Lee Marvin: Point Blank

by Phil Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 13, 2013

Lee Marvin: Point Blank

Among Hollywood's celebrated anti-heroes, Lee Marvin does not seem to hold the same level of adulation as his contemporaries Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. Part of this situation can be attributed to Marvin's erratic career - his rise to prominence as a villain, a relatively brief period as a major box office star, and an abrupt decline due to poor film choices. And part of the situation can be blamed on Marvin's off-screen life, with a well-documented history of excessive drinking and a raucous relationship that put the word "palimony" into the American lexicon.

Dwayne Epstein's biography provides an intelligent overview on Marvin's tumultuous life. His complex relationship with his parents and grueling combat experiences as a Marine during the Pacific campaign in World War II helped fuel periods of rage and depression. To his credit, Marvin was able to channel many of these negative emotions into his screen work - and this may explain the extraordinary level of malice and aggression he etched in his memorable bad guy supporting performances in "The Big Heat," "The Wild One" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." By the time he achieved starring roles in films such as "The Killers," "Point Blank" and "The Dirty Dozen," he mixed anger and charisma into an unusual iconoclastic persona that no one has ever quite duplicated.

However, Marvin was also capable of surprises. His Academy Award-winning performance in "Cat Ballou" showed a flair for comedy that, strangely, was rarely tapped during the course of his career. He took critical slams as the rambunctious gold miner in the musical "Paint Your Wagon" and as Hickey in the film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," yet both films emerged over the years with cult following that celebrated his distinctive against-type performances. His last major film, Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One," was ill-appreciated at the time of its 1980 premiere; today, it is widely considered as one of the finest war films ever made.

But in some ways, Marvin was his own worst enemy, at least career-wise. It is hard to understand why he would turn down parts in surefire epics like "How the West was Won" and "The Longest Day" and reject the title role in "Patton," yet accept drivel such as "The Klansman" and "The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday."

His Academy Award-winning performance in "Cat Ballou" showed a flair for comedy that, strangely, was rarely tapped during the course of his career.

Epstein also carefully details Marvin's thorny relationship with his long-suffering wife Betty and his longtime lover Michele Triola, who added "Marvin" as a surname and sued the actor in the notorious palimony case after their affair ended. Although Marvin does not come across as a sympathetic individual, Epstein nonetheless provides a mature and unbiased consideration of a difficult yet memorable subject.

"Lee Marvin: Point Blank"

By Dwayne Epstein

Schaffner Press, 344 pages


Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time