Happy Birthday LEE MARVIN! Here Are His Ten Best Films - We Are Movie Geeks

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Happy Birthday LEE MARVIN! Here Are His Ten Best Films

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Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman

Born 94 years ago today, Lee Marvin rose through the ranks of movie stardom as a character actor, delivering mostly villainous supporting turns in many films before finally graduating to leading roles. Regardless of which side of the law he was on however, he projected a tough-as-nails intensity and a two-fisted integrity which elevated even the slightest material. Born February 19, 1924, in New York City, Marvin quit high school to enter the Marine Corps and while serving in the South Pacific was badly wounded in battle when a machine gun nest shot off part of his buttocks and severed his sciatic nerve. He spent a year in recovery before returning to the U.S. where he began working as a plumber. The acting bug bit after filling in for an ailing summer-stock actor and he studied the art at the New York-based American Theater Wing. Upon making his debut in summer stock, Marvin began working steadily in television and off-Broadway. He made his Broadway debut in a 1951 production of Billy Budd and also made his first film appearance in YOU’RE IN THE NAVY NOW in 1951. Soon Marvin began appearing regularly onscreen, with credits including a lead role in Stanley Kramer’s 1952 war drama EIGHT MEN OUT. After a string of villain roles, Marvin grew unhappy with studio typecasting and moved to television in 1957 to star as Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger in the police series M Squad, which lasted three seasons.

Marvin’s return to the big screen was in 1961 opposite John Wayne in THE COMANCHEROS and starred again with the Duke the next year in the John Ford classic THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. In 1965 he appeared in a dual role as twin gunfighters in the Western spoof CAT BALLOU opposite Jane Fonda, a performance which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor (his first and last nomination).  Next was THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) the biggest hit of his career and he followed that with such great films as POINT BLANK (1967), HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) and even sang in the 1969 western musical PAINT YOUR WAGON with Clint Eastwood (now considered a fiasco, it was actually a financial success and earned Marvin a Golden Globe nomination). Some of his best films from the ’70s were PRIME CUT, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (both 1972), and THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973). Marvin slowed down in the ’80s but did star in Sam Fuller’s great WWII epic THE BIG RED ONE in 1980 and worked opposite Charles Bronson in the memorable DEATH HUNT in 1981. His final screen role was alongside Chuck Norris in DELTA FORCE in 1986. Lee Marvin died of a heart attack on August 29, 1987 at age 63 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lee Marvin appeared in 61 films in his four decades as an actor, and here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best:

Honorable Mention: THE BIG HEAT

After several small roles, Lee Marvin had his ‘Star is Born’ moment in Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (1953) where, as Vince Stone, the sadistic goon of ganglord Alexander Scourby, he mutilates Gloria Grahame’s face by throwing scalding coffee on it. It was such a cruel, violent, and unexpected outburst that shocked audiences (and critics) suddenly took notice of this rugged new actor and it led to further villain roles  the next year opposite Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Marvin would go on from here and deliver a ream of brilliant gruff hard bastard performances. THE BIG HEAT is a tough, uncompromising drama starring Glenn Ford about one man’s crusade against corruption and the high cost his actions have on his own life and the lives of those around him. It’s a violent, fast paced story of an honest cop’s angry and vengeful struggle against the mobsters who killed his wife. Exciting and gripping throughout, the mean-spiritedness it depicts gives it a harder edge than most film noirs of its period.


Michael Ritchie was certainly an odd choice to direct a film about Irish mobsters starring the iconic Lee Marvin.  Ritchie built a career crafting a series of near-perfect films that examined the social and political aspects of competition (THE CANDIDATE, SMILE, SEMI-TOUGH, BAD NEWS BEARS).  While PRIME CUT is an entertaining but somewhat cliched gangster film, it is remembered today only for some great imagery and for the feature film debut of future Oscar winner Sissy Spacek. Marvin plays Nick Devlin, an enforcer for the mob who is sent to Middle America to reign in an insubordinate crime boss (a gleefully malevolent Gene Hackman). Unfortunately, these two have a history that (of course) involves a woman (the beautiful Angel Tompkins), so things head south real fast (as they say in farm country).  Marvin here proves that he was one of the coolest anti-heroes ever, rivaling Eastwood’s or Bronson’s calm exterior that could explode with violence at any moment.  PRIME CUT is betrayed by an episodic, hackneyed script with scenes that have no payoff (a young man leaving his family, Hackman’s weird brother, etc.), while other scenes border on parody (Spacek recounting how she used to snuggle with her girlfriend at the orphanage sounds like something from Penthouse Letters).  But the opening sequence is both gruesome and funny, as easy listening music plays while cattle (and one unlucky human) are literally led to slaughter, intercut with some meatpacking scenes.  The sex slavery storyline is revealed casually in a sequence that’s shocking even by today’s standards (the film contains copious amounts of nudity) but also emphasize the movie’s themes of man’s status as an animal.  Utilizing the wide open spaces of Midwestern farmland, Ritchie juxtaposes images of clean-cut, blonde, overall-clad farm boys armed with shotguns hunting human prey– through a vast field of sunflowers!  In the film’s most famous sequence, Marvin and Spacek run from a deadly combine hay-baler through bright golden wheatfields in broad daylight (the machine ends up destroying an automobile which leads to a nice visual joke).  And the climax is all-out mayhem at the hands of Marvin/Devlin and a submachinegun, as only the man with the steely blue eyes can dispense it.


Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson had interesting parallel careers that intersected several times including right at the beginning. They both made their big screen debuts in the 1951 military comedy YOU’RE IN THE NAVY NOW (Bronson had several lines. Marvin had none). They both had bit roles the next year in DIPLOMATIC COURIER and in 1958 Bronson made a guest appearance on an episode of Marvin’s TV cop show M-Squad. Marvin would go on to win an Oscar for best actor in 1965’s CAT BALLOU while Bronson would be accused of being a non-actor, a ‘wooden indian’ who nonetheless managed to coast on his brooding charisma to the top of the international box-office. THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) was one of the biggest hits of both men’s careers and two unrelated episodes of the TV western The Virginian each actor had guest-starred in were strung together and released theatrically as THE MEANEST MEN IN THE WEST later that year to make it look like they had teamed up yet again (scenes were awkwardly edited to make it look like they’re interacting). In 1981, the actors worked together one last time for the snow-bound action adventure DEATH HUNT. Loosely based on a true story, it’s the tale of mysterious lone trapper Albert Johnson (Bronson) who’s killed some people in a dispute over dogs. This triggers a massive manhunt by the Mounties, led by hard-bitten Sergeant Ed Millen (Marvin) through the unforgiving Canadian Yukon wilderness. DEATH HUNT is simple blood and thunder stuff, with a rugged supporting cast (Ed Lauter, Carl Weathers) and a handful of violent action sequences well-directed by Peter Hunt, a highly-regarded British film editor who had helmed the 007 classic ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.  Marvin and Bronson’s gruff charisma bounce off each other nicely though they only share a couple of scenes and director Hunt shows great skill as looks, nods and raised eyebrows show the two men’s grudging, mutual respect. Angie Dickinson plays Sgt. Millen’s girlfriend and will appear two more times on this top ten list.


It’s unsurprising that Robert Aldrich directed three of the films in this top ten list as so many of his films, VERA CRUZ (1954), FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965), THE LONGEST YARD (1974), depict an isolated a group of rugged men in a self-contained and threatening universe. (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and KISS ME DEALY showed off his diversity), so it’s natural that he worked so well with a physical actor like Lee Marvin. Their first collaboration was ATTACK! (1956), a dark and cynical look at men at war and is one of Aldrich’s very best films, bearing his personal signature in a portrait of infantry warfare set in Belgium circa 1944. Scripted by James Poe (husband of Barbara Steele!) and based on the play The Fragile Fox by Norman Brook, ATTACK! is an intimate battle saga centering on the craven Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), a coward who has achieved his rank due to family connections, specifically his father’s political power. In a strong supporting performance, Lee Marvin plays Colonel Bartlett, an officer who’s aware of Cooney’s incompetence but overlooks the problem in order to promote his own personal ambition and tasks him with setting up artillery observation posts in a strategic, heavily bombarded area. However, the platoon, led by Lt. Costa (Jack Palance), feels victimized, resents the situation and vows to take revenge. Though Marvin’s character is not part of the ultimate conflict, ATTACK! features a number of memorable scenes which combine physical action, superb dialog and emotion perfectly. One scene in which a mortally wounded Lt. Costa prays that God will let him live long enough to kill Cooney is gut-wrenching. The dynamic between Palance and Albert is similar to that of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger in PLATOON thirty years later. ATTACK! Is one of the toughest and most realistic films about WWII combat from the the 1950s.


By 1962 television was the main showcase for stories of the old west. This is when the greatest director of those tales, John Ford, made his last truly classic Western motion picture: THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE starring Marvin as the title character. He had played several cowboy villains on the screen before, but Valance may be his most memorable. In his first scene Valance orchestrates a stagecoach robbery and has to be restrained by his toadies Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin before he kills lawyer Jimmy Stewart with his heavy, silver bullwhip . Every time Valance sees his victim he calls him “dude” in a gutteral, taunting growl. Marvin plays an evil, sadistic bully who intimidates everyone in the small town ( including Andy Devine’s ineffectual sheriff ) except for John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon. There’s a terrific stare down between Marvin and Wayne in the diner where Stewart works. Gunplay is averted, but it’s clear that Valance is a mad dog that needs to be put down. When the newspaper office is trashed and the editor beaten, Stewart’s had enough. In one of the greatest screen showdowns he faces off against the brute who gleefully ‘licks his chops” at the chance to finish off the “dude”. Well, I guess the title kind of gives it away. Still there’s secrets and mysteries behind it that are well worth exploring. As the newsman says at the film’s climax, ” When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”.


This slice of Depression-era Americana is one of Lee Marvin’s best but least-known films.  The movie opens with a lyrical shot of a train chugging through some beautiful Midwestern countryside, smoke billowing behind, mellow country tune playing on the soundtrack.  However, this Norman Rockwell-esque vision soon gives way to a scene of brutal murder at the hands of a superbly menacing Ernest Borgnine.  Borgnine, often cast as a heavy later in his career, here plays one of his best bad guys as ‘Shack’ – captain of a legendary train on which no hobo or drifter ever gets a “free ride”.  Shack enforces this simple rule with a variety of deterrents, such as chains, lead weights, and sledge hammers. Marvin portrays ‘A- Number 1’,  a seasoned, veteran hobo who is smart, strong, and pragmatic.  He sums up his philosophy of life nicely as a rail-hopping metaphor:”Don’t ever grab unless you’re sure you can hold on, [because] you ever let go, she’ll throw you under.”  Part of the fun of EMPEROR is knowing, almost from the first frame, that these two grizzled men are heading for a grand showdown. Director Robert Aldrich is mostly known for his tough guy films (KISS ME DEADLY, DIRTY DOZEN, LONGEST YARD, etc.), and EMPEROR is no exception.  The movie expertly builds to the final confrontation, which takes up nearly the entire second half (including an awesomely suspenseful imminent train collision).  Also thrown in are atmospheric and flavorful set pieces  such as hobo camps and trainyards where some great character actors have names like Hogger and Cracker, and a buddy subplot with Marvin mentoring a young wannabe, rather annoyingly played by Keith Carradine. The film can also be seen as a commentary on the state of things in America, then and now–the characters and even the trains could symbolize different aspects of society or government. But it is Marvin’s persona, in one of his best performances, that is the core of the film.  Violent and cynical, witty and playful, philosophical and resigned, Marvin displays all of this and more, delivering some of the best lines of his career. The train is “my hotel,” he tells Carradine, “The stars at night — I put them there!”  This rough and rugged film (devoid of women except for one brief humorous scene) is truly an underrated classic.


In 1965 Lee Marvin had already made a name for himself on screen as a great Western villain most notably in 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERY VALANCE. Perhaps he thought that it was time to poke some fun at that image by taking on a duel role in director Elliot Silverstein’s comedy-oater . That’s right, a duel role! Marvin is the evil hired killer Tim Strawn, dressed in black and sporting a silver fake nose. After gunning down Catherine ” Cat” Ballou’s daddy she sends for legendary gunfighter ( he stars in pulp novels! ) Kid Shelleen (also Marvin). He has one of the greatest movie entrances ever as he arrives via stagecoach ( in the luggage compartment). Thanks to his love of the bottle, Shelleae’s is far from his gun slingin’ best ( “He missed the barn!”). In those dark politically incorrect days you could still derive humor from the tipsy. Whether he’s about to fall off his galloping steed or ripping the towel off a pompous rich bather, Shelleen is a hoot! He’s even better when he straightens himself up ( with the help of trainer Tom Nardini ) and has a showdown with Strawn. After that Shelean strikes a classic pose as he and his horse lean against a building after a boozy night. CAT boasts a bouncy title tune performed by roving narrators Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye and an incredibly cute Jane Fonda, but it’s Marvin that makes it a classic. The Motion Picture Academy thought so and awarded him the Oscar for Best Actor.


In his last decade as a movie star, the 1980’s, Marvin made just a handful of films. Sam Fuller’s 1980 epic war film stands out as one of the best of either man’s screen careers. Real life WWII vet Marvin plays the grizzled GI who’s only referred to as the sergeant ( we never hear his full name ) who leads an ever dwindling squad including Robert Carradine’s aspiring writer ( a surrogate for Fuller? ) and Mark Hamill ( in between his first two Star Wars gigs ) as a cartoonist through the last battles of the European combat theatre. Marvin’s terrific as the gruff, fatherly figure trying to keep these young men alive. His most memorable scenes, though, may be away from his boys. He’s introduced in a tense battlefield showdown with an unseen enemy at the start of the movie. Later  the sergeant befriends a young refugee after a grueling fire fight. When the boy puts a helmet on his head, so he can play “soldier”, the sergeant gently takes it off and  sadly tosses it aside. He’s seen too many young men, not much older than this boy, march to their deaths. In the film’s final sequence the sergeant desperately tries to save the life of an enemy soldier he had just shot. Seems the war had ended just moments before. With very little dialogue Marvin conveys such much of this weary fighting man’s emotion using only his tired, red eyes. We had gotten to see Marvin’s tough side many times before, but here we get a rare glimpse at his tender side.


In THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), the biggest boxoffice hit of his career, Lee Marvin played WWII Major John Reisman (a role turned down by John Wayne), leader of the unusual and top-secret mission to take twelve soldiers convicted of felony offenses, either serving prison sentences or condemned to death, and turn them into a unit capable of a tough suicide mission: attacking a chateau in France that’s a gathering for a large group of Nazi officers.THE DIRTY DOZEN remains one of the most popular and enduring war films of all time (a reputation that not even three crappy made-for-TV sequels, one starring Marvin, in the late ’80s could taint). Its enduring legacy comes partly from its ensemble cast, several of them actual combat veterans, which includes Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Clint Walker. But the film’s main appeal is Robert Aldrich’s direction, which delivers entertaining, big-scale action and macho posturing. With so many great actors competing for screen time, it’s an impressive feat for anyone to catch the audience’s attention. Given the prominence of his role, Marvin, who always gave 100% to any performance, certainly does. The actor’s legendary screen presence allows him to command the viewer’s attention any time he’s on screen. Other standouts include an understated Bronson, a despicable Savalas and wild-man John Cassavetes, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work as Franco, the most outspoken of Reisman’s convicts. THE DIRTY DOZEN easily stands the test of time, as entertaining today as I’m sure audiences found when it was released in 1967. The nature of war has changed, but the impact of THE DIRTY DOZEN has not.


THE KILLERS (1964) was based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway filmed previously in 1946. It was originally intended as a TV movie but when producers saw the opening scene where Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, as two contract killers, walk into a school for the blind and cold-bloodedly murder John Cassavettes, they decided a theatrical release more appropriate. The story’s told mostly in flashbacks as an investigation by these hit men of why their target, a former race car and getaway driver, didn’t run when he had the chance. This leads to a hidden million dollar stash from a heist years before by a mail robbery gang led by Ronald Reagan (in his last film – looking presidential despite bad hair and a nasty moment slapping Angie Dickinson silly!). Marvin was excellent in perhaps is most iconic role as Charlie Strom, a growling killing machine in a tailored suit and shades. He steals the show as the brains behind the assassination outfit, but he’s so confounded by the willingness of Cassavettes to meet his ultimate fate that his curiosity leads to his own. He and Gulager almost anticipate Travolta and Jackson’s similarly argumentive pairing in PULP FICTION thirty years later especially in a scene where they bicker over who is going to finish their steak first. Marvin is the perfect thinking man’s hit-man, never wasting a word, thinking ahead and planning his moves. He garners respect even when brutalizing a blind librarian. Director Don Siegel would go on to DIRTY HARRY among others and does a nice clean job setting THE KILLERS in a brightly lit, cheery L.A. that’s at odds with the grim story. It’s a film noir without the noir and one of the best crime films of the ’60s.


One of the most influential films of the 1960s, director John Boorman’s take on the crime thriller is perhaps Lee Marvin’s best film.  Based on the novel THE HUNTER by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake), Marvin plays Walker (no first name, “not even for his wife”), a man betrayed during a heist by his good friend Reese and wife Lynne (screen debuts of John Vernon and Sharon Acker).  Years later, Walker returns to exact his revenge, and reclaim his cut of the loot–the rather mundane amount of $93,000 – with the help of sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson, who has never been sexier). Boorman tells this story using nearly every cinematic tool at his disposal.  Rapid edits and jump cuts not only change locations but whip us from past to present. Sound effects overlap from one scene to the next, and dialogue or sounds from a previous scene play over an entirely different scene.  Colors change throughout from muted, washed-out hues to bright, vibrant shades as the movie becomes more exciting or violent (note that even Marvin’s hair color changes!).  In one striking sequence (which predates a similar one in Kubrick’s 2001), Walker goes from room to room as the decor changes, leaving us questioning both time and reality. Add in some great dialogue (mostly lifted right from the book), a tense musical score by Johnny Mandel, and a veteran cast (Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner), and you have a constantly inventive film that’s full of surprising touches.  Dickinson plays a tough cookie very well–when she finally loses it and starts beating on Walker, it’s a classic scene. Marvin met Boorman in England while shooting DIRTY DOZEN and became intrigued by the character of Walker.  According to Boorman, Marvin had a great deal of creative input into the film and its structure, and Boorman believed Marvin saw some of himself in the story of a man seeking to reclaim his own humanity.  One ongoing debate about POINT BLANK is whether the entire film is a dying man’s dream.  Whether that’s true or not, it is definitely the stuff that dreams are made of for true lovers of cinematic masterpieces.

Lee Marvin made so many great films and runner-ups for this list would have to include THE WILD ONE, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, DELTA FORCE, and HELL IN THE PACIFIC.  Here’s a wonderful illustration of Lee Marvin by our friend Paul Daly. More of Paul’s artwork can be seen on Facebook HERE

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