The Marvin/Frankenheimer Birthday Express
Born six years apart on this day, two native New Yorkers, one an Oscar®-winning actor of direct and powerful manliness and the other a premier director of action and conspiratorial suspense, were no-nonsense type-A personalities who would not suffer fools lightly, were at some point in their lives functioning alcoholics whose professionalism never let it show on screen, and who each left behind a handful of movies that populate all-time-favorite lists of cinephiles worldwide. They would work together once, quite memorably.
Lee Marvin (1924-1987) was quoted as saying that he learned to “act” while serving as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II, where trying to remain focused and unafraid throughout the savage combat in this most punishing of war zones would result in his receiving a Purple Heart. He reportedly disliked The Dirty Dozen (1967), one of his most popular films, because it wasn’t as realistic a depiction of the hell of war as his other projects Hell in the Pacific (1968) and The Big Red One (1980). But his war experiences did fuel his acting fearlessness, and his three Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray titles demonstrate this with a vengeance. Director Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), in which a midwestern city stinks of corruption on both sides of the law, casts Marvin as one of the most vicious, heartless mobsters ever unleashed on the screen, whose vindictive treatment of his moll, involving scalding coffee, still jolts audiences with its cruelty 63 years later. Director Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955) also taps into the nebulous rot of another small town, this one a mineral-mining burg in dusty Arizona, where an invading bank-robbery gang brings out the worst in its impacted citizenry; playing a Benzedrine-inhaling criminal barely in control of his roiling emotions, Marvin is a time-bomb seconds from exploding, and this time, he is the one meeting a grisly fate at the hands of an Amish farmer driven to strike back despite his nonviolent beliefs. The actor playing that farmer won an Academy Award® that year for his more peaceful yet romantically tormented portrayal in another movie called Marty (1955) – Ernest Borgnine – and he would trade sides with Marvin 18 years later in The Dirty Dozen director Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (1973). Marvin plays rail-riding hobo A-No. 1, who challenges the legendary – and sadistic – conductor Shack (Borgnine) in attempting to ride the latter’s train to Portland, Oregon, triggering what the movie’s poster called “the fight of the century,” a clash of wily dexterity and brute force that this time will have you rooting for underdog Marvin and his weaker cronies all along the route. Precisely 10 years after Borgnine, Marvin would become an Oscar® champion for his fabulous comedy turn in Cat Ballou (1965), boarding the TT hi-def express later this Spring and to be discussed in the coming months.
John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) also put in some military service, and his Air Force training resulted in his gravitating toward filmmaking and the burgeoning training ground of live television in the 1950s, he directed over 140 episodes in such classic anthology series as Playhouse 90, Climax! and Danger, and was a part of the wave of great future movie helmers that graduated from that arena, such as Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn and Franklin J. Schaffner. His first movie The Young Stranger (1957), about a rebellious teen, was an expansion of a Climax! teleplay. His second theatrical feature The Young Savages (1961) would be the first of five memorable collaborations with actor-producer Burt Lancaster during the 1960s, including Seven Days in May (1964) and The Gypsy Moths (1969). Their two other pictures are TT blu-ray gems, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Train (1964, currently sold out but due to return later this year). Frankenheimer came late to both of these extraordinary movies, following in the respective wakes of Charles Crichton and Arthur Penn, but both bear his inimitable stamp of caring craftsmanship and extraordinary detail. Each taps into Lancaster’s charismatic gifts for imposing stillness and athletic prowess. The director’s ability to pack tension and emotion into the prison environment of convicted killer Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz is a marvel to behold, clearly an outgrowth of his TV experiences to create whole worlds in confined spaces. Three decades before CGI would become commonplace, the logistical bedazzlement in The Train’s action sequences involving moving locomotives and the stealth activities of World War II French Resistance fighters struggling to derail the theft of priceless artwork by an elitist Nazi general still resonates 52 years later. Frankenheimer would treasure The Train as his favorite of the Lancaster quintet, and few would argue with that. Though never an Academy Award® nominee, Frankenheimer would win four Emmys® for his subsequent return to telefilms, and his 30 theatrical features, also including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds (1966), Grand Prix (1966), Black Sunday (1977) and Ronin (1999), constitute an amazing body of work.
That one time Marvin and Frankenheimer crossed professional paths was a bracing change of pace for both. The American Film Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973) proved historic. In the lead role of the pipe-dream-busting hardware salesman Hickey, Marvin would show dramatic chops that few other film roles afforded him. It was a last great look at two towering film icons in their final movie appearances, Fredric March as bar owner Harry Hope and Robert Ryan as burnt-out nihilist Larry Slade. And as Jeff Bridges, who portrayed the guilt-ridden anarchist Don Parritt, would later say, playing opposite and being captivated by the transformative work of these legends would clinch his decision to stick with and forge an acting career, yet another gift actor Marvin and director Frankenheimer left us.