There's something preternaturally destructive about Lee Marvin, something dangerous. “You’re a very bad man [...] a very destructive man,” spits a threatened Carroll O’Connor, with the sweaty haste of a hypochondriac, in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), a split-second after Marvin blasts a telephone into oblivion with his hand cannon. O’Connor could be describing any of Marvin’s roles, from the stoical hitman in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) to his gun-for-hire in Richards Brooks’s The Professionals (1966) to his Sergeant leading a gaggle of undisciplined men sentenced to die in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He exuded an odd kind of menace, a disciplined minatory authority. The six-foot-two actor possessed a weathered, world-weary malaise and uncalculated brutality that suggested internal turmoil, an indignation that manifested in abrupt bursts of violence. For all the pain he inflicted on screen, he seemed to be carrying his own, an ineffable kind, something that seeped into his performances. He could play a cipher, a heavy, a gruff hero, and to these roles he brought a sort of unspoken set of morals. He always had an impetus in which his character believes, a reason to kill and steal. He always had a palpable motivation.
New York’s Quad Cinema is running a series called Action Figures, a bevy of 1960s and 70s action flicks which boasts the usual Charles Branson fare (the formally inept Michael Winner has two films, Death Wish and Stone Killer, in the series) and Steve McQueen, that “man’s man,” but to these eyes, the standout is Marvin, who last had his own New York retrospective in 2007, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (The Dirty Dozen, Emperor of the North , The Professionals, The Killers, and Prime Cut  are all part of the series.) Seeing Marvin ensconced in a program that includes manly Chuck Bronson and the ever-cool McQueen, whose off-screen penchant for shawl collar cardigans has been providing GQ with material for decades, what becomes obvious is that Marvin, tough as he was, possessed something greater than badassery: he had a presence, a calloused humanity. Those cold sharp eyes set below black brows give away nothing, and one wonders what horrors they’ve seen.
Marvin’s sciatic nerve was severed by machine gun fire during the Battle of Saipan, a trauma that earned him the Purple Heart, and his perpetually stiff posture, that curvaceous lower lip tugged into a sly grin, and the wisp of prematurely white hair give him the look of a man who has seen Hell and now nothing can phase him. In acting class, they teach you to conjure up sad memories if you can’t cry on command—the death of a puppy, a bad breakup, whatever. Marvin seemed to be haunted by his memories. Like Warren Oates, Marvin had a sad, strange grit, an earned melancholy; he actually lived. When he bellowes, when he grimaces, when he threatens to turn to pulp the face of an opposer, the vexation feels unfeigned. His was not a histrionic or actorly style. He didn’t have tremendous range, but he brought to every performance a feeling of pain, a sapiential knowingness, as if the barbarities he witnessed have abraded any trace of optimism he may have once had. He was an enigmatic tough guy, as emotive as a six-foot fist, labile, his facial features clenched like four fingers and a thumb, and behind that stony facade something seemed to seethe. He wielded a weapon deftly, as if it was an organic appendage, yet he seemed to get no pleasure from using it. Violence for Marvin was an unfortunate inevitability, one he for which was exceedingly qualified.
Marvin didn't land leading roles until he was nearly in his 40s, though even in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), in which he douses Gloria Grahame’s face with scolding coffee, he appears middle-aged, his youthfulness sapped and ruined by his time in the Pacific. He lacked the typical leading man lechery, and had little in the way of suavity. His was an almost asexual intensity. Listen to him mock his insubordinate prisoners-turned-soldiers in The Dirty Dozen: “Us Southern boys have to stick together,” he faux-drawls, to Terry Savalas’s pious and psychotic woman killer. He barks orders with that gruff, Stentorian voice. “Look you little bastard,” he intones to an insolent John Cassavetes. “Either you march or I’ll beat your brain out.” But what sets his performance apart from other tough-as-nails army potentates is the swagger, almost sass, he brings. “I wonder if any of them even know it’s Mother’s Day,” a Captain says as the men cavort with prostitutes. “Is it?” Marvin retorts, so deadpan that it borders on moribund.
In Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut, Marvin plays an Irish enforcer sent from Chicago to Kansas City to collect $500,000 from Gene Hackman, and discovers a “white slave” auction. He becomes an inadvertent hero, rescuing one of the girls, played by a then-unknown Sissy Spacek. (The film, which never tops its meat processing opening, is remembered for a prolonged chase scene in which Marvin runs with Spacek through a sea of flaxen wheat, the golden stalks undulating in the wind, as a blood-red combine harvester pursues them.) It’s a role that encompasses the essential Marvin qualities, an anti-hero who doesn’t straddle the line between villain and hero as much as he obliterates it. He’s the lesser of many evils. There’s a cool amorality to the performance. “What should I do with him?” he’s asked of the remains of another enforcer, who has literally been ground to sausage. “You know him?” he asks. “Yeah.” “Was he a good guy?” “Yeah.” With nonchalance, almost apathy, “Bury him.”
The least-seen of the five Marvin films playing in the series is Emperor of the North, for which Marvin re-teamed with The Dirty Dozen helmer Aldrich. Marvin plays a transient named A-Number 1, who spends his life on the rails, traversing the country not to find work, but as a sort of test to his masculinity. With a swath of snow-white scruff on his face and the refuse of coal smeared across his forehead, he turns the “hobo” type into a reflection of man’s selfishness and innate indecency, Aldrich’s unpleasant idée fixe. Ernest Borgnine, who played Marvin's priggish superior in The Dirty Dozen, here plays his foil, an imperious railroad conductor who uses force to keep the homeless off his trains. Aldrich all but endorses violence, or at the very least views it as a natural if pointless inclination, something to be reckoned with, not avoided or ignored—an endeavor that fills the great void at the center of human existence. He turns a story of vagrancy and railroads into a fatalist epic.
Point Blank, ostensibly a glaring omission from the series and one of the few New Hollywood studio movies to flirt seriously with the avant-garde, gave Marvin his best role. He plays an ethereal criminal who gets betrayed by his Janus-faced best friend and wife and embarks on a crusade of vengeance. Called only Walker, he seems, after being gunned down, to transmogrify into an unstoppable phantom. He wages a one-man war against a seemingly ubiquitous crime syndicate, dismantling them one malefactor at a time, using his cunning rather than just brute force. Its absence from the series is, rather than an oversight, more telling: variegated and vibrant, with every scene set in a different color scheme (the colors grow warmer as Walker's revenge intensifies), and set to an acid-steeped jazz-noise score, it’s less an action film than an oneiric tale of meaningless revenge, a film about the corrupting allure of money and the corrosive effects of a man’s dogged pursuit of recrimination. Walker is, quite simply, after his money. “I want my money” and its variations become a mantra. When he’s asked, near the end, what he really wants, he answers, with his first hint of hesitation, “I… want my money,” finally aware, perhaps, of the pedantry of his stratagem.
Walker may be the exemplary Lee Marvin role because it’s purportedly a cipherish one, yet he imbues it with his usual sense of fatalism and mystery. He tromps along a colorful hallway lit with glaring lights as white as teeth, his footsteps echoing eternally, the sound permeating a montage of shots showing Walker stalking his targets. He takes on the emanation of myth, a man who transcends corporeality, and Marvin plays it hyper-straightforward, laconic, his face as unflinching as stone, with a somatic rigor punctuated by apoplectic outbursts. The ferocity with which he grabs his ex-wife, a gun attached to his fist, is savage, and belies the stoicism of his calm moments—it’s animalistic savagery, the actions of an id with a revolver. The staccato way he answers Angie Dickinson while discussing his wife’s suicide is inhuman, the words of a single-minded wraith. When his revenge is complete, he recedes into darkness, dissipating like the past itself.
Action Figures: Prime Cuts from McQueen, Marvin, Bronson, and Brown is playing March 30 - April 12 at the Quad Cinema in New York.