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, Marvin 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 unintentionally 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 came 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. Marvin 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 star 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 as 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.