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Gloria Grahame (#110 of 3)

The Merchant of Menace Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

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The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank
The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

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.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Among the many critics who simultaneously partake in, and rise skeptical eyebrows toward, “best of” polls, the notion of the “list as snapshot” becomes a helpful negotiating metaphor. Viewing any top 10 ballot as a historically contingent event—as opposed an authoritative act of canon formation—allows critics to both enthusiastically make the case for our favorite films, while acknowledging that any act of “objectively” ranking works of art quickly bumps up against the limits of one’s own knowledge, biases, and experience.

It’s a useful image, but perhaps an incomplete one. If a photograph captures a given instant, it cannot account for all the previous moments that collectively created what was placed before the lens. Whittling down this list, for me, became as much about contending with my relationship to different periods in my life as it did with clarifying my feelings on the films themselves—as if the two could ever be wholly disentangled. Should I go with more classical Hollywood titles, whose early presence in my life profoundly shaped both my cinephilic tastes and childhood memories? Is it better to take a gamble on those movies that I’ve had less time to sit with, but whose initial seismic impact most likely ensures their permanent place in my head and heart?

Creating this fantasy Sight & Sound ballot, then, felt as much like excavation as photography, sifting through the layers of past experience, arranging the found artifacts in an attempt to convey my range of cinematic passions up to this point. It’s been an inevitably frustrating, completely rewarding task—and, if it means you add a couple of these titles to your Netflix queue as a result, all the better.

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence
Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” —Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

I. Introductory

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.