Weekend Double Feature: (ear)Lee Marvin – 1953
Posted by Hedwig on June 4, 2008
Noir, by the fifties, was turning into an old man’s (or at least grown man’s) game. Sure, there are marvelous examples of the genre even in the late fifties, but it wasn’t fresh anymore. Humphrey Bogart was still cool (and still is, and probably always will be), but he only had four years left to live. At the same time, a new youth-oriented culture was gathering strength, and it was only two years before James Dean burst onto the scene in Rebel Without a Cause. The old acting style was going out of style, and the Method was on its way.
As such, 1953 fell in a transitional period, and this is clearly reflected in the two films Lee Marvin made that year. One, The Big Heat, was a classic noir made by the old master Fritz Lang (62 at the time), complete with good old-fashioned thugs and a femme fatale – the glorious Gloria Grahame, who’s fatal to someone else than you’d expect. The other, The Wild One, was a showcase for one of the new up-an-coming actors, Marlon Brando, and revolved around a new phenomenon: the greaser.
Lee Marvin plays thugs in both, but they couldn’t be more different. In The Big Heat, Vince Stone is impeccably dressed in a suit and reigned in, his violent impulses tied down except for the periodic outbursts. He’s mean, and he’s dangerous, but most of the time he’s in control of his impulses. In contrast, Chino in the Wild One is, indeed, a wild one, resisting not a single impulse, and doing exactly what he likes. He’s violent, too, but he seems less dangerous because he’s so extremely predictable: he’s annoying, and you don’t want him as your enemy, but he doesn’t hide a single feeling he has.
I like The Bg Heat much better – does it show? Maybe because “youth culture” of any decade appeals less to me than the more lived-in, mature culture outings. Maybe because Lang is a great director. And probably because, despite of the title, Marlon Brando as “the Wild One” is kind of… dull? I know, I shouldn’t say dull, I should say disaffected and disconnected, but while his screen presence is undeniable, he’s been much more magnetic than he is here. Much more dangerous. His performance is affecting, but you feel like telling him to just get over himself, and Marvin’s Chino is infinitely more fun to watch.
As a final note: there’s one thing I noticed again this time in the the Big Heat, and that’s how unfair the movie is to Gloria Grahame’s Debby. She functions purely as a vessel for the main character, who lets her do all his dirty work. He doesn’t just plant the thought of killing in her head, he actually hands her the gun. All so he, the “hero” who almost, tantalizingly gave in to his lower instincts, and who definitely had homicidal urges, can go free at the end despite the strict edicts of the code, while poor Debbie lies on on the ground, bleeding out while he extolls the virtues of his wife (played, coincidentally, by Brando’s big sister). While he tells her who she’s dying for. It’s thoroughly wrong, mean even, but it might be just what makes this movie one of the great noirs. And it wouldn’t have been as great without Marvin’s menacing presence as Vince Stone.