Shortly after seeing The Big Heat (1953), in which noir baddie Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) famously throws a hot pot of coffee in the face of Debby (Gloria Grahame), New York Times film critic Vincent Canby deemed Marvin “The Merchant of Menace,” given the actor’s stone-faced charm and propensity for playing characters that revel in more sadistic pleasures. As argued by biographer Dwayne Epstein, the description fits Marvin more than accurately, since his career, taken as a whole, helped to establish a new kind of post-WWII masculinity, particularly as it relates to a grittier depiction of violence and physicality. At least, such is Epstein’s claim. While his new biography goes into intricate details of Marvin’s childhood, career, and last days, his overall thesis—while likely true—is given short shrift by too workmanlike of an approach. Rather than produce a provocative work on a provocative man, Epstein manages to write a clearly admirable biography, though without the blood-pumping tenacity that gives Marvin’s filmic legacy such enduring cultural purchase.
The previous critique could be modified to give praise for Epstein’s dedication to intimately examining the familial factors that shaped Marvin’s values and personality. Growing up in a blue-collar family during the Great Depression, with Marvin and his family “wondering where their next meal would come from,” Marvin eventually decided to join the Marines. Speaking later about both his military service and relationship with directors, Marvin admits that he has “never been able to accept any kind of discipline.” With that in mind, Epstein states an inextricable link in Marvin’s filmography and persona between violence and the cultures that create it. Nevertheless, the book’s duration is more outwardly concerned with heavily biographical information and cult-of-personality emphases, such as an entire chapter devoted to the letters Marvin wrote to his parents while at war. Although the letters help to explain the developing psychology that would lead to Marvin’s film career, Epstein provides only a cursory understanding of Marvin as cultural icon throughout. What’s lacking in the predominately biographical segments is a strong narrative sense; Epstein’s prose reads more like a string of Wikipedia entries than a fully functional take on Marvin’s relevance. Such banality is an ironic sin for a work that wants to engage a divisive personality.
Epstein has, however, clearly done his research. Quotes from actors and directors abound. Personal favorites include an anecdote from Woody Strode on Marvin and his co-stars’ tumultuous relationship on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and a particularly crude conversation between Marvin and Gene Hackman as recounted by Gregory Walcott, which Epstein adeptly uses to suggest underlying insecurities within Marvin’s uber-masculine persona. Regretfully, any rigorous attention to thematic content within Marvin’s films is omitted for stories about Marvin wrecking a dinner party and narrowly escaping from a series of bar fights. Moreover, information regarding key films such as The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank (both 1967) is given far too little rigor, with statements about director Robert Aldrich “not being in the best of moods” because he couldn’t use his regular crew or, in the case of the latter film, only dedicating five pages of explanation to a film that has arguably had the most lasting impact in any of Marvin’s credits.
Although the book’s stilted prose makes for a rather clunky read, the epilogue adds insult to injury by half-heartedly examining Marvin’s lasting cultural impact, with decidedly muddled results. An imprecise explanation for a group known as “The Sons of Lee Marvin,” comprised of Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave aimlessly ends with an incomplete anecdote, as Epstein plows through a brief series of cultural citations and allusions, but makes no effort to further expand upon precisely the significance he finds here. Examples given are an elongated dialogue in Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) about Marvin’s status as “bad guy,” Tarantino’s persistent interest in his persona and films, and an “unexpected” MTV recognition in 2009, where “young filmmakers” named Marvin’s Walker from Point Blank as one of “Our Greatest Movie Badasses.” Perhaps most egregious is the mere five pages Epstein allows the topic, especially considering the fact-upon-fact approach to his historicizing. A quarter of the book could have been sacrificed for a far more reflective approach. For example, the inability to at least mention Steven Soderbergh in this regard is a major oversight, considering Soderbergh’s full-length commentary on the DVD of Point Blank and the unmistakable similarities found between the John Boorman film and Soderbergh’s own The Limey (1999). While a strong case could be made that Soderbergh’s interest lies more in Boorman than Marvin, the way in which Boorman stages Marvin’s physical, kinetic body finds unmistakable resonance in Soderbergh’s use of Terrence Stamp to achieve a similar, albeit partially revisionist take. The point isn’t necessarily Soderbergh’s primary interest—rather, an incomplete examination of Marvin’s cultural impact. Epstein makes a claim his book neglects to take up beyond a passing interest, which makes for a biographically informative, but thematically frustrating read.
Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank was released on January 18 from Schaffner Press, Inc. To purchase it, click here.