Monday, March 11, 2013

The Five Best Lee Marvin Performances

While recently reading a new biography of Lee Marvin, I was reminded of his many memorable performances. That led to this latest installment in our "Five Best" series:

1. Point Blank.  As the vengeance-driven Walker, Lee Marvin could have opted to play the protagonist as a robotic killing machine in John Boorman's cult classic. Instead, he provides a complex, nuanced performance that allows Walker's uncomfortable quietness to explode into raw violence. Marvin may have done better acting in other films, but this is his most powerful performance.

2.  Monte Walsh.  Like Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, this fine Western explores the changing times faced by the rugged men who tamed the frontier. A grizzled Marvin captures the title character's honesty, toughness, and--most of all--understanding of the inevitable (the film is often labeled a tragedy).  Had the Academy Awards not given Marvin an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I think he would have been at least nominated for this performance. Incidentally, there's a strong Shane connection: Jack Palance co-stars and the source novel was penned by Shane author Jack Schaefer.

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Compile a list of great Hollywood villains and Liberty Valance is likely to be on it. He's downright despicable in scenes like his confrontation with a pistol-packing Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart). As Stoddard approaches nervously from the shadows, Valance leans casually against a post and laughs almost gleefully, before finally announcing: "All right, dude, this time right between the eyes." It's a pivotal performance in a classic John Ford Western.

4. The Dirty Dozen. In perhaps his most famous role, Marvin played Major John Reisman, who is given the perilous task of molding twelve Army convicts into a cohesive unit for a suicide mission behind enemy lines during World War II. The film's first half is lighthearted, focusing on Reisman's training challenges; the second half is first-rate, nonstop action. As a result, The Dirty Dozen provides Marvin with an opportunity to show both his lighter side and his familiar tough side. In a film with several memorable supporting performances, he is the glue that holds everything together.

5. Cat Ballou. I struggled with this choice, because I think Marvin's Oscar-winning performance is overrated. Personally, I much prefer Marvin in The Professionals and other films listed among the honorable mentions. However, having recently watched Cat Ballou, one can't deny that it features his most different performance as washed-up, drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen (although he does double duty as villain Tim Strawn, that amounts to little more than a cameo). His best scene is when Kid finally decides to get cleaned up for a showdown against his rival.

Honorable Mentions: The Professionals; The Big Red One; The Iceman Cometh; Ships of Fools; and The Killers (1964);


Mitchell Hadley said...

Terrific list. I agree that "Cat Ballou" has to be on the list even if it means taking the place of another role. Personally, for me it would be "The Killers"; Marvin's literate hitman actually works better, I think, than Edmond O'Brien's investigator in the original. Think Tarantino was influenced by that?

"Point Blank" is a great movie. You're right - Marvin's quiet performance makes him that much more menacing and explosive. Very few actors understand that.

Walker Martin said...

Great choices and I've seen them all and enjoyed them. I would also add M SQUAD the TV series. Though it's not a movie, the 4 years that Lee Marvin starred showed that he was a real star and could play hardboiled parts with the best actors.

Grand Old Movies said...

Essential choices of Lee Marvin roles - Marvin was a great, underrated actor. While his later performances, beginning in the 60s when he became a star, really capture his talent and screen persona, I also like his work in early, smaller roles in the 50s, where you can see him beginning to make his mark - particularly in 'The Wild One' (he steals every scene he's in), 'Raintree Country' (affecting and powerful), and of course 'The Big Heat,' in which he gives Glenn Ford a reason to put the heat on.

DorianTB said...

Rick, I always enjoy Lee Marvin's performances, whether he's in an early supporting role in THE CAINE MUTINY, playing to the funnybone in CAT BALLOU or dead serious in POINT BLANK or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. You did a great job with your five favorites!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

I'm a fan of his Sergeant in The Big Red One, but agree with your choice of Walker from Point Blank. Unfortunately, his drunker performance in the less that stellar Cat Ballou overshadows his other work.

R. D. Finch said...

Rick, like a lot of others who left comments, I'm a big, big fan of "Point Blank." John Boorman has made some great films, but for me this is the best of all, my second favorite American film of 1967 after "Bonnie and Clyde." Of course, that's due equally to Lee Marvin's great performance as Walker, and I'm glad to see it get the #1 spot.

I also love him in "Liberty Valance," the ultimate of the vicious slimeballs he played in many films of the 50s. I agree with Kim about how good he was in "The Big Red One." I also rather liked him in a film called "Prime Cut" with Gene Hackman and a young Sissy Spacek. With such a resume, how did he get only one Oscar nomination, and for a performance that doesn't exactly showcase his real strengths as an actor?

M.T. Fisher said...

Marvin gave better performances when he was a supporting actor in fims such as RAINTREE COUNTY, THE BIG HEAT and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, in my humble opinion.

Caftan Woman said...

Last week was Lee Marvin time around here as I made my daughter watch "Dragnet: The Big Cast" and "Seven Men from Now".

Over time I have come to a major appreciation of Lee Marvin's work in "Cat Ballou". Rewatch his introductory scene where he talks about the life of a gunfighter. The dialogue could be straight out of any adult western of the 50s, yet he plays it as a drunk with his pants falling down. It is brilliant.

Jeff Flugel said...

Good, well-rounded list, Rick, but don't forget Marvin's great turn in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. He's also really good in HELL IN THE PACIFIC. I'm not a fan of CAT BALLOU but as you say it is a real departure for Marvin. THE PROFESSIONALS is my all-time favorite film, so I'd probably give it the edge over the others.

The less said about PAINT YOUR WAGON, the better.

Patti said...

Lee Marvin isn't an actor who often crosses my radar, so I'm not familiar with any of the films you've mentioned, except for "Liberty Valance." The film that always comes to my mind when I think of him is "The Big Heat," when he throws the hot coffee into Gloria Grahame's face.

"The Iceman Cometh" has been on my "must watch" list for awhile now, only because it is the final film of 2 great faves...Robert Ryan and Fredric March. I rarely watch 70's movies, plus it is so incredibly long, so I've been putting it off. But it must be amazing in its acting, because you've rated it one of Marvin's best, and I've read that it's one of Ryan's best (and I think he was awesome nearly always).

John/24Frames said...

questionable considering the performances he was up against. Steiger should have walked away with it for THE PAWNBROKER - IMHO. MONTE WALSH BTW is a great underrated silm that needs to be better known.I would switch out CAT BALLOU and toss in his performance in THE KILLERS. Though he is only in the film for about half the running time, he steals it from all. I have nothing against CAT BALLOU, a fun film but the OSCAR was questionable considering the performances he was up against. IMHO Rod Steiger should have won for THE PAWNBROKER. BTW MONTE WALSH is a terrific film that should be better known!

MustGrill said...

I liked Donovan’s Reef

DGA said...

Wow! What an underrated actor he was, not just a mean bully he seemed to portray in more than just a few movies. For example, in Pete Kelly's Blues he's a clarinetist and the first musician to get out of town when the mob put the squeeze on a jazz combo which featured a vocalist played by Peggy Lee. So, he wasn't afraid to play the occasional coward. He also, by all accounts liked to socialise with 'working stiffs' as he understood their daily struggles to survive, rather than the Hollywood set.
Therefore my first choice would be Monte Walsh. His empathetic portrayal of one the last cowboys of a frontier age struggling in the modern age should have got an Oscar nomination at least.
Whereas I prefer the 1940s version of The Killers, Marvin brings depth and intelligence to his role in the excellent remake. And of course he's frightening!
Thirdly,I would choose Seven Men From Now opposite someone Lee seemed to admire immensely, Randolph Scott. Again, there's lots of menace but also thoughtfulness and even a trace of empathy for a late acquaintance and what may be an honourable departure in the finale.
#4 I love The Professionals. In that he worked brilliantly with Burt Lancaster and co as an elder statesman of the mercenary trade, imbued with more wisdom than the bravado of his youth.
My 5th choice is tricky. In the end I would go along with what others have suggested.....and totally ignored that as I suddenly remembered his masterful performance as the self-serving career Colonel who lets his subordinates down badly in Attack! His moral cowardice almost costs the Americans the whole European campaign in 1944!