Tag Archives: Lee Marvin

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) 4.71/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 88.3
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Duration: 81 mins
Director: John Sturges
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin

“I’m half horse, half alligator. Mess with me and I’ll kick a lung out of ya.” Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and the immortal Spencer Tracy star in this gritty WW II era western. Tracy stars as a disabled veteran who arrives in a one-horse town to look up the father of a Japanese-American soldier who saved his life whilst giving up his own in the process. Met with paranoia, aggression, and fear he soon begins to suspect that the townspeople are guilty of a dark secret concerning the Japanese father. Tracy was always the best at playing the iron willed moral compass of a film and in this film he hones that skill to a fine point in what must be one of his finest performances. The bad guys are all played with suitable menace with Marvin and Ryan standing out in particular. Director John Sturges lets the considerable tension simmer just beneath the surface for most of the film but when Tracy squares off against the various villains that tension becomes palpable. Though the drama builds up slowly, Sturges gives the story a real sense of urgency beginning with that thumping introduction as the camera moves in on Tracy’s train hurtling through the desert towards the dark truth. There are some truly outstanding action sequences including a tasty fight between Borgnine and Tracy where the latter gives us one of the earliest glimpses of martial arts fighting in a Hollywood picture. Bad Day at Black Rock is a remarkable film defined by some career-best performances, a brave story, and some extremely inspired direction that was well ahead of its time.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) 4.86/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 85.3
Genre: Western
Duration: 123 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin

John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).

The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.

As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.

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The Big Red One (1980) 4.57/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 81.5
Genre: War
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine

Samuel Fuller’s quasi-autobiographical story follows the European exploits of the first Infantry division, The Big Red One, throughout the course of World War II. It’s a truly extraordinary example of the genre reflecting as it does more a subjective recounting of disconnected episodes than traditional narratives driven by discernible plot. In fact, in this painfully honest film, plot is replaced by theme and it is in this respect that The Big Red One stands above the vast majority of all other war films. Fuller treads dangerous territory as he asks the questions that would plague the personal thoughts of any soldier during combat service, questions that society and media has always actively ignored. On top of that, the manner in which he asks them is so cinematically impressive that the quieter, more pensive moments of the film will stay with you for a long time.

Lee Marvin top-lines as the Sergeant of 1st Squad, 1st Platoon and the looser story is anchored to his performance. His granite-like features and stoic demeanour have rarely been better utilised as they are here and he enriches the drama/action whenever the camera is on him. The script is lean but a genuine sense of friendship between the squad emerges as the Sergeant plays both the badass and one of the gang. There are times when the words come across a little clunky but even that is in line with the minimalist leanings of the script. Shot from such a personal perspective, the battle sequences are as unique as the story’s structure but no less impressive than those typical to more traditional films (and there’s plenty of them). There’s a strain of dark humour running right through the film which is at its sharpest during the action. The fighting isn’t particularly bloody as Fuller chooses to make his point more symbolically but that only seems to make it more effective. The Big Red One is one of a kind and perhaps has more in common with Catch 22 than an outright action movie. Its unorthodox style is not for everyone but it’s required viewing for film buffs and history students alike. Note: Richard Schickle’s 2004 ‘reconstruction’ adds to the scope of the project and more aptly frames much of what Fuller was trying to say, so if you can, look up the 156 minute version.

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The Professionals (1966) 4.72/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 85.4
Genre: Western
Duration: 117 mins
Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan

“Maybe there’s only one revolution since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys.” Three years before The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks wrote, directed, and assembled a middle-aged western heavy mob of his own with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode squaring off against a Mexican revolutionary played by (err..) Jack Palance, who has kidnapped a wealthy American’s wife (Claudia Cardinale). Marvin and co. play four specialists (guns, explosives, horses, tracker) who are put together to traverse the Mexican desert, rescue said wife, and bring her back across the border alive.

Although The Professionals is not as overtly philosophical as Peckinpah’s later film, it has some wonderful moments of quiet reflection where times past and the politics of the modern world are considered in mature and touching ways. Rather than being seen as increasingly obsolete, however, the seasoned experience of the four heroes is taken more traditionally as a virtue, as their combined expertise is put to work in a series of well crafted and memorable set pieces.

The Professionals is a technically superb movie on nearly every level. Conrad L. Hall’s photography creates an awesome  backdrop worthy of the epic action and the use of the “day-for-night” technique gives the night time shots a striking beauty. Maurice Jarre’s score is as rousing as any from that vintage and used well throughout. However, the real strength of the film is the script and story. The plot was hugely original for its time and the manner in which it develops is disciplined and clever. The scenarios which the protagonists act out are its equal and the dialogue is as good as if not better than anything the western has offered up.

Needless to say, the cast is uniformly splendid and while Ryan and Strode have less to do than the other two, they throw in with some wonderfully memorable performances. But this film is all about Marvin and particularly Lancaster who were rarely better. Marvin gives one of those thoughtful man-with-the-will-of-iron turns but with more emphasis on the former than we typically saw from him. This sets the tone for the film more than anything else. Lancaster, on the other hand, sets the theme, the momentum, and the energy with a profoundly magnetic turn as the “the whirlingist dervish of them all!”. Charming, chilling, rousing, and full of shrewd intelligence, his Dolworth is easily one of the most under-appreciated western characters and as we watch Lancaster swinging from trains and scaling 100 foot canyon walls (without a safety harness), the character and actor become one and the same. What an actor. What a man. What a professional.

Although, it has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten over the years, The Professionals is one of the very best westerns of its era. It takes a refreshing break from town marshals and nasty cattle ranchers to explore the more peripherally relevant themes of the wild west but, best of all, it throws a handful of movie legends together with a script and movie big enough to do every bit of their monumental personalities justice. “So what else is on your mind besides 100 proof women, 90 proof whiskey, and 14 carat gold?” Pure class!

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The Big Heat (1953) 4.57/5 (5)


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Rating: The Good – 79.1
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 90 mins
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin

Glenn Ford plays David Bannion, a straight shooting detective who goes against his superiors’ orders and investigates a mob boss with political connections. When his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is killed by a car bomb meant for him, he leaves the department and begins his own investigation into the killing with a view to ultimately dispensing the justice himself. The Big Heat is a dark film where the bad guys torture and disfigure women and the good guys are pushed to the limit in their quest for revenge. That such a film was made in the early 50′s is a testament to the bravery of all concerned. Ford is magnificent as the brooding detective (with shades of his Johnny Farrell turn in Gilda) and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of him in this genre. Brando is excellent as his strong willed wife and Gloria Grahame puts in another seminal noir turn as the plucky girlfriend and inevitable victim of Lee Marvin’s deranged Vince Stone.

The Big Heat is undoubtedly one of the more hardcore examples of a genre that was known for its dark drama but to the credit of all involved, it is also one of the more substantial in terms of premise, set-up, and overall story. Much time is given to the introduction of Brando’s character and she remains integral to Bannion’s motivations, justifications, and reflections right through to the climactic scene. Fritz Lang in particular is to be commended for this rich balancing act as he moves between the warmth of the family homestead to the sultriness and grime of the gangster hangouts without missing a beat. It isn’t one of his more strikingly shot films and there is a studio gloss that contrasts with his earlier 1940’s US work but there’s a strength and command to its look and sound that reveals the unmistakable work of a master.

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Prime Cut (1972) 3.43/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 74.7
Genre: Action, Crime
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Michael Ritchie
Stars: Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek

“He’s the expert from Chicago. I heard people talking.” Michael Ritchie’s gritty quasi-satire is as hard nosed as 70′s cinema got and it’s not difficult to see why with Lee Marvin playing the enforcer sent by the Chicago mob to deal with fearless and loathsome cattle rancher Gene Hackman in Kansas City. This is a film which plays by its own rules right from the beginning as we see Hackman’s henchman turning the mob’s previous enforcer into sausage before sending him back up to Chicago. Marvin is steel (as usual) in the main role as Devlin but with the calm intelligence of a man who knows how to get things done. Hackman is just plain disturbing as the sadistic Mary Ann who treats women like cattle (literally) while Sissy Spacek scores well as one such woman who latches on to Marvin for help. Ritchie brings it all together with a thunderous punch so successfully in fact that there are definite shades of Prime Cut in later masterpieces such as Reservoir Dogs. The pace drops at points as Ritchie doesn’t always find the right balance between paradoy and hard edged action but for the most part Prime Cut is vintage stuff.

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Attack (1956) 4.07/5 (6)


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Rating: The Good – 77.3
Genre: War
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert

Robert Aldrich’s Attack is a war film about guts that took a lot of guts to make. At a time when most Hollywood movies were being actively supported by the military with equipment, machinery, vehicles, and other logistics, Attack was not considered by the military to convey as positive a message as other more propagandist movies did. Thus, without the support of the military, it was made on a shoestring budget and with a bare minimum of props and equipment which they had to acquire themselves. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, Attack shines a piercing light on the less seen side to war: that of cowardice. In the wake of Band of Brothers, where such subject matter was dealt with in a number of episodes (and in a very similar way to Aldrich’s film), this might not seem so risky but in the 1950’s, it very much was. That said, the film is not a criticism of the army but in actuality a respectful examination of the individuals who find themselves in battle whether they signed up or not.

Eddie Albert stars as a captain of a National Guard Infantry company ordered to take and hold a strategically important town from a regiment of SS. However, as Captain Cooney is only there to impress his powerful and overbearing father and has no stomach for battle, he has on numerous occasions let his men die by failing to move in and support besieged front line platoons which he sends in ahead of himself. Jack Palance is the caring but tough as steel Lieutenant Costa who decides he has had enough of his captain’s cowardice and promises to kill the captain if he fails to support his troops again.

The premise is truly gripping as the tension is softly tightened with every passing skirmish, battle, and personal confrontation between the officers. Albert who himself was a decorated war hero showed an astonishing amount of bravery by throwing everything into his detestable character while also managing to reveal the damaged person underneath all Cooney’s pretense. It’s a wholly commendable performance that probably could only have been delivered  by someone who had nothing left to prove in real life. Palance too was rarely better in an equally substantial and multifaceted performance. Lee Marvin offers some interesting and uncharacteristic support as the ambitious superior of both Costa and Albert whose politically motivated yet reckless promotion of the latter is what’s ultimately to blame for the decimation of the company.

There’s a stark beauty to the way this film is shot with the rubble of the destroyed buildings being wonderfully captured by the coarse black and white photography. The direction behind the action sequences is outstanding and the crew made a lot of the small resources they had. However, it’s in the more personal moments where Aldrich’s direction really stands out. Being one of the better film-noir directors, it’s not surprising that his use of light to reflect the varying tensions of the indoor sequences is superb and it adds substantially to the mood of those scenes. Norman Brook’s play and James Poe’s screenplay no doubt provided the rich basis for all this and while the dialogue is bare in terms of finesse, it actually serves to accentuate the raw emotion it’s expressing.

Attack is a fascinating breath of fresh air which will make even the most familiar fans of war movies stop in their tracks. It’s complex and determined and in the final analysis does more to honour the men of WWII than most flag waving propagandist films.

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The Caine Mutiny (1954) 3.71/5 (4)


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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: War
Duration: 124 mins
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, Lee Marvin

First class naval drama maturely constructed and boasting a sharply effective third act. Humphrey Bogart stars as a strict and fussy new captain to the USS Caine, whose questionable orders begin to worry his officers that they have either a coward or a madman on their hands. When matters come to a head, the executive officer assumes command and finds himself on trial for mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny is an unusual film in that it begins in an extremely light-hearted fashion, almost like a screwball comedy, only to swiftly move through the gears in the final 20 minutes. Bogart deserves special mention for bravely taking on a role which many stars of his status would’ve balked at. Needless to say, this is a different type of turn to his more iconic performances and more similar to his Key Largo and The African Queen performances. He handles it wonderfully and is both intimidating and vulnerable when he needs to be. Van Johnson is a fine foil as the moral centre to the ship while Fred McMurray adds some personality as the crafty trouble maker of the crew. Given the title of the film, it’s somewhat surprising the court-martial hearing is only 10 minutes long but it’s a gripping 10 minutes thanks largely to José Ferrer’s show stealing turn as the lawyer charged with the defence. It’s compelling stuff and it’s through him that the dramatic turnabout in that final act is largely achieved. The extent to which the story panders to Navy sensitivities at that point can be questioned but there’s no doubt that it offers an interesting twist on the traditional concept of mutiny and together with Ferrer’s delivery, it gives that final sequence a mighty punch.

On the technical front, the sea-based manoeuvres are the usual mix of navy assisted shots and real life footage and even though there’s less of it than in other naval films of that era, they provide a strong context for the drama inside the ship. Director Edward Dmytryk provides a cultured hand behind the camera and ensures that a film of extremely contrasting moods comes across seamlessly and enjoyably at all times.

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