Lee Marvin: Point Blank, by Dwayne Epstein. Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2013. 303pp. Hardcover. $27.95.
With his many iconic films, his record of combat action in the Pacific during WW2, his string of publicized woman problems, his off hours of drinking and brawling, Lee Marvin’s life is so rich with biographical potential that Point Blank, the new book by Dwayne Epstein, seems — at a little over 300 pages — almost like a summary, an outline, a breathless collection of life highlights and film critiques blurted out only at the few traffic lights its subject deigns to brake for. I mean that as a compliment; the author of many young adult biographies, a former newspaper editor, and respected writer on films, Epstein’s unerring ear for conversational rhythm suits his restless, troubled subject and makes the book hard to put down.
I’m always a little trepidatious reading biographies of my favorite stars. If they turn out to be abusive, self-centered creeps, it can diminish my appreciation of their films. It took me years to forgive Peter Sellers after reading of his appalling behavior in Ed Sikov’s Mister Strangelove, for example. But though Marvin could be a tough hombre, “the real deal” as his friends explained, he seems to have never been abusive to his wives or children, was always courteous and protective of his leading ladies on set, and if he became an ugly drunk on occasion, well, who hasn’t? Epstein is direct and upfront about Lee’s problems and — instead of sensationalizing, browbeating, and judging — moves on. With his unerring radar for calling out phonies and bullshit, Marvin would surely approve, even when he’s made to look insecure and weak at times.
Marvin did, after all, need his flaws and edges for his acting. Before he moved on to lead roles he had gained worldwide fame for embodying some of the most genuinely menacing — yet oddly hilarious — villains in westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Seven Men from Now, The Wild One) culminating in his breakout turn in Don Siegel’s surprise 1961 hit, The Killers, wherein he alchemically turns a mercenary bad guy into an icon for a generation. Such roles were gaining a lot of ground in the early ’60s via the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. “However,” notes Epstein, “only Lee Marvin maintained this persona in his canon of work, thereby cementing the most purposeful and consistent portrayal of man’s violent and primal inner demons in the history of modern American cinema” (166).
More than any actor outside of Kurosawa and Leone films, Marvin had that stillness before sudden, decisive action. He knew firsthand that real killers don’t overact when dealing death, but the opposite. Notes Epstein: “In choosing his projects, that certain quality he looked for was, as he put it, ‘the white eye,’ his term for that intangible yet resolute sense of the inescapability of imminent danger or death. He had been the first actor to bring that feeling to American films on a consistent basis . . .” (203).
Sometimes his actual experiences were used in his films: for Point Blank, Marvin used his distress over his wife’s suicide. And there were real sparks on set between Angie Dickenson and Lee, which Lee was too shy to pursue — instead bringing the tension between them out in the performance, until Angie basically goes crazy and starts wailing on him for not “getting” her come-hither hints.
Similarly, Marvin had killed Japanese soldiers by hand, by knife, by gun, by bomb, by grenade, so when he aimed a gun or drew a knife onscreen he brought that experience with him. While working on the film The Professionals, he became friends with the towering stunt man Tony Epper, and “since both men were familiar with the weaponry used in the movie, they took it on themselves to clean and maintain all the guns” (163). When we see Lee load a gun or lead an incursion in a war film, he does so with a practiced ease — he’s been trained to do all those things without thinking, so he can focus his senses up on every little twig snap around him.
Epstein has a similar skill in biographies, so authenticity comes through quotes and remembrances from Marvin’s friends and critical responses to his films. The natural arc of a biography is second nature to Epstein, so he ignores it and allows the actual soul of the actor to remain elusive, present only in his own letters and quotes. An early chapter of the book consists entirely of Marvin’s letters home during the war, for example, and one of them explains a lot about what gave him that thousand-yard stare he brought to so many of his films, much more so than any comments from Epstein could:
I remember a native woman carrying a dead child in her arms — and she was nine months pregnant with the next one. She was walking around in shock and a marine came up to her and said, “Put that dead kid down.” She wouldn’t do it. The marine got sore. He told her to put it down. She refused. He took out a knife and sliced her belly open. He disemboweled her. The fetus dropped out. When he put his knife back in the scabbard he was ready to fight a war. This insanity, this raving inhumanity —it was then I suddenly knew: This is what war does to a man, what war means. (46-47)
Just as Marvin knew no amount of emoting could do justice to actual violence and so went the reverse route, so Epstein allows Marvin’s own recordings of his war experience to do the talking, such as in this horrific recollection, which Marvin quintessentially sums up with “This is what war … means.”
If there is a drawback to this style that sometimes caused me a ‘huh?’ moment reading, it’s the way Marvin’s troubled personal life is mostly in shadow. Names of children and wives seem to pop out of the blue, like we’re supposed to remember meeting them. And they disappear just as quickly unless they’re about to lend some sensationalism. One of the more notorious episodes in Marvin’s life was a publicized suit against him by longtime girlfriend or “common-law wife” Michele Trioli, whose evil ways we hear of via longtime Marvin drinking crony Mike Epper, who explains how Lee “tried to leave several times. He didn’t want to have anything to do with her. He’d say, ‘She threatened to kill me. What’ll I do?’ He actually told me that” (220).
Epstein seems to understand the appeal a woman like Trioli might have on an alcoholic like Marvin: “When Lee was married to Betty, he would often drink too much, feel contrite, then unsuccessfully try to quit. When he was with Trioli he gave up all attempts at sobriety, which initiated some of his most notorious drinking escapades, such as riding on the top of John Boorman’s car, several drunk driving arrests, attempts to reenlist in the Marines in the middle of the night, and more” (218).
But these less-than-stellar moments are important for Epstein to include if he wants to avoid making the book a mere soft-soap lionization. The great achievement for Epstein with Point Blank is that even though he’s a lifelong fan and the book took him 20 years to research and write, it’s not biased, and it’s so sleek and fast and exciting it feels like you’re drinking with the people he’s writing about, hoping you can remember even half of what is said as the anecdotes and tall tales fly by fast and furious.
And the book does what good movie star biographies should — inspires a new appreciation and desire to hunt down the star’s old films. Even if Epstein pans them — such as he does with one of my own favorites, Prime Cut, quoting Marvin on the film: “I’ve made some mistakes I wish I hadn’t. One of them was workin’ with Michael Ritchie on Prime Cut. Oh I hate that sonofabitch” (192) — we still want to see them, just because the book is so alive with new ways to appreciate the almost invisible finesse Marvin brought to even the smallest detail of his performance.
Rounding things out are some great black-and-white pictures Epstein’s assembled: childhood photos, military leave reunions, early stage and TV work (including Marvin in Shakespearian garb and posing with captured Japanese weaponry while a marine overseas). And there’s a touching Afterword from Marvin’s son Christopher, who clears the air on his father’s parenting skills, noting “he could be very stern at times, and yet sensitive and tender, kissing me on the lips, with ‘How goes the battle?'” (254).
There’s the old saying that when fact runs up against legend, print the legend, but Dwayne Epstein’s book has woven the facts and legends together with such consummate skill that we come away feeling like we know all Marvin’s human faults, his goodness, his drunkenness, his PTSD, and rather than lessening our appreciation of the myth, the icon, it just makes him feel all the more mythic. By no means definitive (there are other books on the man out there, including two from different wives), Point Blank is a high-velocity primer on a genius of dangerous acting. It’s fast, fearless, funny as hell, and an inspiration to get down on the floor, with the blood everywhere, and wise the hell up.