HAPPY HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY, TOSHIRO MIFUNE

The first of April is known to most folks as April Fool’s Day (or Easter this year!) but to some observant film fans it also the birthday of Lee Marvin’s favorite co-star, Toshiro Mifune. Lee Marvin Point Blank readers are well aware of Marvin’s feelings for Mifune.

Original release ad for HELL IN THE PACIFIC, Marvin & Mifune’s only film together.

Marvin’s affection for Mifune was rare for a man of his generation and despite the difficult circumstances during their one project together, their friendship grew and lasted until Marvin death in 1987.
Mifune was a legend in the Japanese film industry, due largely to his collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa. He achieved the rarely seen success of international celebrity in the burgeoning film market of the postwar years, including a handful of American films despite his inability to speak English. It did not matter as his appeal required no words. As Lee Marvin famously said of Mifune: “This guy hypnotizes you with his genius. Those eyes! The battered samurai warrior standing alone, not wanting outside help.”

(L-R) Toshiro Mifune, Lee Marvin, Michele Triola and Mifune’s wife, Sachiko Yoshimine.

Of the one film they made together, Hell in the Pacific is given it’s just due in Lee Marvin Point Blank. Other sources for its production are detailed in director John Boorman’s memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy and Stuart Galbraith’s IV mammoth tome, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.  Personally, I found it to be a noble failure as both allegory and filmmaking. Upon the heavily edited version released to theaters at the time, Marvin himself felt the same way but, despite it’s reception,  it remained on of his personal favorite films. It’s not without its merits, chief among them being the two actors’ presence and the eye-popping cinematography of Conrad Hall.

(L-R) Cinematographer Conrad Hall (seated), Lee Marvin, director John Boorman and Toshiro Mifune on location during HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968).

While Galbraith and Boorman give wonderful accounts of the rigorous production, both seem to lack insight into the one element that seems to accompany any Lee Marvin project, and that is humor. Thanks to exclusive interviews with Lee’s first wife, Betty Marvin and his career-long agent, Meyer Mishkin, I was able to secure several hilarious anecdotes to put in my book that would have been lost to time had they not agreed to open up to me.
Still in all, Hell in the Pacific is worth viewing, if only for the powerful presence of both Marvin and Mifune, two actors at the top of their game in a film personal and important to them both. Watch it again for the great Mifune’s heavenly birthday and when Marvin shouts out “Come and get it!” raise a sakazuki in the great man’s honor.
– Dwayne Epstein

Director John Boorman’s 2003 memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy.

Author/Historian Stuart Galbraith’s massive 2001 tome, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.

 

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1ST WRITING OF LEE MARVIN & POINT BLANK

True confession time: I was not a fan of Lee Marvin’s Point Blank (1967). The first time I viewed it, I found it slow and pretentious. Of course, like all truly great films, it grew on me with each successive viewing and has since become one of my favorite films in his canon. What helped immensely was the research I did while writing Lee Marvin Point Blank. However, film historian and good friend, Bill Krohn, also aided my appreciation of the film considerably when he asked me to help research a project he was working on…..

The cover of Bill Krohn’s French film book which translates to SERIOUS PLEASURES.

Krohn was commissioned by Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival to put together a project in which several great film directors pick an underrated film to discuss, why the picked it, and was worthy of rediscovery. It was dubbed Serious Pleasures, a sort of play on words of Film Comment’s series entitled, “Guilty Pleasures.” The choices were very impressive as Bill also needed help in researching and writing some background pieces for each film. I wanted to do almost all of them, but had to settle on a choice few, of which Point Blank was one, chosen by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Eat a Bowl of Tea, etc.). My pleading with Bill resulted in being able to write about Woody Allen’s choice of Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965); Francis Ford Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jack(1961); Clint Eastwood’s choice of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949); Oliver Stone’s choice of Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966); Kathryn Bigelow’s choice of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969); Jim McBride’s choice of Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965); and Charles Burnett’s choice of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968).
All great choices, by the way, and the joy I felt in researching them was the reason I chose this profession. Unfortunately, the collection never saw publication in this country and I had to be content with knowing my work was enjoyed by film fans throughout Europe…only!

The credit page in French for Bill Krohn’s SERIOUS PLEASURES with yours truly listed as a ‘Documentaliste.’

My research into Point Blank resulted in the following brief background piece. Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank may recognize some of the documentation but there are a few choice nuggets that may be new. Find out for yourself below. Enjoy!


The highly stylized film boasts many technological advancements, as well as some of the most memorable images of its knd. The reverberating sound of Marvin’s heels echoing through the airport during the opening, or the juxtaposing of a brutal fistfight during a hip, should music riff still pack a wallop. Although it is not widely known, Point Blank is also the first film to mic all the actors individually during a scene, thereby incorporating a greater sense of intimacy.

One of the film’s best images of both violence and sexual power, as recalled by Boorman, was a collaborative effort: “It was Lee’s idea to shoot into the empty bed of the wife who had betrayed him. We were using blanks which give no recoil, so, Lee faked it, his arm whipping back a foot or more with each shot. It suggested the enormous power of the thing more than anything else could. Later, when we were filming on Alcatraz, we got some live ammunition and fired the big Magnum for real. There was no recoil at all. Lee grinned at me. ‘Our way sure beats the real thing,’ he said.”
The production, the first ever shot with extensive sequences on the then recently decommission prison of Alcatraz, was not without incident. The difficult task of obtaining permission to shoot on ‘The Rock’ was secured by promising government officials that the film would not glorify crime. Once that was accomplished, the filmmakers took over the decaying prison, shooting long into the night. One shot included a love scene between Marvin and actress Sharon Acker in what had been the cell of Al Capone. At one point, the production almost lost a script girl who slipped on an oil-slick barge into San Francisco Bay’s choppy waters.
At the time of its release, most critics dismissed it but some, such as Newsweek, wrote: ‘It hits like a slug from the .38 Lee Marvin uses as extension of his fist. It is highly moral violence with compelling photography.’ Point Blank has since gone on to attain justifiable cult status. The highly stylized camera work, coupled with Marvin’s raw performance has made it, in the words of film historian Leonard Maltin, ‘A taut thriller ignored in 1967 but now regarded as one of the top films of the mid-sixties..’
The female lead, Angie Dickinson, made a pointed observation when it was screened at the Los Angeles County of Museum in 1996: “It’s been taken to task for its violence but if you notice, Lee’s character never really kills anyone, except for a car and a bed. He really is a catalyst for violence, not a perpetrator.” Her observations gives credence to those film buffs who argue that Marvin’s character is actually the Angel of Death.

Title page for SERIOUS PLEASURES Point Blank chapter.

As for Lee Marvin, he saw the film in a different light. At the the time of the film’s production, the actor’s marriage was on the rocks while he was in a tumultuous relationship with then girlfriend, Michele Triola. “I saw Point Blank about a year ago and I was absolutely shocked,” he said in 1985. “I had forgotten how rough a film it was. That was a troubled time for me in my personal relationship so I used an awful lot of that while making the picture.”
Rarely has art imitated life so creatively.

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MY FAVORITE FILM FIGHT SCENES: PART 3 OF 5

Continuing on into the groundbreaking decade of the 1960s, below is the next five films in my list of personal favorite movie fight scenes……

11. SOLDIER IN THE RAIN-1963
Rarely scene and hardly liked by most Steve McQueen fans, Soldier in the Rain was made fresh off his blistering success of The Great Escape. It may seem like an odd choice to most McQueen fans as it’s an odd film to begin with but along with Baby, The Rain Must Fall it is in dire need of rediscovering. Based on a novel by the prolific WIlliam Goldman,and directed by the criminally underrated Ralph Nelson the offbeat tale is mostly a comedy about the peace-time shennigans of Supply Sgt. Eustis Clay (McQueen) and Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason) and their unlikely yet beleviable friendship. The moody tone of the latter half of the film is hinted at during the opening credits via Henry Mancini’s meloncholy main theme. Tuesday Weld heads up the equally offbeat supporting cast of Ed Nelson, Lew Gallo, Tony Bill, Adam West, Tom Poston and Rockne Tarkington.

Jackie Gleason takes Ed Nelson for a spin.

Jackie Gleason takes Ed Nelson for a spin.

The black and white film is shot bright and sunny throughout most of the proceedings but once the film’s mood changes, so too does the lighting, to a darker tone that is neither inappropriate nor jarring. It all works, and brilliantly at that, especailly during the barroom brawl that remains a favorite if spooky reminder of how great this film is. The viewer is right in the thick of it as McQueen and Gleason versus Gallo and Nelson reaches a most beleviable conclusion, as does the film itself in which all loose plot developments are poignantly tied up. The pairing of Gleason and McQueen in an early ‘Buddy Film’ may seem odd at first glance but the chemistry between them is there and quite touching at times.

Steve McQueen (right) consoles Jackie Gleason (left) following their barrom brawl.

Steve McQueen (right) consoles Jackie Gleason (left) following their barrom brawl.

In a moment that sounds like a scene right out of the film, rumor has it that Gleason gave McQueen a pair of cufflinks depicting one of his own favorite recreations, playing golf. Supposedly, McQueen thanked him for the gesture but told The Great One he didn’t wear cufflinks when indulging in his favorite recreation: riding motorcycles.

12. DONOVAN’S REEF-1963

When I interviewed Betty Marvin for Lee Marvin Point Blank she was not only forthcoming in her memories of her ex-husband, she proved to be extremely insightful of his screen persona. In comparing Marvin to frequent costar John Wayne, she used a wonderful metaphor, describing Wayne as a big lumbering, yet to her mind, loveable bear. Lee, on the other hand was a panther, sleek, muscular and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. No where is that anaology more true than in Donovan’s Reef, which opens with a wonderful comic brawl between the two that makes almost the entire remainder of the fllm anti-climatic by comparison.

Marvin and Wayne temporarily abide by Jack Warden's orders to heed their annual birthday brawl in Donavan's Reef.

Marvin and Wayne temporarily abide by Jack Warden’s orders to heed their annual birthday brawl in Donavan’s Reef.

13. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS-1966
Why is a Toho monster film on this list? I say, why not? Besides, when I was a kid I LOVED this movie. Watching it now it commands an amazing amount of camp value that rivals anything Ed Wood ever did! The premise is simple enough. Two incredibly ugly behemoth brothers battle it out over bragging rights to destroy Japan, while destroying Japan in the process. You want camp? Try this, when a lounge singer warbles out the film’s love song  on a crusie ship (“The Words Get Stuck in My Throat”), a Gargantua, skilled in music criticism, promptly picks her up, eats her, and spits out her clothes like a sunflower seed shell.
The Brown Gargantua is ‘the good one’ and the Green is ‘the bad.’ Naturally, I was rooting for the green. Along for the ride is a slumming Russ Tamblyn as a hip talking scientist. All in all one of the best — albeit longest — fight scenes in movie history. Their faces and body language alone is worth the price of admission!

No it's not Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Osborne. It's the title characers of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in mid-brawl.

No it’s not Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Osborne. It’s the title characers of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in mid-brawl.

14. THE SAND PEBBLES – 1966
As a 1960s roadshow engagement film and the only time Steve McQueen ever got an Oscar nomination, the overblown production of The Sand Pebbles is dying for rediscovery, if only for the bizarre fight scene between diminutive Mako and Slovenly giant Simon Oakland.  The film revolves around a U.S. gunboat mired in the quagmire of 1920s China’s political upheaval. The many analogies to Vietnam become a little annoying afte a while but the relationships of the characters, especially the crew of the San Pablo, is the heart of the film. The battle between Oakland and Mako is a standout as the viewer doesn’t think there’s any way Mako can possibly triumph. He’s a ship’s Coolie fighting for his right to stay on the ship in a bet made by McQueen’s Jake Holman character (who incidentally proves he  can take Oakland himself by a couple of quick body blows). Oakland is fighting for the right to break in a virginal Chinese prostitute. What unfolds in the sequence is not only good ol’ fashion underdog heroics, but a rousing yet beleviable climax of events.
One little known footnote: When Francis Ford Coppola was filming Apocalypse, Now! he had his cast & crew watch The Sand Pebbles first in order to see what kind of superior filmmaking can emerge in the midst of difficult location shooting. Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles proved to influence films more than he ever realized.

Slovenly Simn Oakland seems destined to pummel minute Mako in The Sand Pebbles. Viewers of the film know better....

Slovenly Simon Oakland seems destined to pummel minute Mako in The Sand Pebbles. Viewers of the film know better….

15. POINT BLANK– 1967
“Taut thriller, ignored in 1967, but now regarded as a top film of the mid-60s,” is how film historian Leonard Maltin aptly described director John Boorman’s ‘arthouse action film,’ Point Blank. How could I possibly write about my favorite fight scenes and not include this Lee Marvin movie? There are of course several to choose from, but I chose the battle between Marvin’s Walker and a couple of thugs hired to beat him up behind the movie screen of Angie Dickinson’s posh strip club, covered by the wailing of on stage soul singer. Why was it chosen? This film is chockful innovations: the first film shot at Alcatraz after it was shut down; the first film in which the actors were each individually miked for sound; the  stylized jump cuts, camera angles visual effects; but more than anything it’s the fight scene. Speaking of firsts, witnessing Marvin grab stuntman Jerry Catron by the crotch –the way someone would grab an opponent’s lapels to punch him in the face, and then doing just that, to his CROTCH — is an innovation in itself, for better or for worse. I defy any man to watch that moment and not reflexively bend over, cross his legs and wince after witnessing it!

Lee Marvin's Walker surprises mob goon Jerry Catron with a beer bottle to the kisser, and that's just for starters!

Lee Marvin’s Walker surprises mob goon Jerry Catron with a beer bottle to the kisser, and that’s just for starters!

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