Lee Marvin: 50s Villain, 60s Icon, 70s Disappointment

In Medium Cool:  The Movies of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden ranked Lee Marvin ahead of Steve McQueen as most representative of that cinematic era.  Like McQueen, Marvin was an anti-hero, a rebel.  His characters were cool and collected and sometimes calculating.  It had been a long haul to this pinnacle.

After World War II service as a Marine, bad day at black rockMarvin took acting lessons, performed in summer stock, and in the 1950s became arguably the most despicable bad guy in crime films and westerns.  Nineteen-fifty-three was a banner year.   He became famous for tossing scalding coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face in The Big Heat (1953), standing up against rival motorcycle gang leader Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and hanging out with those other great Hollywood heavies Leo Gordon and Neville Brand in Gun Fury.  Nineteen-fifty-five was hardly less significant.  In Bad Day at Black Rock Marvin backed Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine against Spencer Tracy’s one-armed vet investigating the death of a Japanese-American in a dusty Southwestern town.  Sniffing an inhaler, he was a member of the hoods intent on stealing the mine employee payroll in a modern copper mine town in Violent Saturday.  Badly for him, an Amish farmer played by Ernest Borgnine became his nemesis.  It was the second but would not be the last time he and Borgnine faced off on film.  In Shack Out on 101, an unintentionallyseven men from now hilarious anti-communist diatribe, Marvin played Slob, the Shack’s short-order cook with a big secret.

More cerebral was his politically-minded Colonel in the grim World War II film Attack (1956).  Jack Palance was the good guy for a change.  Like Borgnine, Palance would costar with Marvin again.  Also in ’56 appeared the highly-regarded western Seven Men from Now.  In the final showdown Marvin faced off against Randolph Scott.

Marvin did have some roles on the right side of the law, especially Chicago detective Lt. Frank Ballinger on TV’s M Squad (1957-1960).  This very popular series is credited with making Marvin a star, but for a couple more years in feature films he continued as a supporting player, notably Tully Crow in The Comancheros (1961) and the truly vile title character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Marvin’s big break cameCat Ballou with Cat Ballou (1965).  Almost symbolic of his professional career and private life, he played the dual role of noble if drunken peacemaker Kid Shelleen and evil gunslinger Tim Strawn.  He won the Best Actor Academy Award and for the rest of the decade was on top of the cinematic world.  Curiously, the month after Cat Ballou was released came Ship of Fools in which Marvin was 4th billed behind three Oscar winners, including Simone Signoret and Jose Ferrer.   Thus Cat Ballou and the Oscar played no part in getting him this acting gig opposite the first-billed and double-Oscar winner, the legendary Vivien Leigh.

The Professionals (1966) was a rip-roaring, Magnificent Seven-like saga of four specialists sent into Mexico to retrieve Ralph Bellamy’s kidnapped wife played by Claudia Cardinale.  point blankMarvin led the group of four, and what a group it was:  Burt Lancaster (explosives), Woody Strode (bow) and Robert Ryan (horses).  Needless to say, in the form of the ostensible kidnapper Jesus Raza played by Jack Palance, they faced a formidable foe.  An even bigger success followed with The Dirty Dozen (1967).  This time Marvin trained and led a pack of U.S. Army miscreants into occupied France to blow up a chateau full of Nazi-officers.  John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) wasn’t quite as successful when it appeared but has since become symbolic of the decade, a modern film noir.  Less successful still was Boorman’s valiant effort Hell in the Pacific (1968) which pitted a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune) against Marvn’s American, both marooned on a Pacific Island during World War II.

No one expected Marvin’s next film to become notorious and viewed as a total dud, but Paint Your Wagon (1969) with rising starpaint your wagon Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg was not the financial disaster myth has it.  Its real problem was that all the adventure took place during the opening credits and title tune.  When by accident gold was found on the journey, everyone settled down there to prospect.  No more adventure.  Surprisingly, Marvin had a hit single from the soundtrack:  “Wandrin’ Star.”

It is said that Marvin turned down True Grit, but that might be scuttlebutt.  After all, he couldn’t have done that and Wagon for ’69 release.  Wagon had been an epic musical filmed on location in Baker, Oregon.  If it is true and Marvin did eschew playing Rooster Cogburn, it was a logical choice.  Cogburn was in the same league as Marvin’s Cat Ballou characters.

Marvin is also said to have been up for the lead in Patton (1970).  Today one can hardly visualize anyone other than George C. Scott as the World War II firebrand commander.  Would Marvin have been as good?  Turning it down seems a poor decision, but according to biographer Dwayne Epstein, Marvin had become very selective, and he had been riding high.  Marvin was in Quigley’s motion picture exhibitors’ annual poll of top-ranking stars in 1967 (#2), 1968 (#9), 1969 (#7), 1970 (#7), and 1971 (#10).

A choice acting job came with his performance as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh (1972).  This was not a movie as such but Eugene O’Neill’s famous 1946 play filmed for the screen by American Film Theatre.  Jason Robards had played Hickey in a successful Off-Broadway production in 1956 and reportedly was devastated not to repeat that role here.

Monte Walsh (1970) was a quality western co-starring Jack Palance monte walshas Marvin’s aging cowpoke buddy.  Emperor of the North (1973) is a neglected action-adventure in which Marvin’s tramp dueled with the railway cop entailed with keeping hobos off the train.  That employee was none other than Ernest Borgnine.  (Six degrees of separation could be played with Marvin, Borgnine, Ryan, Bronson, McQueen, Garner, and Coburn.)

It wouldn’t be until 1980’s The Big Red One that Marvin would make another film worthy of his talents.  Iconic director and World War II vet Samuel Fuller based this on his own war experiences.  Marvin played a World War One vet who stayed on and fought as a sergeant in the Second World War.  Among his squad was Mark Hamill, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back.

The remainder of Marvin’s 1980s movies were not much more than acceptable, including Death Hunt (1981), Gorky Park (1983), and The Delta Force (1986).  Despite a lackluster end to his career, Lee Marvin does deserve accolades for his impressive roster of screen villains in the 1950s as well as a half-dozen films in which he subsequently starred.  Like many if not most of Hollywood’s leading men of its golden age and postwar years, he was not a pretty boy.  Like Bogart, his face and voice were distinctive.

Marvin died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 63 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.



Dwayne Epstein, Dwayne.  Lee Marvin:  Point Blank.  Tucson, AZ:  Schaffner Press, 2013.

Mordden, Ethan.  Medium Cool:  The Movies of the 1960s.  New York:  Knopf, 1990.


By Kim

Star Billing: Decoding the Posters

It would be fascinating to attend negotiations that lead to billing order in a movie when the stars are of equal or almost equal stature.  It is not entirely necessary to be a fly on the wall.  There are clues in the poster art as well as in the trajectory of careers.  Being an Academy Award winner was sometimes a plus but did not always guarantee top billing.

The Self-Effacing

William Holden

            It is said that William Holden thought he was something of a fraud, a guy who lucked into movies.  Yet he won an Academy Award for 1953’s Stalag 17 and his resume is strong.  His billing history is intriguing.  A contemporary of Glenn Ford, Holden and Ford switched sabrinabilling priority in their two westerns.  In 1941’s Texas it was Holden, Claire Trevor, and Ford.  In 1948’s The Man from Colorado Ford took first spot on the poster.

It’s a tad surprising that after his 1953 Oscar he did not get billed over Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, which opened in L.A. and New York in December, 1954 but went into general release in May, 1955 after Kelly won a Best Actress Academy Award.  Bing Crosby got top billing because he had an Oscar for Going My Way (1944) and because he was, well, the legendary Bing Crosby.

In 1954 Holden again took third billing in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina behind Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, two other Academy Award winners.

Move forward to 1964’s Paris When It Sizzles, a middling comedy.  Holden reteams with Hepburn but he gets left-hand billing over Audrey.  Their careers at this point were quite similar:  some hits, some misses.  Could this billing reversal have stemmed from The Bridge on the River Kwai, the multi-Academy Award-winning 1957 film for which Holden took a percentage and made a fortune?

Robert Mitchum

The award for self-effacement must go Heaven Knowsto Robert Mitchum, whose motto is generally considered, “Baby, I don’t care.”  He took third billing behind Loretta Young and William Holden in the frontier drama, Rachel and the Stranger (1948).  In the fifties and sixties Mitchum found working with Deborah Kerr a delight and was happy to give her billing over himself in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Sundowners and The Grass is Greener.

Sidney Poitier

Critical opinion has it that either Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin were most representative of the sixties, but Sidney Poitier must be accorded accolades for a decade bedford incidentof many important and entertaining films in various genres.  Poitier won a Best Actor Academy Award for 1963’s Lilies of the Field yet this did not translate into billing above Richard Widmark in 1964’s Viking saga, The Long Ships.  Nor did he jump over Widmark in 1965’s The Bedford Incident.  This is a special relationship, however.  When Poitier came to Hollywood from the Bahamas for No Way Out (1950) he was welcomed into Widmark’s home.  It is perhaps indicative of James Garner’s standing in the mid-sixties that he got star billing over Poitier in Duel at Diablo (1966).


Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas

Burt Lancaster and Kirk gunfight at the ok corral 2Douglas made 7 films together, starting with 1957’s Gunfight at the OK Corral.  Lancaster was always first billed, even in Seven Days in May (1964) in which Douglas had the key role of the colonel who realizes that Lancaster’s general is going to implement a coup and must put the kibosh on it.

Clawing to the Summit

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen had a small part as a delinquent in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman as boxer Rockytowering inferno Graziano.  Newman never looked back on his leading man career while McQueen served an apprenticeship on TV’s Wanted:  Dead or Alive and in small roles in such films as Never So Few.  He starred in The Blob, but who knew what that would become?  In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven he tried to upstage Yul Brynner by constantly fiddling with his hat.  The breakthrough was 1963’s The Great Escape.  It must have seemed that he’d always follow Newman.

The annual Quigley Poll of boxoffice popularity tracks the McQueen/Newman career arc:  1967 (McQueen #10, Newman #3), 1968 (McQueen #7, Newman #2), 1969 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1970 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1971 (McQueen #4, Newman #3), 1972 (McQueen #8, Newman #7), 1973 (McQueen #3, Newman #7), 1974 (McQueen #5, Newman #3), 1975 (McQueen #9, Newman #5).

Redemption of a sort occurred with 1974’s The Towering Inferno.  McQueen had the left-hand slot, with Newman to his right—but a smidgen higher, followed by William Holden and Faye Dunaway.


Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance

Jeff Chandler was a lieutenant in World War II who helped wrest back control of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese.  After the war he found himself crooning and playing leading men for Universal.  Unfortunately, Chandler died after a botched back operation in 1962. Notable for this analysis is that he played the noble Roman Flavius in The Sign of the Pagan (1954).  His nemesis was Attila, who was portrayed by Jack Palance, another war vet.  In 1958 they again shared time in Ten Seconds to Hell, a saga of two former German soldiers now defusing unexploded bombs.  Chandler was top billed in each of these films.

Jack Palance and Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin was another World War II vet who caught the acting bug.  Ahead of him at mid-century was Palance, the first to achieve postwar film success in such movies as Panic in the Streets (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and The Big Knife (1955).attack

In 1956’s Attack, Palance is Lieutenant Costa, at odds with the cowardly Captain (Eddie Albert) while Marvin is a Colonel intent on achieving political success when the conflict is over.  Forward to 1970’s Monte Walsh.  Screen time and billing has been reversed.  Marvin is Walsh, Palance his sometimes partner.  Marvin had won an Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and had ascended into the firmament and made excellent films for a time:  The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, and Point Blank.  Poor choices thereafter tarnished his status.  Palance outlived him and won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his crusty cowpoke in City Slickers (1991).  Both Marvin and Palance had “the look.”  They were not your typical tall, dark and handsome Hollywood heart throbs but they had gravitas.  (There’s an article to be written on the myth of the TD&H guys.  More often than not our legends of classic Hollywood were not of that ilk.  Think Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, Muni, Tracy.)

Lee Marvin and Paul Newman

Pocket Money (1972) was a plot-thin but major movie Marvin did with another star:  Paul Newman.  Who got top billing?  Marvin had an Oscar but Newman had nominations and had been a leading man almost from day one.  The poster features Newman’s name on the left, Marvin’s slightly raised on the right.

Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson

Both Bronson and Marvin had dirty dozen posterappeared in uncredited small roles in the Gary Cooper service comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), and throughout the 1950s both built impressive character actor resumes, often as gunslingers and gangsters.  In 1967 both appeared in the massive hit, The Dirty Dozen.  Marvin was riding high on his Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and led the crew.

By 1981’s Death Hunt the Marvin-Bronson ranking was reversed.  Bronson had developed an international following and made it big in the States with Death Wish (1974).

Marvin’s career, on the other hand, had tailed off through a myriad of poor choices.  In the Death Hunt poster Bronson gets the left-hand spot but Marvin is a smidgen higher on the right.

Actors vs. Actresses

When it came to men and women, more often than not it was the actor who got top billing.  Opposite send me no flowersinstances include Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Sundowners

Audrey Hepburn got star billing over Fred Astaire in 1957’s Funny Face.  The reasons are probably her Oscar and Astaire’s self-effacement as well as his being perhaps considered on a downward trajectory.

It is curious that Doris Day did not get star billing over Rock Hudson in 1964’s Send Me No Flowers.  Their prior two films together were Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961).  For reference see the Quigley Poll:  1959 (Hudson #1, Day #4), 1960 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1961 (Hudson #2, Day #3), 1962 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1963 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1964 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1965 (Day #3)


What happened when two actresses of equal magnitude got together?  Take those grand dames of Hollywood, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.The Hours  Who would have thought back in the thirties and forties that these future Academy Award winners would deign to confront each other on screen.  After all, who would be top ranked on the poster?  But the pairing came to pass with the 1962 shocker, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Perhaps it was Davis’ two Oscars to Crawford’s one that gave Davis the preferred left-hand spot.

It’s a no-brainer that Meryl Streep would have star-billing in The Hours (2002).  She had a Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and a Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982).  Julianne Moore placed second on the poster with Nicole Kidman third.  Note, however, that Moore is between and behind the other two. (Kidman would win Best Actress for the film.)

All Star Casts

An all-star cast film, especially a prestigious one like 1962’s The Longest Day in which most What a Way to Goeveryone had equal time, called for alphabetization.

What a Way to Go!  (1964) is an interesting study.  Bespeaking Shirley MacLaine’s status, she got to lord it over six leading men.  Most astonishing, perhaps, is that Robert Mitchum had first billing among the men.  (Remember, he never cared.)  Those men were Paul Newman, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bob Cummings, and Dick Van Dyke.

The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964).  One of the ads featured a double column, those performers on the left being Ingrid Bergman, Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau.  On the right were Rex Harrison, George C. Scott and Omar Sharif.  “And Shirley MacLaine” was centered below.  In another poster with portraits of the cast MacLaine gets top left.

Casino Royale (1967).  (“CASINO ROYALE Is Too Much…For One James Bond!”)  The order:  Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, John Huston, Terence Cooper, Barbara Bouchet.  The first five had the most to do.  Some, like Holden, were seemingly there on a lark.  (The film was a satire on spy films but in retrospect shows us something about the sixties.)

One of the more intriguing all-star movie posters is Steel Magnolia (1989).  It features the six female leads standing, in this order:  Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton.  But as far as their names go, Sally Field is first, followed by Parton, MacLaine, Hannah, Dukakis, Roberts.  The story does revolve around Field and Roberts, the latter just starting on her big screen, leading lady career.

An Exception

A more recent curiosity as far as billing isHeat concerned is 1995’s HEAT, the epic crime film from director Michael Mann.  Although they’d been in The Godfather, Part II, this was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro faced each other on screen.  Pacino got left-hand poster billing despite De Niro having won a Supporting Oscar for The Godfather, Part II (1974) and a Best Actor Academy Award for Raging Bull (1980). Pacino’s Best Actor Oscar hadn’t come until 1992’s Scent of a Woman.  Nomination-wise, their resume was quite similar.


One can make many connLast Vegasections and draw plenty of conclusions about star billing based on movie posters and/or some knowledge of the stars’ careers.  For fun, guess what determined billing order for such movies as Ocean’s 11, The Departed, and Last Vegas.  Why was James Stewart’s name above John Wayne’s in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance poster (1962)?  Why was John Wayne’s name ahead of Henry Fonda in 1948’s Fort Apache?  Why was Richard Widmark’s name ahead of Fonda in 1959’s Warlock?  Why was Dustin Hoffman’s name above and as large as the title of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)?

By Kim

The Movie Poster Myth

Ralph Stephenson’s “Posters and Credits” in Film Review 1971-72 is on a short list of literature suggesting that the golden age of movies was not the golden age of movie posters: “the fact remains that for many years the average film poster was unexciting and unoriginal, and nowadays it is an unrewarding experience to thumb through a glossy volume reproducing Hollywood’s poster images of the thirties.” As Stephenson realized, the pre-TV moviegoing audience was a captive one, hardly needing lures to attend the theater weekly.   Ads featuring star portraits (very ably rendered in fine color) contained little accompanying copy. When TV menaced film hegemony at mid-century, posters became filled with scenes and over-the-top blurbs.   They became more interesting—or sublime—and possessed of a panache altogether more entertaining than their forebears. The golden age of movie posters ran from about 1950 to the mid-70s. Examples from this period:

The Lost Continent (1951): “INCREDIBLE! Atomic powered sweep to a NEW World of Thrills!”

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953): “Prehistoric Sea-Giant Rages Against City! They Couldn’t Believe Their Eyes! They Couldn’t Escape the Terror! AND NEITHER WILL YOU!” + “Cast of Thousands. Over a Year in the Making!” + “The Sea’s Master-Beast Of The Ages Raging Up From The Bottom Of Time!” + “You’ll See It Tear A City Apart!”

manchurian candidate

Macabre (1958): “Any member of the audience is insured for $1000.00 against DEATH BY FRIGHT! during the performance of this terrifying picture!”

The Manchurian Candidate (1962): “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about! When you’ve seen it all, you’ll swear there’s never been anything like it!”

Point Blank (1967): “There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can’t tell them apart.”

The Detective (1968): “An Adult Look at a Police Detective” + “You Killed a man before breakfast…You helped a teenage addict…You sent the wrong man to the electric chair…and at home…your wife is making love…to another man!”

A Man Called Horse (1970): “become an Indian warrior in the most electrifying ritual ever seen!”

dirty harry

The Vampire Lovers (1970): “IF YOU DARE…taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS!” + “CAUTION. Not for the mentally immature!”

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971): “Love means never having to say you’re ugly.”

Dirty Harry (1971): “Detective Harry Callahan. You don’t assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.”

The Stepmother (1972): “She forced her husband’s son to commit the ultimate sin!!” + “…it’s a family affair.”

Admittedly, some classic ads contained excellent artwork and even description—for newspaper reproduction. For example, inspecting The New York Times on microfilm reveals:

Sign of the Cross (1933): “A picture which will proudly lead all the entertainments the world has ever seen. Cecil B. DeMille’s Superb Road-Show Dramatic Spectacle.” + “Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a Paramount Picture. Paramount in Spectacle! Paramount in Appeal! Paramount in its Swift Action! Paramount in Technical Skill! With FOUR STARS. Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton. Assisted by 7500 others.”

The Gunga Din (1939) ads were similarly full of hoopla, as were Arizona (1940), Jesse James (1939), High Sierra (1941), and Murder, My Sweet (1944).

In summary, rather than coffee table books extolling the 1930s as a golden age of film poster art, we need a comprehensive volume covering the best that was to come.

By Kim



Speed, F. Maurice, ed. Film Review 1971-72. 1971.

Borst, Ronald V. Graven Images: The Best of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Film Art. 1992.

Vance, Malcolm. The Movie Ad Book. 1981.