Tag Archives: Lee Marvin

I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler)

Going into the third act of I Died a Thousand Times, the film is in great shape. It’s got a strange pace but it’s all working out, mostly thanks to lead Jack Palance’s peculiar and strong performance, and it doesn’t seem like it could do anything wrong enough to screw things up. Unfortunately, the resolution is one giant choke. One where Palance is basically a bit player (or less) and the script fully embraces the casual misogyny it’s been flirting with the entire time. It seemed like it had gotten over it–Thousand’s casual misogyny has highs and lows, what with slut-shaming female lead Shelley Winters and then damsel in distress Lori Nelson’s arc from sweet young girl to callous, shallow tease (the film’s also got issues with the young people and their fast music, eventually—and perfectly—personified in an uncredited Dennis Hopper, who Palance sadly doesn’t beat to a pulp). But for the finish, when the film’s drained everything positive like sap, it brings back that casual misogyny. It’s not just disappointing and beneath W.R. Burnett’s script, it’s also annoying.

The film opens with Palance driving through the desert, headed west. We get the ground situation in pieces. He’s an ex-con bank robber, paroled after eight years. He’s not hostile so much as guarded. But he lets his guard down right away with kindly old couple Ralph Moody and Olive Carey. And not only because of their fetching, though club-footed and shy granddaughter Lori Nelson. Palance and Moody have a good rapport, which may or may not get some context in the script later on. Writer Burnett’s got some really big first act dialogue problems—when Palance and Winters first meet and shoot really bad slang at each other–but the script’s got a really delicate arc for Palance. It makes some leaps and bounds, particularly with the relationship with Palance and Winters, but it doesn’t ever seem rushed, just truncated. Lots of the credit goes to Palance, whose performance is initially as much about presence as delivery.

We meet Winters after we get the setup—courtesy cop turned crook James Millican (it also doesn’t help the film’s take on law enforcement takes a 180 for the third act)—crime boss Lon Chaney Jr. (who’s delightful) pays to get Palance pardoned so Palance can knock-off the jewelry stored at a swanky mountain resort. Even in 1955 dollars, I imagine it must have cost Chaney a lot to get Palance pardoned—despite being in for life—from a federal penitentiary. Probably more than the heist is worth. And if it was so expensive, why not have good backup for Palance? Instead, Chaney’s hired young punks Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin. Not only do they like fast music, they also bring along a dame—Winters. Ostensibly she’s there with Marvin, but she’s also keeping Holliman on a low boil. It’s because she’s manipulating the young sociopaths Palance lets her stay. See, Palance is actually a big softy. We know it with Moody, then we really know it once he friends the puppy at the tourist cabins where they’re all staying. He never entertains Winters, but he doesn’t disrespect her. He trusts her to handle the boys. It’s a very interesting relationship between them, because every time Palance seems like he’s warming up, he pulls back immediately, no warning. It’s a really nice performance.

Winters has her hands full, in the first act, with Marvin and Holliman (despite not having many scenes with them). Died has that weird structure I mentioned earlier. The first and second acts almost overlap because two such distinct things are going on. There’s Marvin, Holliman, Winters, and inside man at the resort Perry Lopez goofing off at the cabins, then there’s Los Angeles with Chaney and Millican, but also kindly old folks Moody and Carey (not to mention Nelson). When they’re finally gearing up to pull the heist, there’s a shock because there’s been no expectation of seeing Holliman or Marvin actually having to participate. They seem way too passive, not just in their behavior, but also in how the film positions them.

Though, actually, they’re in the background of the heist, just like they’re in the background of Palance and Winters. So it seems Heisler and Burnett agree. Or just didn’t want them in the way during the heist, which is fine. Marvin and Holliman are fine, but they’re not interesting to watch. Palance, Winters, even someone with a lesser performance like Nelson or Millican… they’re interesting to watch. A lot of Died takes place outside, often on location, and the film just feels more natural outdoors—another irony given the ending. Heisler rarely has ambitious shots outside the location shooting, but he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord succeed with that location shooting so credit there—but he’s more interested in the cute puppy than the relationship between aging career criminal Palance and girl with a past Winters, though Heisler does perk up a little once they’re making face. Because Winters falls hard for Palance. He’s a big tough guy who occasionally poetically describes the human condition and likes puppies and is kind to old people.

Winters doesn’t get the best part. Like, her exposition feels like it’s been given a G rating when it needs to be an NC-17. Because 1955. But Winters gets it across. The strongest thing, which the film doesn’t pursue, is how Winters interacts with Palance after she’s realized he’s a sweetie. The end fails the hell out of her too. It’s a real bummer.

I Died a Thousand Times—which actually makes no sense as a title since Chaney at one point talks about how you can “only die once”—really needs a better third act. It’s not even as competent, technically speaking, as it ought to be. Because it’s foreshadowed from the first or second scene, only in a really obvious way where they shouldn’t have really gone for it. Especially not since there’s another bookending device sitting there available, apparently just a passive addition to serve the plot but with a lot more possibility than the actual ending.

Is it worth seeing? Yeah. If it had a solid ending, it would’ve given Palance an amazing lead performance and possibly a great supporting one for Winters. It’s just… a real bummer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by David Buttolph; produced by Willis Goldbeck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Palance (Roy Earle), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Ralph Moody (Pa Goodhue), Olive Carey (Ma Goodhue), Lori Nelson (Velma), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Howard St. John (Doc Banton), James Millican (Jack Kranmer), and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico).



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The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges)

My reaction to Bad Day at Black Rock is a guarded one. It runs eighty-one minutes and is frequently long when it should be short and short when it should be long. The conclusion, for instance, is something of a misfire. Ironically, after abandoning him for fifteen minutes near the beginning, the film sticks with Spencer Tracy. So the audience misses characters going through huge (and somewhat unlikely) changes.

It’s a strange problem; even though the film has a great supporting cast, it doesn’t have any other principles besides Tracy. Characters become more and less important as the running time progresses. For example, Robert Ryan’s got a lot to do for the first twenty minutes or so, but once his character is clearly defined, he fades into the background a little.

Some of that fading might be Sturges’s fault. While his Cinemascope composition is fantastic–he has this one scene with six people standing around talking and it’s just startling, the figures, dressed brightly even, contrasting the blue, cloudy sky–it’s all very wide. There are almost no close-ups in the film or even medium shots. Sturges is using all of that wide frame and people can get lost.

But the script has its own problems. Mainly Tracy’s character–he keeps changing, as the script keeps unveiling backstory revelations–and with a longer running time, it might work. The film really just needs more time, not just for Tracy, but to make the longish parts seem less plodding.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Millard Kaufman, adaptation by Don McGuire, based on a story by Howard Breslin; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Newell P. Kimlin; music by André Previn; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David), Russell Collins (Mr. Hastings) and Walter Sande (Sam).


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The Delta Force (1986, Menahem Golan)

The Delta Force is…

1) the only Chuck Norris movie my mom let me watch as a kid (I think it’s the only Chuck Norris movie I’ve ever seen).

2) “the most homoerotic movie I’ve ever seen,” according to my wife.

3) somewhat interesting for the first forty-five minutes.

The Delta Force stars four Academy Award winners (Lee Marvin, Martin Balsam, George Kennedy and two-time winner Shelley Winters), one Silver Berlin Bear winner (Hanna Schygulla) and one Academy Award nominee (Robert Vaughan). The only two who give good performances are Marvin and Balsam. Kennedy, Winters and Vaughan aren’t bad. Schygulla, in one of her only (I think) English language performances, is bad. Well, maybe not bad… but not any good at all. She does get one of Delta Force‘s more interesting scenes, a German flight attendant (sorry, bursar) who gets to pick out all the Jews on the plane. She doesn’t want to–being German and all (in a scene with some dialogue lifted out of a certain “Fawlty Towers” episode–John Cleese and Connie Booth should have sued)–but does it anyway. The kicker? She makes a mistake, calling up a Russian (Yehuda Efroni), who isn’t Jewish. This mistake kicks off Delta Force‘s most interesting scene–the Arab terrorists (Robert Forster, who, like Marvin, is enough of a professional not to look embarrassed, and David Menachem) make the German flight attendant call all the Jews on the plane up to first class, which has been emptied. Now, the plane’s got 144 passengers (Forster is nice enough to remind everyone as the sequence begins) and guess how many of them help the Jews? Keep in mind there are two terrorists with a gun and a grenade apiece, the plane’s in flight. Okay, just guess. Guess how many of the American Christians help the Jews being led to their deaths?

Do you need a hint? Think about the 1930s.

That’s right… zero. Not a one. They even keep their mouths shut. The Russian complains he isn’t a Jew. After all is said and done, when it won’t make any difference, Catholic priest Kennedy at least gets up and sits with the Jews in first class. There’s no explanation to why he isn’t disgusted by the display he’s witnessed from his fellow gentiles.

In the first forty-five minutes of Delta Force, there are quite a few of these disquieting moments. Menachem gets a couple scenes where he’s incredibly sympathetic to his hostages and–conversely–a couple scenes where he’s incredibly brutal to other hostages. Forster’s portrayed as completely evil, but then he too gets a couple scenes of strange humanity. These aren’t subtle displays of contradictory behavior, they’re as neon as they can get, but they’re very interesting.

The second half of the film, with Chuck Norris and William Wallace’s romantic getaway to scenic Lebanon–the script’s so incredibly stupid in the second half, it’s never clear whether or not the Lebanese government and military are actually endorsing the terrorists or if there’s some faction of the military supporting it or whatever… it’s idiotic.

Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, the second half. There’s a couple interesting scenes when the film tries to make American audiences terrified of the Arabs. But it’s all so dumb–Norris rides around on a souped up motorcycle (he’s apparently insecure about something) and blows up the bad guys (who are some of the stupidest villains in movie history)–it’s almost impossible to remember the engaging first half. My wife couldn’t believe I’d watch the movie after having seen it before–the last time must have been when I was thirteen or so–and I told her the reason it seemed better in my memory (to be fair, the first half is fine) is because I used to see it on television, with commercials. It runs over two hours and to get it into a two hour slot, they would have had to cut more than a half hour… which probably came out of the lousy second half.

She didn’t believe me.

As jingoistic as Delta Force gets–the rescued hostages sing “America the Beautiful,” not the “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “This Land is Your Land,” certainly not in a Chuck Norris movie–it’s hard for the cartoon action scenes in the second half to erase the memory of the first half. The first half of the film is a metaphor for the Second World War. Of 138 people, only one would stand up with the Jews. Kennedy getting up there placates, but it’s really just like the thirties. The fine American Christians didn’t care what the Nazis were doing to the Jews.

It’s such a shocking scene, I wonder who wrote it.

As for the movie overall… my wife described Marvin’s performance perfectly. He keeps acting like he’s in a real movie and expecting his co-stars to respond in kind. When they don’t, there’s a flash of confusion on his face before he can reorient himself. Susan Strasberg isn’t in it enough. Bo Svenson is awful. Steve James is okay. Kim Delaney is lousy. Norris is, big shock, terrible. His love interest, Wallace, is terrible too.

It seems like Golan didn’t really know how to direct actors, so he just got solid professionals for the hostages–but then made big mistakes, like casting Natalie Roth as Strasberg’s kid. It’s Susan Strasberg acting opposite a kid who wouldn’t make it as a non-speaking extra in a commercial.

Golan’s direction’s lousy, but compared to action movies today, it’s fine. You can tell what’s going on.

Alan Silvestri’s score’s more appropriate for a sports movie (maybe a handicapped runner overcoming the odds and winning… the silver) but it’s okay.

The Delta Force probably plays better on TV with commercials.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Menahem Golan; written by James Bruner and Golan; director of photography, David Gurfinkel; edited by Alain Jakubowicz; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Luciano Spadoni; produced by Golan and Yoram Globus; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Chuck Norris (Maj. Scott McCoy), Lee Marvin (Col. Nick Alexander), Martin Balsam (Ben Kaplan), Joey Bishop (Harry Goldman), Robert Forster (Abdul), Lainie Kazan (Sylvia Goldman), George Kennedy (Father O’Malley), Hanna Schygulla (Ingrid), Susan Strasberg (Debra Levine), Bo Svenson (Capt. Campbell), Robert Vaughn (Gen. Woodbridge), Shelley Winters (Edie Kaplan), William Wallace (Pete Peterson), Charles Grant (Tom Hale), Steve James (Bobby) and Kim Delaney (Sister Mary).


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