A tower of lean muscle topped by dead-set eyes and hair that looks like it's been white since his birth, Lee Marvin was never destined to play romantic leads. But while those physical attributes would have relegated other actors to thug roles, Marvin found ways to turn them to his advantage, whether by taking his tough-guy image to the limit, parceling out moments of tenderness, or playing against expectations to win laughs (and an Oscar) in Cat Ballou. While Marvin usually found room for ambiguity in his performances, many of his characters share a dogged single-mindedness: No one conveyed the obsessive determination of a man on a mission quite like him. Two recent DVD releases capture Marvin at his best, using few gestures, fewer words, and the promise of brute force to help transform seemingly simple revenge stories into quests for meaning.
Fresh off his Oscar win, Marvin had amassed enough clout by 1967 to demand final cut and script approval, and enough taste to pass those privileges on to director John Boorman when the two paired to make Point Blank. Boorman only had British TV and a Dave Clark 5 vehicle under his belt at the time, but clearly he'd been holding back. Adapted from the slim, brutal novel The Hunter, by Richard Stark (a Donald Westlake pen name), Point Blank smartly joins film-noir elements with techniques from the then-cresting British, French, and Italian new waves. Marvin stars as a criminal whose reluctant participation in a heist ends when his wife and best friend leave him for dead. After an unspecified period, Marvin returns to exact as much revenge as necessary to retrieve the $93,000 he lost in the job. (The story may sound familiar, since it was remade, badly, as the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.)
Point Blank never reveals how Marvin survived, leaving Point Blank open to any number of supernatural readings, many of which Boorman entertains without endorsing on the DVD's lively commentary track, alongside Steven Soderbergh. But even without the spectral possibilities, Boorman's direction gives the film a not-quite-real quality; he overlaps sound across scenes, cuts back and forth between locations, jumps across time without warning, and plays violence off the cool urban exteriors of his L.A. and San Francisco locations. Still, Point Blank might have been merely a daring formal exercise if the emotional elements didn't keep it anchored. Marvin goes about his relentless task wearing a sadness not seen in the flashbacks to better times. When he makes his slow fade to black in the film's final shot, it's obvious that, whether ghost or man, he's learned something awful about the way the world works.
Five years later, Marvin played a character who'd already learned that lesson, but struggled to find some good in the rotten business of living anyway. In the 1972 Michael Ritchie film Prime Cut, Marvin plays a Chicago enforcer sent to Kansas City to an exact a debt from grinning gold-old-boy Gene Hackman, a meat mogul with sidelines in drugs and prostitution. Hackman dopes girls from a nearby orphanage and keeps them in pens like cattle. When someone threatens his business, he grinds them into sausage. Cows or girls or men, it's all so much flesh to him, and for Marvin, who adheres to an old-fashioned code of honor, teaching Hackman a lesson becomes more than just a paycheck.
Prime Cut appeared nearly concurrently with Ritchie's Robert Redford vehicle The Candidate. Both films explicitly explored what it takes to succeed in America, and Ritchie held onto that theme for much of the '70s, letting it surface in films like The Bad News Bears and Smile. In Prime Cut, it plays out as black comedy as Marvin, wearing big-city fashions, plunges into a heartland of darkness where milk-fed blonde boys in overalls do the work of a business that wastes nothing in its search for profit. Ritchie keeps the action fast-paced and the details gritty, never more effectively than in a long chase sequence featuring Marvin and a debuting Sissy Spacek running hand-in-hand from a thresher. It's a brilliantly conceived, technically well-executed scene, but Marvin gives it its weight. Sometimes, only people with his kind of tirelessness can avoid having their humanity ground up.