Point Blank (1967)

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John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir Point Blank is based on the novel, The Hunter, the first of twenty-three hard-boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who goes by the singular name of Parker. The series was written by Richard Stark, one of many pseudonyms used by Donald E. Westlake, one of the all-time great crime fiction writers our time. Westlake’s career spread across novels, screenplay, and television. Several of his many books have made it to the big screen including The Split (1968) The Hot Rock (1972), Cops and Robbers (1973), Bank Shot (1974) and Two Much among others. Westlake’s screenplay credits include The Grifters (2000), adapted from famed pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson novel, and The Stepfather. Two of my own personal favorite works of Westlake books are both standalone novels: The Hook and The Ax. Continue reading

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Lee Marvin: Point Blank – Interview with Author Dwayne Epstein – Part Two

If you have not read part one of my interview with Dwayne Epstein, author of the new biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank, just click right here and you would be directed right to it. The book is available at Barnes and NobleAmazon and bookstores everywhere. In part two we discuss “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Killers,” Robert Aldrich, Angie Dickinson, The Inglorious  Bastard Sons Lee Marvin and much more.

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John: Let’s jump over to John Wayne. They made three films together; two of course were with John Ford. How did they get along?

Dwayne: Oh, they got along very good, they liked each other. In terms of their persona and screen chemistry, Lee Marvin’s first wife told me something great. That if you watch them on screen, “they both do what they do, they have their own thing, but,” she said, “John Wayne was like a big old bear, the way he appeared on screen, and the way he acted. Lee was more like a panther; he was sleek, he could pounce on a moment’s notice with coiled energy and with that in mind they kind of danced around each other and they had that great chemistry.” I like that image of them, one’s a bear and one’s a panther. They got along great. They really liked each other. There’s a story that didn’t make it into the book that I can tell you real quick. This was told to me by Kennan Wynn’s son, Ned Wynn or Tracy Wynn, I don’t remember which one because I interviewed them both. Anyway, Kennan Wynn was Lee Marvin’s best friend. When he was between films and not having a project lined up; he would drink and he and Kennan Wynn were drinking buddies. I believe it was Tracy who told me that that generation of men were pretty tough and he said, “John Wayne was probably the toughest of them all. My father and Lee got drunk and went down to Mexico and partied on John Wayne’s yacht and John Wayne took it to a point and then said, ‘that’s it’ and threw them off the yacht and into the Gulf of Mexico.” He only took crap from them up to a point. Continue reading

Lee Marvin: Point Blank – Interview with Author Dwayne Epstein – Part One

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According to biographer Dwayne Epstein, Lee Marvin made it possible for future action stars like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood to blast their way on to the screen. It was Marvin who brought the level of violence to a new and realistic level that had never been seen before. Think Vince Stone in “The Big Heat” when he tosses a hot pot of boiling coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face. Oh sure, there was screen violence before, Paul Muni machine gunning his way to the top of the crime world in “Scarface” and Cagney blasting his way through “The Public Enemy,” famously smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face. But Lee Marvin made it look real and dangerous, it was never fun.

The Big heat1I recently had the opportunity via telephone to interview Mr. Epstein, author of the new Lee Marvin biography “Lee Marvin: Point Blank.” The interview was conducted on March 5th.  As you read you will see Mr. Epstein is admittedly a big fan. That said the book is a well balanced look, both public and private, at the rugged actor and World War II Marine veteran. His filmography reads like a list of essentials. A partial list includes “Bad Day at Black Rock,” The Big Heat,”  “The Wild One,” “Attack,” “Violent Saturday,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Killers,” “Cat Ballou,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Professionals,” “Point Blank” and “The Big Red One” among many others. Continue reading

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back! He proves this in John Sturges terrifically well paced and tense film, “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Sturges paints a picture of a town that is barren, both physically and psychology. It’s a town with a dark secret cancer called hatred and it is slowly eating away at everyone in it.  Into this dust bowl comes John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one armed stranger dressed in a black suit and tie which only accentuates his difference even more from the rest of the town. Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon,” or Alan Ladd in “Shane,”  Tracy’s John Macreedy is one lone man who has to face evil alone. The film takes place shortly after the end of World War II when, for some, the Japanese were still seen as the enemy. Racial hatred simmers underneath the surface of the entire town. Like most racists it is their own fear and insecurities that drive them to action.

Black Rock is a small dusty whistle stop of a town where the railroad (the Streamline) always passes through, never stopping to pick up or drop off anyone. This time, the first in four years, it does stop and the folks in town are suspicious as to who this stranger is and what he wants. Small towns can be curious little places where local folks remain distrustful of outsiders and the outside world. That’s the way it is in Black Rock, it’s an inhospitable desolate place, where it can be cold in many ways other than the weather. Continue reading

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) John Ford

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“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Ford’s final great work, though he continued to work and made a few more films; none had the intensity nor reached the level of art his previous films achieved. The film is based on a short story by western author Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree”, both of which were adapted to the screen.

The story begins with the return of Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) a well-known and respected senator, of an unnamed western state who along with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) comes back to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of small time ranch owner Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The town’s newspaper editor is curious to know why the famed senator renown for being “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance” (Lee Marvin) would make the long trip from Washington to pay his respects to this local unknown. Stoddard tells him the story ….

Liberty LC   Rance is a young attorney who believes in law and order though he refuses to carry a gun. On his way to the town of Shinbone, he is attacked and beaten during a stagecoach robbery by the outlaw Liberty Valance and his gang.  Rance is found by rancher Tom Doniphon and taken to the home of some friends who take care of the tenderfoot and nurse him back to health. Doniphon believes that in these parts “a man needs a gun.” Despite their philosophical differences, the two men become friends and rivals for the young and beautiful Hallie (Vera Miles). Valance continues to terrorize the town and Rance until one day the tenderfoot lawyer is forced into a showdown with the gunfighter. Though wounded during the gunfight, Rance shoots and kills Valance. Hallie’s true feelings come out for Rance driving Doniphon off in a drunken rage. Rance finds himself a hero as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He is selected to be a delegate as the territory applies for statehood. Feeling unworthy and guilty for becoming a hero based on killing a man, Doniphon reveals to him what really happened. Rance, relieved to know he is not riding on the coattails of a dead man, becomes the delegate, goes on to marry Hallie, and become the State’s first Governor and a three time Senator. While the death of Liberty Valance triggered a brilliant career for Rance Stoddard, for Tom Doniphon it led to a life of drinking, loneliness, and alienation.

liberty    After the Senator finishes telling his story to the paper’s editor and the truth about how Valance was killed, the editor tears up his notes and throws them into the stove to burn. Stoddard asks him why isn’t he going to use the story.  The editor replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

When I recently compiled my list of the best films of the 1960’s for the Wonders in the Dark blog, I inexplicitly did not include this John Ford masterpiece. This is one reason I hate making lists and I should be horsewhipped the same way Liberty Valance horsewhips James Stewart in the film for this omission. “Liberty Valance” is a classic western that stands up against the best of John Ford’s work. It is a work of an elder statement taking a darker, morose look at a period in America he had glorified in earlier times.  It is a turning point in the history of the American west, Statehood was on the horizon; the law and civilization were coming. Tom Doniphon knew his days were over and that Stoddard and his breed represented the future.

libertyvalance-c   John Wayne is an actor that I have always had mixed feelings about. When used correctly, mostly by Ford, his persona and the role merge into a “perfect storm” as they do in “The Searchers”, “Rio Bravo” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Wayne was never much of a real actor though he played ‘John Wayne’ better than anyone could. Moreover, rarely has a Wayne character displayed the vulnerability that he does here.  I always enjoyed James Stewart as an actor more than Wayne, however here I find his character, Rance Stoddard, a bit annoying, somewhat stubborn and naïve. While Wayne and Stewart are the stars of the film, it is Lee Marvin’s menacing performance that ‘stirs the drink.’ Marvin has portrayed many violent and evil characters in his wonderful career but Liberty Valance has to be at or near the top. He is brutal, intimidating and just plain evil. Reese (Lee Van Cleef), one of his gang members, twice has to stop him from whipping his victims to death. Vera Miles is the woman in the middle, in love with Doniphon, and as the film goes on, she develops a growing fondness for Stoddard and marries him. At the end of the film as they ride the railroad back to Washington, Ford subtly tells us, though she has been married to Stoddard for many decades her true love is left behind in a wooden box. “Liberty Valance” is not just Wayne, Stewart and Marvin, the film is rich in terrific performances with character actors like Edmond O’Brien as the newspaper editor, Andy Devine as the cowardly sheriff, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Valance’s two thugs in crime. The wonderful Woody Strode as Pompey. Also in the cast are John Carradine and Denver Pyle. All these colorful characters make the film interesting, giving it depth and making up for the less than expected gunplay you would assume to see in a western. The film is also filled with rich black and white photography courtesy of cinematographer William Clothier who had photographed many western, “The Horse Soldiers”, “The Comancheros” and “McLintock.” Other works include “Merrill’s Marauders” and “Donavan’s Reef.”

Finally, this is the film where John Wayne imitators latched on to the phrase “pilgrim.” Doniphon constantly refers to Stoddard by that name.