b Papa Dog's Blog: Lee Marvin's Face

Papa Dog's Blog

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Lee Marvin's Face

Sam Fuller’s valedictory WWII epic, The Big Red One, is in art house re-release, a director’s cut from beyond the grave, lovingly reconstructed to its intended 3-hour length (vs. the 113 minute version released in 1980) by film critic Richard Schickel. It was playing for a week at the Castro. I had special dispensation to see it last Friday night, but I balked at the last minute because Baby Dog had been having cranky nights, and I didn’t want to leave Mama Dog alone to cope all day and all night. I was going to see it instead today with Bernardo at a noon matinee but again parental responsibility intervened. We’d had a slight mix-up over dates, and Mama Dog had to be at a medical appointment to which she could not bring the bairn at 12:45. This was the last day of the Castro run, so Bernardo saw it by himself at 12 and then I saw it by myself at 4. But damn it, we both saw it.

We managed to intersect briefly between the showings, and when I asked Bernardo how he’d liked it, he commented on how long it had been since he’d seen a Lee Marvin movie. I’d been thinking of it more as a Sam Fuller movie – which of course is what it was – but that comment put me in mind as I watched of the importance that the late Mr. Marvin’s face has in selling Fuller’s vision of a love poem to the dogface. The rifle squad in the movie is of course filled out with pretty boys of the day, but it’s Marvin’s craggy bloodshot mug that stands as the representative monument to the army lifer. For the movie to work, the Marvin character has to bear the weight of two world wars…of the sum totality of man’s brutality to man. You have to see that in his face at any given moment. It’s hard to think of any other movie star of the day who could have fit that bill so completely as Lee Marvin.

Marvin was the real deal. In the playgrounds I inhabited in the 1970s, Steve McQueen was the epitome of cool for all the little boys, but for those in the know, Lee Marvin was the badass of movie badasses. McQueen could ride his little motorcycles and study his martial arts and what have you…but Marvin was the guy who looked like he’d bust a bottle over your head with no warning. They were both marines, but it was Marvin who saw the real action, wounded in Saipan. He would eventually become nothing more than a punch line on the Carson show when he helped invent palimony, but when I was a kid he was right up there with Bronson. It’s no wonder that in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has one unconscionable bad guy say to another “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan.” As a compliment. Right after they were about to kill each other.

He didn’t really look much like a movie star. He was tall, had very pale blue eyes, and prominent cheekbones – but (particularly by 1980) he was weathered like a coastal cliff face. He had bags you could use to pack for summer vacation hanging under his eyes. He seems always to have had white hair. It was a long face, hound dog long, with great big teeth. His lips were thick and he had the fleshy reddened nose of a long-term alcoholic. The creases and folds and pockmarks and busted capillaries were the relief map of decades of hard living. He had three basic expressions: grim, pissed off, and unexpected grin. It was the “unexpected grin” part that made it possible for him to make the leap from chief heavy to leading man.

For Fuller’s movie to work, you had to believe that this guy had been around the world, killed some people, and seen pretty much everything. With Marvin, no great leap was required to come to that conclusion. You looked at his face, you saw. Who’ve we got like that today? Tom Hanks? Hah. That right. Nobody. Well, Clint, I suppose. But other than that, nobody. All those old movie soldiers have faded away.


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