Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Point blank

Turner Classic Movies' ever-entertaining MovieMorlocks blog has called a Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon for today, the 20th anniversary of the actor's passing. I wouldn't dream of letting Morlock member Richard Harland Smith down on this occasion; we used to hang out at the Viand coffeeshop on E. 86th St. in Manhattan before he went Hollywood. (And no film writer should turn down an opportunity to write about Marvin, who was "central to the role of violence in the American cinema," wrote David Thomson.) But I can only half-fulfill one of his specific requests for this blog day.

Richard wanted to know more about two Marvin obscurities, the French film Canicule (Dog Day, released in 1984) and Richard Fleischer's The Spikes Gang (1974). I saw Dog Day, from crime film specialist Yves Boisset, on VHS many a dog day ago. An Internet Movie Database commentator calls it "weird French surrealism," which jibes with my recollection, as Marvin, on the lam with millions, plays cat-and-Miou Miou games with his co-star and a kid at a farmhouse. It's that rare film where the actor looks ill-at-ease, as if no one on set spoke English and could explain the storyline and its nuances to him. (Or maybe they chose not to say anything, to unsettle him.) That discomfort alone will make it worth a viewing for some, but I also recall it being a hard sit. (It went unreleased Stateside, but appears to be on DVD from a no-name label.)

Marvin was a large-and-in-charge kind of personality, and I prefer him that way, even when his characters are unmasked as buffoons or frauds. He was not ideally cast as Hickey in 1973's American Film Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh, but it is still a great Marvin performance, where he pulls out all the stops with little artifice. As patient Marvin fans know--and we are a forgiving lot--he could uplift a turkey by his mere presence. 1979's trouble-plagued Avalanche Express, which lost both director Mark Robson and co-star Robert Shaw during the production process, is worth sitting through simply to watch the actor strut his stuff in a ham-fisted spy vs. spy scenario (the avalanche, concocted by special effects ace John Dykstra, is also pretty good, and if you can't wait for it, it occurs 50 minutes in, for about seven minutes). But there is a difference between watching Marvin overcome miscasting or indifferent scripting, and seeing him belittled and cut down to size.

He is on terra firma in The Spikes Gang, and so am I. The United Artists release came and went in 1974, despite plum co-starring roles for Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith, fresh from George Lucas' smash American Graffiti, and Gary Grimes, who as the virginal Hermie got it on with Jennifer O'Neill in the equally successful loss-of-innocence tale Summer of 42 (1972) and its lower-libido 1974 sequel, Class of 44. Grimes had also saddled up for Dick Richards' unsung 1972 film The Culpepper Cattle Co., which, like The Spikes Gang, is a blood-soaked revisionist Western. Ignored in their day, both movies roam freely about cable stations, with the Fleischer film in active rotation on the Showtime channels.

I blogged a bit about Spikes on the Mobius Home Video Forum, as part of a long-running thread on cult movies. Here's a reprint of my entry (with redundancies removed):

"This Spain-shot Western, directed by the late Richard Fleischer, has no cult that I'm aware of, but based on a viewing earlier today maybe it should. It starts off as a somewhat larkish coming-of-age story, with Gary Grimes (whatever happened to?), and Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith as bored would-be cowboys who treat an injured outlaw (Lee Marvin, in a colorful, unsung portrayal). Encouraged by his bad example they up and leave their border homes for a life of banditry, eventually joined by Marvin when the cowchips hit the fan--but the life lessons they learn from him come at a lethal price. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., penned several anti-mythologizing Westerns (Hud, Hombre, and The Cowboys) but this adaptation of a Giles Tippette novel is by far their darkest, even more grim in the windup than The Culpepper Cattle Co. Fleischer doesn't quite bring out every contour but he keeps the blood pumping, and the final hotel room showdown between two of the characters is harrowing. Veteran Arthur Hunnicutt steals a scene and Noah Beery, Jr. turns up toward the very end. Leonard Maltin gives it *1/2 stars and comments "old-hat storyline has humor, and not much else" but why do I think he and/or his capsule writers have never actually seen it?"

If they had, they would see it for the quality piece it is. The Spikes Gang seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle with the other revisionist Westerns in release during the Vietnam Era, a genre worth disinterring in our own war-torn times. As I wrote, it's not top-tier; the prolific, underrated Fleischer, who was really cranking them out at this time in his career, was keeping his eye on the ball but the movie lacks that extra finesse that might really have put it over. Surprisingly, given how much they both worked on genre pictures, The Spikes Gang was only the second matchup for the director and Marvin, and the actor gives a seething, unpredictable performance as the untrustworthy Harry Spikes. You can see why a trio of farmhands, well-played by his co-stars, would want to emulate him; you can also see why they come to resist the lethal charm of his coercion.

But hell hath no fury like Lee Marvin. The Spikes Gang, worthy of reappraisal and a DVD release, would not be the same without him. Cinema itself is not the same without him.

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