(Photo by Caio Resende, Pexels)
This month’s blog is about two more of my favourite actors (it’s a long list and there’s still a long way to go). Murray Melvin and Lee Marvin may be worlds apart – quite literally – but they share a certain cult status, albeit to vastly different degrees, Lee Marvin being a superstar and Murray Melvin not being one. And thus, as Orson Welles is alleged to have said, does nature balance itself. Let’s start with the less oft-celebrated Murray Melvin, whose first screen appearance was in the film version of Shelagh Delaney’s play, A Taste of Honey, playing the gay flatmate – a role that came naturally to him – to Rita Tushingham’s unmarried mother. Tony Richardson’s adaptation is still one of my favourite early ‘60s black and white “kitchen sink” movies – witty, pithy and full of social issues – so I was happy to discover that Melvin won the Prix de Cannes for Best Actor in 1962.
Melvin then became a fully paid-up member of what has come to be known as the Ken Russell Repertory Company, appearing in many of Ken’s most celebrated films, including The Devils, where he makes a memorably po-faced and hypocritical Father Mignon, one of the many nemeses of Oliver Reed’s libertine Father Grandier. Murray would have made a great Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, all put upon and wounded, a puritanical sourpuss incapable of fun, yet one you might perversely sympathise with, if you are me. Not that I sympathise with Father Mignon. He’s beyond the pale, especially when he starts wanking at the sight of the naked nuns in The Devils.
After a slightly more decorous performance, dancing solo in a French officer’s outfit for The Boy Friend (not one of Ken’s better efforts) he pops up as Hector Berlioz in Lisztomania, for my money Russell’s second best film, after The Devils, and certainly the most imaginative/demented (more demented than The Devils even, and that’s saying something). He remained a lifelong friend of Ken Russell, probably out of gratitude because no-one else seemed to appreciate the genius that is Murray Melvin, although Stanley Kubrick gave him a part in Barry Lyndon (as Reverend Samuel Runt, effectively reprising his role from The Devils) and Peter Medak cast him in (count ‘em!) FIVE films, including the film version of Bristol playwright Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. But it was to the warm embrace of Ken Russell that he kept returning, and he was often seen with Russell at festivals, even pushing Ken’s wheelchair when the ailing director finally got the recognition he deserved at the Barbican screening of The Devils (Director’s Cut) in 2011.
I recognised Ken Russell on the tube once. He was sitting alone, ignored by all (as usual). To them, he was just a fat, red-faced old man who bore a curious resemblance to Iris Murdoch. They might even have thought he WAS Iris Murdoch, lost on the tube in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his work, but I didn’t, and I don’t know why, any more than David Crosby knows why he didn’t cut his hair in Almost Cut My Hair (CSN&Y joke!) It is one of life’s mysteries, like the inexplicable popularity of Coldplay. Can no-one see through Chris Martin? Lee Marvin would have done – he would have bitch-slapped the man and tossed him aside like a rag doll, and Chris Martin would have whimpered gratefully. Lee was masculinity incarnate, whether pure evil, as in The Big Heat, throwing hot coffee in Chris Martin’s face (or was it Gloria Grahame? I forget) more-or-less good, as in The Dirty Dozen, or something in between, as in Point Blank or Prime Cut, the sadistic “tart with a (purple) heart”, which of course he won in WWII, seeing action in Saipan.
As a decorated combat veteran, Marvin was a natural in war dramas, where he frequently assisted the directors and other actors in portraying infantry movement and using firearms. He acted opposite the seemingly constipated John Wayne three times, and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opposite both Wayne and James Stewart, two arch right-wingers whom the Kennedy-supporting, anti-Vietnam War Marvin would have had little time for off screen.
Then came his first top billing, in Don Siegel’s The Killers, a film interesting if only for the final appearance of Ronald Reagan, here playing a villain, and John Cassavetes, who is always watchable. Skirting quickly over lightweight Westerns Cat Ballou and The Professionals we then come to The Dirty Dozen (1967) in which Marvin was reunited with Cassavetes, and has to keep in check the likes of Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, and (perfecting the art of not having to act by saying very little) Charles Bronson. The Dirty Dozen is the bridge between super-cool but essentially old-fashioned early ’60s ensemble movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape and the cynical, late ’60s gore fest that is The Wild Bunch. Needless to say, I love ‘em all (as The Wild Bunch’s Pike Bishop doesn’t say, because what he says is ”kill ‘em all!”)
By now a huge star, Marvin was given enormous control over his next film, Point Blank, in which he portrayed a hard-nosed criminal bent on revenge. Marvin chose honorary Bristolian John Boorman to direct and had a say in the film’s development, plot line, and staging. Alas, Point Blank hasn’t aged that well. It has too many European art movie tropes: it comes on at first like Last Year in Marienbad, then remembers it’s a gangsta flick , but can’t quite convince, due in part to the presence of a miscast Keenan Wynn, always hard to take seriously. But I’m in a minority and to many it’s both Boorman and Marvin’s best film. Marvin did then cast as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (1969), which would have been his best film by a country kilometre, except that he fell out with director Sam Peckinpah and was replaced by William Holden. So he made the execrable musical Western musical Paint Your Wagon instead, as if to say Ya Boo Sucks to Peckinpah. You think I care about your lame-ass ballet of bloodshed? I can SING! And sing he did, or at least sleep talk his way through Wand’rin’ Star, which I include here for its high kitsch factor.
The best of his 1970s movies, in my opinion, is the hard-hitting Prime Cut (1972) with Gene Hackman playing bad, and a great combine harvester chase. That said, Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich again) and The Klansman (Terence Young, pointing the camera in more or less the right place) are worth a gander, especially the later, where Richard Burton wanders in from another planet (or star) one on which Tennessee Williams has written the script for a blaxploitation movie. Even Shout at the Devil (1976), co-starring Roger Moore’s raised eyebrow, is enjoyable, if you’re twelve, which I was at the time.
In a parallel universe – one in which Jeremy Corbyn won the 2019 general election and the Fugs are bigger than Coldplay – I like to think of Lee Marvin mincing through A Taste of Honey and Murray Melvin whipping the Dirty Dozen into shape with a few of his best bitchy comments. Or even spitting the immortal line “Kill ’em all” as the Wild Bunch paint the wall of yet another bank with the innards of innocent customers. I imagine the two of them collecting their respective Grand Prix at Cannes and being snapped together at a table sharing a well-earned bottle of Bolly, an of-its-time black and white image I can then use (copyright free, of course) on this post, instead of having to make do with a crappy photo of some M&Ms. Oh well, a girl can dream!