Next week will mark the 41st anniversary of the release of Spikes Gang, one of Lee Marvin’s forgotten gems from the 70s. The film did not fare well when released with audiences or most critics, which is a pity as it does have some pretty initeresting things worthy of re-evaluation. Based on the book The Bank Robber, by Giles Tippett, Marvin played Harry Spikes, a bank robber in the old west who recruits 3 young men into a life of crime (Gary Grimes, Ron Howard, and Charlie Martin Smith). Directed by the criminally underrated Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green), the late director agreed to talk with me back in 1998. He shared his memories of working with Marvin, first on Violent Saturday and later, on Spikes Gang. The story of how he convinced Lee Marvin to take on the role, as well as Marvin’s reaction to the finished film, are two of my favorites that are detailed in the pages of Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Below are a few more comments from Fleischer about Spikes Gang not included in the book. Enjoy!
Lee Marvin as Harry Spikes in 1974’s Spikes Gang.
Dwayne: So, tell me about working with Lee Marvin on Spikes Gang.
Richard Fleischer: Yeah, I thought he was just great in that film.
Dwayne: I think he and the film are kind of underrated.
Richard: It’s a wonderful performance all the way through and again, that humor shining through all the time… Well, he was kind of misbehaving on the movie, a bit. But he had some very interesting things about him, his personality and his relationship to the work he wa doing. He was kind of a devilish guy. I remember…I learned from the first picture [Violent Saturday-1955] that you need a firm hand with Lee. I think he was a Marine. I was in the army but before that, I was in military academy. So, I had military training, military background and Lee used to test me. I remember one very amusing incident when we were on location. I’m a nut about certain things. One of them is trash around the set, pieces of paper and the like. I insist that it’s picked up immediately. That kind of amused Lee. I remember on location, I was talking to another actor and Lee crossed my eye line. We were standing in a path through a field. While I was talking to another actor, Lee, who was maybe 30-40 feet away, crossed the path and he crossed so that I could see him. As he was crossing the path, he threw a gum wrapper down on the path. I reacted immediately. It was very funny because it was a natural thing for me. Knowing his background and training I said “Marvin!” He stopped, and I said, “Pick it up!” He turned around like a mechanical doll, walked right straight back, picked it up without breaking step and kept on walking in the opposite direction. It was very funny. I never forgot that.
Dwayne: His body language was often hysterical. what you’re saying is important to know because there’s a legacy of him being unprofessional but what you say changes all that…
Richard: Yes, he would be there just to watch. He would show up early in the morning when we were arriving on the set. The picture was shot on location in Spain. Lee would arrive with the crew in the morning and he’d have a cup of brandy with the Spanish crew first thing and he’d hang around. The thing that really got to me was that in the areas, the scenes where he wasn’t playing, he would hide on the set. I would learn, people would point him out to me. He’d be hiding under a desk or a chair and he would watch the scene. He just wanted to be there. He just wanted to be on the set.
A page from Spikes Gang pressbook.
Dwayne: Yeah, he had moments like that.
Richard: We had one moment…. big scene in the picture, his big speech after he’s been shot and he’s sitting on the bed and has this long rambling speech about his background, his life, his relationship with his father…It was the only time I had trouble [with him] that way. I don’t know why he did it but he really got loaded.
Dwayne: was he able to work?
Richard: Well, I shot the scene with him but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Lee tends to mumble anyhow. I really couldn’t understand what he was saying and he was in a very kind of ugly mood. I knew if I quit and didn’t finish the scene, I’d have a lot of trouble with him. He’d be insulted, hurt and angry. So, I let him finish the scene. The next day we came back to the set and I shot the scene [chuckles] We started shooting and he said, “Now, wait a minute. Didn’t we do this yesterday?” I said, “Yes we did.” He asked “Why are you doing it again?” I said, “Well Lee, I really couldn’t understand what you were saying yesterday. Could you do it again and clear up some of the pronunciation?” He reluctantly did it but I must say[chuckles], he really wasn’t much different than when he was mumbling it.
Dwayne: He mumbled again?
Richard: Yes, but it was clearer.
Dwayne: You were straightforward about telling him that was the reason?
Dwayne: Did he have a second thought about doing it?
Richard: No, he went ahead and did it but was kind of reluctant. He did it and he did it very well.
Dwayne: How did he interact with the younger actors?
Richard: He was great them. He really was. He loved working with those kids. They were all very good so he had good actors to work against. He enjoyed the experience, as far as I could tell. He was very, very friendly and very good with the boys.
(L-R) Lee Marvin, stepdaughter Kerry, and director Richard Fleischer on the set of Spikes Gang in Almeria, Spain.