ones to highlight how false this notion really is. If this were the case, Lee Marvin would be one of the best examples.

In his vast and varied collection of cinematic performances, from cowboy to detective to soldier, one of the things that you could count on from this New York City-native was a natural expression of non-expression. While some might say that his blank, stony look increased the drama of the film and heightened the tension of practically any given scene, it could also be argued that to Marvin, the idea of reacting to the world around him in an emotionally vibrant manner would have undone the necessary “male strength” of each role. Whether on or off-stage, Lee Marvin was a “man’s man,” and that meant playing to what society’s gauge read at the time. But it didn’t mean playing without passion or being cardboard. In fact, what Marvin did in his career was expose a side of masculinity to the screen that, while perhaps not always the most positive or progressive, was honest. The sentimentality that he chose to show was one uniquely related to the socially developed concepts of manhood and all its trappings. His violent outbursts in Point Blank or tired silences in The Big Red One gave a strong sense of feeling within each character. Lee Marvin’s cinematic career and character choices (whether done simply for cash or due to personal attraction to the project) became emblematic of what Being A Man meant. He became the ultimate archetype. By playing cops, criminals, cowboys and wizened old military men he created a persona that no one has been able to emulate since. By playing every masculine icon, Marvin became every man’s icon.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

In the beginning of his career, Lee Marvin was a figure with a mean streak on the cinematic landscape. Take The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) for example. A highly touted film noir, this film features Glenn Ford teaming up with Gloria Grahame in order to seek revenge against the gangsters who have created havoc in both their lives. Lee Marvin’s character, lead gangster Vince Stone, is not a guy you want to take home to mama. On a scale of 1 to 10, his sadistic side goes up to 11. Truly nasty characters such as Liberty Valance (possibly the most sadistic villain in all Western film history) from John Ford’s classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Vince Stone were played with such convincing style and splendor by Marvin that he became known as the man who had perfected roles of this type and the qualities that they came with. But was Vince Stone’s repeated cruelty to women in The Big Heat just due to a brutal nature, or was it something more? In the scene where Marvin crushes a woman’s hand on the bar during a dice game and he is confronted by Glenn Ford’s character, cop Dave O’Bannion, the exchange between the two men is one that might cause us to question whether Stone’s true sensibility is as cold and calculating as he would have us believe. “You like working girls over, don’t you?” O’Bannion asks Stone. While Stone stares at O’Bannion and the woman cradles her mangled hand and cries, Marvin’s face, while mostly unchangeable, seems to soften and become uncomfortable. It is almost as though O’Bannion can see through him, can see that his abuse towards this woman, towards any woman, is more of a passionate hostility and frustration against a world and things he cannot control, women being top on that list. Stone gets up off his bar stool and, in an almost bashful manner, takes out his moneyroll, and tosses the crying woman a few bills, muttering things to her about “getting herself something nice.” While this performance was certainly done in part for O’Bannion because of his police officer standing, the discomfort that registered on Stone’s face on being asked about his affinity for abusing women is telling. As a character, Stone registers as something more than just your average gangster. Sadistic, cruel and utterly brutal but not disengaged.

Lee Marvin was gifted with a very special ability that many of his colleagues simply didn’t possess. What Marvin could add to any character was a level of danger and volatility, sensitivity or sensuality that lay just below the surface. His face may have looked stony and cold, but it was for exactly that reason that he was the last person to mess with. Lee Marvin’s characters were the “strong silent type” but they were the strong silent type with a past. If you look at the strangely beautiful and psychedelic Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) it is the perfect example of this. Summarily, this film is about a man, Walker, who plans a heist for a good sum of money with a friend but is double-crossed by that “friend” who goes off with Walker’s wife and leaves Walker for dead. Walker, of course, is very much alive and thus the remainder of the film is his journey from Alcatraz (the point of the double-cross) to Los Angeles and various corners in order to exact revenge.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

Boorman could have made this film with a straightforward narrative. But he didn’t. Boorman could have made this film an accessible action or crime film. But he didn’t. Because of this, Point Blankserves as one of the most intimate looks at masculinity, violence, and revenge that has ever been committed to celluloid. The flashbacks (of which there are several, interrupting any hope for a linear storyline) are direct representations of Walker (Marvin)’s own mind. Not only do these flashbacks detail his pain over being betrayed, repeatedly, but they also reveal his anguish over his wife’s suicide in the very beginning of the film, a suicide partially spawned by his return. These “guilt flashbacks” cannot be seen in Marvin’s face. He registers nothing. The visual landscape that the audience is privy to explore represents what it is to be a betrayed and angry man, a man who is emotionally traumatized and does not know what to do with his feelings. Point Blank is one of the few action/crime films that lets the audience see the violence that a man goes through on the inside while he exacts great amounts of physical violence on the outside.

One of the key moments of the film is when Walker has convinced his sister-in-law, Chris (Angie Dickinson) to bed Mal Reese (John Vernon) the man who has double-crossed him. Once this has occurred, Walker (Marvin) jumps in and grabs Vernon in order to try to get his revenge and his $93,000. As Reese fearfully attempts to avoid Walker’s violence, he says, “Trust me.” Little does Reese know that this is the worst thing he can do for a man in such a fragile state as Walker. Walker may not be crazy, but Walker is angry and hurt. Therefore, when Reese mentions trust, it acts as a trigger for the flashbacks to come rushing back. These are the same flashbacks that Walker has as he is lying on the floor of the Alcatraz Prison Cell after having just been shot, at the very beginning of the film. Accidentally paralleling these experiences is not the best thing Reese could have done. Without giving away too much of the film, suffice to say that Point Blank definitely teaches you that asking a man who you have betrayed to trust you is probably not the smartest idea in the book.

And yet it doesn’t work out very well for Walker either. As he is down in the parking lot, post “incident” with Reese, there is a shot of him leaning against a pole, staring straight ahead. The camera holds on his face. While he maintains that same “Lee Marvin look,” it is unclear as to whether what he has just done has disturbed him. As opposed to the other violence that Walker commits in the film, it seems that this one action, committed against the friend who betrayed him, actually had some effect.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

The plot of Point Blank gave the audience the traditional “anti-hero Lee Marvin” that they were used to but the various flashbacks and non-linear structure included an internal velocity and psychological depth that many of his other films never reached. This is a film that is widely considered to be one of his best, primarily because it put filmic complexity to an actor who was considered to be simply an archetype. While Marvin had played other layered characters, Walker is one that asks dual alignment: criminality and emotionality. Some have called this an art film, but it is only as much an art film as our own thinking and memory is “art.” The non-linear structure of Point Blank asks the audience to revisit violence from an emotional standpoint and live inside an angry and anguished man’s head for the entirety of a film. It asks us to think, experience, feel as he does, and watch his actions.

Lee Marvin did an incredible amount of films during his career, most of them dealing with issues of masculinity. His work in military films was unprecedented, probably as a result of having been in the military himself. While they were not prone to Point Blank-like flashbacks, his three best military roles were also figures with pasts. Henry “Rico” Fardan in The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966) is a professional soldier hired to go on a rescue mission with a few other “professionals” just after the 1917 Mexican Revolution. Major Reisman in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a military figure with a not-so-positive reputation who is selected to head up a band of no-gooders to go into the battle zone and complete a very dangerous assignment. The Sergeant in Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) is an older and more experienced soldier leading younger men through World War II. Each of these roles presented Marvin as a strong and uncompromising figure, able to lead young men through the toughest of circumstances or be the best at fighting alongside his team. The morals and ethics that he espoused within these films were not only part of a certain patriotism that seems to lie in a “Brotherhood of Men,” but they also reflected a certain reverence for masculine homosocial behavior.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

The reliability upon each other for strength, moral, physical and emotional is extremely present in these films in a way that it doesn’t seem to appear in more modern military cinema. As the violence in war films got more intense (indeed, as the wars themselves got more intense), the relationships amongst men in moving pictures developed into something different. Lee Marvin’s role in these films, especially in The Big Red One is one that should really be noted as significant in the larger scope of war cinema.

As we look at his career, we may want to consider the reasons for which Lee Marvin’s oeuvre has sparked his permanent presence in the Masculinity Hall of Fame. While he has been in all the “guy genres,” it is not simply his body count or his emotionless countenance. It is the fact that in Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972) his monotone voice, no-nonsense attitude, and aptitude for violence without firearms accompanies well-defined morals and ethics. It is that when you see him in Delta Force (Menahem Golan, 1986)his military film history has built up enough of an identity that while they were platforming action star Chuck Norris in that film, Marvin’s heroic identity brought something wholly different and special to the picture on a level that Norris could never reach.

The Myth of Macho: Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin won the Academy Award in 1965 for a comedic picture he was in entitled Cat Ballou(Elliot Silverstein, 1965). While the film is a great deal of fun and Marvin is fantastic in it playing both roles, his acting accomplishments and contributions to what we view as “hard hitting male movies” are beyond measure. Far beyond Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965) and way before Hell in the Pacific (John Boorman, 1968), Marvin had established a strong career and a lively persona. As we negotiate the ways in which he has supplemented and complicated men’s roles in cinema, what we should also look at are the ways in which his identity as a cinematic icon changed the playing field for the ways in which the personal and professional lives of actors get synthesized.

The largeness of “Lee Marvin” is partial fact, partial legend. This was certainly supplemented by the various hypermasculine roles that he took on. It is certainly not always easy to discuss him as many of the parts he has played can be troubling at best. Looking at Lee Marvin’s contributions to the world of Male Cinema, it goes beyond mere genre celebration or the glee of the ultra-violent. Marvin’s performances depicted male histories and struggles, not always fictionally bound. Lee Marvin’s iconographic status comes from being a tough guy in the movies but it also stems from reflecting the ability to tough it out under rough circumstances. Whether you believe the fact or the fiction (or perhaps a little of both), his existence in cinema is here to remind us that, sometimes, those lines are meant to be blurred.


Via Crave