LEE MARVIN IN ‘THE RACK’….OH, AND PAUL NEWMAN, TOO!

One of the main purposes of this blog is to supplement Lee Marvin Point Blank, as well as shed light on some of the actor’s lesser known work, and a perfect example of that is the 1956 Paul Newman vehicle, The Rack. Based on a teleplay by Rod Serling with an expanded screenplay by Stewart Stern, the film was based on the high number of U.S. soldiers that collaborated with the enemy during the Korean War. At the time of the film’s release that number was more than three thousand.
To shed light on the problem, Serling and then Stern fashioned this tale of how one solider (Paul Newman) broke under pressure as a P.O.W. and the effect it has on his martinet father (Walter Pidgeon), widowed sister-in-law (Anne Francis), and his court-martial that takes up the bulk of the film. The lawyers battling the case are prosecutor Wendell Corey and defense attorney Edmond O’Brien.

Original ad campaign for THE RACK (1956).

See any mention above of Lee Marvin in that summation? Well, there’s a reason for that…..

Herald sent to theaters to help promote THE RACK focused on one promotional aspect of the film.

Marvin’s contribution to the film is important enough to rate the billing he received but not enough to be included in the advertising. Why is that? Mainly due to the fact that he has only two short scenes in the film, but they are two of the best the film has to offer. He plays a fellow P.O.W. who early on sets the tone of the films’s seriousness when he commits an act of symbolic assault on Newman….

As Capt. John R. Miller, Lee Marvin perpetrates an ambush on fellow P.O.W. Paul Newman that sets the tone of the film.

Later, during the extensive court-martial sequence, Marvin’s character gives testimony that proves that not every soldier who endured torture at the hands of their captors broke under pressure…..

An ad highlighting Marvin’s testimony scene during the court-martial.

Despite his limited screen time, Marvin added that necessary realism to the proceedings the overwrought melodrama desperately needed. Newman and company were up to their task but it’s Marvin’s character, based on a real P.O.W. screenwriter Stewart Stern read about, that gives the film it’s all-important ‘other-side-of the coin’ point of view. Stern had learned of some of the incredibly inhumane  torture this particular soldier had gone through, but it was far too intense for studios and audiences of the 1950s.  For example, as he told Roger Ebert in a late life interview: “The Marvin character was partly based on that prisoner I’d read about. The Chinese had done everything they could in terms of physical torture. They tossed Army helmets full of urine in his face, they put cigarettes out on his skin…and when this didn’t work they peeled the skin from his penis and tossed him into solitary confinement in a tiny shed with corrugated iron across the top. And he still wouldn’t talk. There was a nail-hole in the corrugated iron, and every day at the same time, a tiny ray of sunlight would shine through the nail-hole, and he would hold his penis up into that tiny ray of sunlight so it would heal faster. The Chinese never broke him, and that was one of the reasons they turned to psychological abuse as a means of torture.”
Naturally the above horrors could not be depicted in 1956 so another way of emotionally affecting the viewers were used and Marvin was more than up to the task. The scene still packs a wallop but will not be described here as it must be seen intact for its full emotional effect. Besides, I loathe spoilers!
Did Marvin know of what Stern had researched? Probably not. Did he see his own version of war’s horror inflicted on humanity? Absolutely, which is why his performance, although brief, is ALWAYS worth watching.

 

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FORGOTTEN LEE MARVIN THRILLER: A LIFE IN THE BALANCE

Unlike some biographies, in Lee Marvin Point Blank, I went out of my way to cover all of Marvin’s films, including the rarely seen little thriller, A Life in the Balance. Whether successful or not, all of Marvin’s films are worth viewing, in my opinion, and in Balance it’s one of the rare times you see him play and out-and-out psycho killer. It was one of those quickly made little 1950s thrillers in which Marvin played a knife-wielding murderer who’s crime is witnessed by a little boy. Marvin kidnaps the boy on the run and circumstances have the police blaming the recent killings on the boy’s father, played Ricardo Montalban,. Young Anne Bancroft plays Montalban reluctant love interest as they both race to beat the police to find the boy….and the real killer.
Marvin is great as the killer, who actually elicits some sympathy as he tries to make friends with the much more wiley little boy, played incidentally, by Jose Perez. As an adult, Perez would go on to play the Puerto Rican janitor (i.e God) in the play, “Steambath.” Filmed on location in Mexico, it really should be made more accessible in this digital age.
For Lee Marvin, the project was memorable for another reason. As he explained in a magazine interview ten years later….

One of two ad campaigns for A Life in the Balance (1955), with Ricardo Montalban & Anne Bancroft more prominently featured.

The second ad campaign for A Life in the Balance but with Marvin more prominent than his romantic co-stars.

“We were in a Mexican town once, a bunch of guys. We were drinking tequila. The price was three pesos. A very fair price. But then they raised the price to five pesos. That was twenty-four cents more. Too much. So we went on strike. We walked out and drove down the road to the next town where we found three-peso tequila. We drank there.  Then we went back to the first town. They pegged the price back to three pesos. We started drinking there again. It has to be the first time man ever went a strike for a lower price on his drinks. It has to be the most satisfying strike ever.”

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IN HONOR OF THE PASSING OF SHELLEY BERMAN

Shelley Berman died today after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He hung in there for quite some time but it is a horrendous illness that always wins in the end. I know having seen its effect on several family members.
I’m reposting the interview I did with Berman back in 2005 for Filmfax in his honor. Since he has passed, I’m also adding something else. When I first posted this on my blog I made mention of a subject that came up in the interview that angered Berman so much, he wanted to end the interview. Well, with his passing I have decided to mention it here. Keep n mind, I could have mentioned it earlier, or for that matter, even left it in the original interview, but the choice was mine to make and I left it out in respect to Berman. Now that he has passed, I’ll discuss it here. For the record, I’m not one of those writers who rubs his hands together and thinks, “Oh goody! Now that he’s gone I can bash him to my heart’s content.” Far from it. In fact, it is in homage to Berman that I mention it now, as  I feel it shows his humanity, his down-to-earth nature and his never-ending rebelliousness. So, with that said, I can now say what it was in two simple words:  Lenny Bruce.
What happened was this. If you look below at the 6th page of the interview we did indeed discuss Lenny Bruce as they were contemporaries of each other. However, as friendly as he sounds reminiscing about Lenny Bruce, there was an obvious air of rivalry when he Berman spoke of him. Small wonder as comedians as diverse as Alan King to Bill Cosby (ahem!) have gone on record in admiration of Bruce’s audacity on stage.
What happened n the interview was this: Berman had begun talking about Lenny Bruce in rather less than complimentary terms and, being a Lenny Bruce fan, I challenged him. Went something like this….
Berman: I was in a club one night watching Lenny perform when a group of high school prom dates came in all dressed up for the evening. He saw them and said into the mic, ‘Hey, are you kids gonna FUCK tonight?'” He didn’t have to embarrass those kids like that….
Filmfax: Didn’t anybody think to ask what a bunch of high schoolers were doing in an adult nightclub?
Berman (angrily): Okay, I never met Lenny Bruce! What I said never happened. Turn of the tape recorder. The interview is over!
And so it went. I did indeed off the recorder but then I proceeded to try to calm him down and after several minutes it worked and we went back to the interview. At no time after that did he ask me to edit the interview, read it before publication or do or say anything that would censor what we discussed. I took it upon myself to not put it in as I felt it effected the great stuff he was telling me otherwise. I mention it now only to show how, like all of us, human the man was and the respect I had for his life and work. Rest in peace, Mr. Berman. Like Lenny Bruce, you life and influence will always live on.

[Original introduction when article was first posted followed by the interview]
Shelley Berman, interviewed by yours truly back ’05 for Filmfax magazine, was part of an idea I had while trying to get Lee Marvin Point Blank published. I figured I’d keep my writing chops up by interviewing subjects within a given theme, in this case it was pioneering comedians. It started with the rare opportunity afforded me to interview both Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. From there the plan was to write about the holy trinity of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman. Well, I met Berman at a Hollywood Collector’s Show and he agreed on a day and time to be interviewed. When I found out he was good friends with Sahl, I thought the next step would be a breeze. It wasn’t. As for Bruce, I wanted to interview his daughter, Kitty, who was amenable over the phone but constant scheduling conflicts made the proposed piece prohibitive. Ahh well, maybe some day…
As for Berman, he remains one of the strangest interviews I have ever conducted. He invited me to his home and was very cordial but as our talk went on, he kept pressing me to ask him about certain subjects he wanted to expound on. I’m sure he wanted some specific comments on the record, but that was not why I was there. I maintained control of the interview and asked about subjects I knew the good folks at Filmfax wanted me to ask him about.
Then, at one point, a certain subject was brought up that so angered him, he said that I should turn off the tape recorder as the interview was officially over. I did turn off the recorder but it was to convince him to go back on the record. I won’t say what (or who) the subject was that angered him as I agreed not to go public with it. He calmed down and the interviewed continued to its conclusion. Later, when I told publisher Mike Stein about it, he laughed and said how cool he thought the whole thing was. That eased my worries a bit as I then turned in the article that you see below. Suffice to say, the subject that angered him is still present but only slightly altered. Can you tell what it is???
Oh, and one more thing. After the article, I posted the letter Berman wrote that stated a few of his objections and no, the subject that angered him was NOT in the letter. Go figure….

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Shelley Berman’s letter to the editor after the interview was published. No, the angry subject is NOT in the letter.

 

 

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