A Gunshot Behind the Woodshed: Lee Marvin's Dog Day
Watching your heroes grow old is never pretty. In action cinema, this is doubly true. We attach ourselves to muscled, impossibly cool men and women, and for a solid decade (or two if we’re lucky), these gods throw their gorgeous bodies around until they’re broken heaps. Like the NFL, there are very few options beyond the arena once these instruments discontinue their primary function: to ensorcell a throng hungry for destruction.
Outliers like Tom Cruise are the exception. For the most part, we have to be content with watching Bruce Willis embarrass himself in twenty DTV films a year, pining for the days when he actually gave a shit. Very rarely do these stars get a film that actively feels like they’re saying goodbye. Sure, you have Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme putting in career best work during their respective late periods, occasionally reckoning with their place in all of this, but it’s not often a final lead performance functions as a stoic ride into the sunset.
Lee Marvin was dead well before this author was a glimmer in anybody’s eye. When I was roughly fifteen, a teacher screened The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) in my high school Film Studies class. Of course I'd known who John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart were, but my attention was immediately ripped away by this face cut from stone that wielded a voice so deep, it couldn’t possibly be real. Suddenly, I was obsessed. I’d never seen anyone like him. Hell, I’d never heard anyone like him.
As my taste in film solidified, I spent the better part of the next fifteen years tracking down anything starring Marvin. Digging through the classics, I found myself continuously trying to process how this guy was even real. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Hysterical in Cat Ballou (1965), terrifying in The Killers (1964), ice cold in Prime Cut (1972), or wrenching in Hell in the Pacific (1968), Marvin was more than your average tough guy. He discovered pathos in every role he accepted, a soulful beauty behind those piercing blue eyes. Even in a dud like Paint Your Wagon (1969), Marvin made sure he was the thing you remembered most. It was never enough to be imposing. That wry smile would slink its way across his granite face, always giving more than you’d ever expect.
Rightfully, history judges Point Blank (1967) as the actor's masterpiece. Even if the rest of the movie were forgettable, Marvin's introductory march would be burned into cinephiles' brains forever. Marvin’s inimitable Walker, walking down an impossibly long hallway, intercut with his still waking prey. As Walker transitions to a car, his footsteps ring out over the film like a ticking clock. In that moment, John Boorman sealed Marvin as the baddest man to ever grace the silver screen. Boorman understood better than anyone that Lee Marvin filled a frame like no other. He didn’t need to speak. He didn’t need to throw a punch. He didn’t even need to look at you. If Lee Marvin’s coming, you better run for your goddamn life.
Beyond that walk, Point Blank is, of course, a crime movie classic. It’s the template for countless revenge films and we’ve spent an eternity chasing what it does with alarming ease. It also cemented Marvin as a big screen legend. Not an action star in the traditional sense; he was never going to toss himself off of buildings or have a technically proficient fight scene. He could, however, throw hands with the best of them and nobody looked better holding a gun. His chilly demeanor and imposing figure fits right in with the kind of star that became the staple of the genre, even if he’s not who your mind immediately goes to.
After a career’s worth of Old West shoot ‘em ups, brawls in back alleys, and many pain numbing whiskey shots after shooting wrapped on each, a sixty-year-old Marvin found himself in Yves Boisset’s Dog Day (1984). Boisset, a French journeyman, was an efficient hand whose films always looked a hell of a lot better than they had any right to. Shot in France and starring a cast of lumpy Frogs who were then dubbed in English for foreign territories, Marvin was present to lend star power, his name perhaps carrying a bit more currency there than in US productions by the mid-80s. Think Rick Dalton traveling to Italy when his career fizzled out, or an inverted Charles Bronson.
On its surface, Dog Day doesn’t seem special and, truth be told, it isn’t. In fact, it’s largely pretty bad. Tonally all over the place, stuffed full with rancid jokes, some wildly racist caricatures, and a Marvin who’s clearly too old to be doing this shit, the whole bloody affair's a bit of a drag. It’s that last part, though, that inadvertently circles back around to becoming something melancholy and moving. Opening on a haggard Marvin fleeing through a field, a bag of stolen money at his side, you’re instantly overtaken with the prevailing thought of “Christ, Lee, you look old.” It’s a jarring image, not least because Marvin looked old his entire career. Thirties, fifties, didn’t matter. The guy was born with a brutalist mug. Here, though, he just looks broken down, exhausted and, frankly, finished.
Playing renowned gangster Jimmy Cobb, Marvin’s on the run after a robbery goes south. Finding refuge in a farmhouse, Cobb spends the majority of the film gingerly stepping in and out of various houses, hiding behind walls and stacks of hay. Around him is an insane cast of characters, including an African man named Doo-Doo, a woman who chases Doo-Doo around begging him to “play with her pussy”, a repugnant farmer who gropes everyone he sees, and a pair of horny Swiss women camping in the outskirts of town. To be honest, it’s a lot to take in, and only legendary French actress Miou-Miou, as the farmer’s abused wife Jessica, is gifted any humanity whatsoever.
You don’t go into exploitation expecting anything less yet, as wild as that sounds, Dog Day spends far too long spinning its wheels. This ineptitude gives you time to examine Marvin’s Cobb and really take him in as he takes in his surroundings. Lazily drifting from one room to the next while attempting to stay out of sight, there’s a look of “what am I doing here?” that often creeps across the actor's face. Sure, Jimmy seeing the madness around him would undoubtedly wonder what he’s gotten himself into but there’s something else there. This is a man who starred alongside titans like John’s Wayne and Cassavetes. A man who duked it out with Toshirō Mifune. A man who wooed Angie Dickinson. It’s not just a character silently contemplating what's become of himself. Through withering glances and monosyllabic grunts, Lee seems to be too.
Knowing you’re cooked isn’t an easy thing to accept. Watching one of cinema’s finest leading men realize it in real time is exponentially more heartbreaking. Perhaps this is all projection on this critic's part, but as the cops close in around Cobb at the film's conclusion, Dog Day becomes more than a late period clunker. Our man knows his time is up and he’s got nowhere else to go. He had a great run, and the legend’s been printed a thousand times over. Cobb, Lee, doesn’t matter. Here, in this farmhouse, it’s all the same. Marvin mutters something about keeping that legacy for himself, places the gun under his chin, wide shot of the farmhouse…
Just like that, he’s gone.
Marvin, of course, wouldn’t pass until 1987, three years later. He’d pop up in one more film, playing second fiddle and ostensible torch passer to Chuck Norris in Delta Force (1986). But for all intents and purposes, Dog Day is Marvin’s final turn as a leading man. Knowing that, this minor footnote of a film takes on a weight it couldn’t possibly deserve. Dog Day doubles as a goodbye to a screen presence that never existed before and hasn't been replicated since. Running through those fields of wheat, breathing those labored breaths, Lee Marvin is racing against the clock of a life closing in around him. Lying low in that dingy farmhouse, he’s given time to ruminate on that life. And boy, what a life it was. Gun under his chin, he finally accepts that a man like Lee Marvin doesn’t let some stock goons take him out.
Only a man as ineffably cool as Lee Marvin gets to take Lee Marvin out.
Brandon Streussnig is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Playlist, The Movie Sleuth, and Film Combat Syndicate.