MONTE HELLMAN

Monte Hellman, the maverick cult film director at his best in the 1960s and 1970s, passed away recently at the ripe old age of 91. A well written obituary concerning his life and work can be seen here.
Monte Hellman may not seem a likely choice for a blog entry dedicated to the life, career, and legacy of Lee Marvin but there is actually good reason for his inclusion here. Most people do not know that Monte Hellman took over the reigns of the ill-fated Lee Marvin cold war spy triller, Avalanche Express (1979).

Lee Marvin in character as Harry Wargrave, the Monte Hellman completed spy thriller, AVALANCHE EXPRESS.

Consequently, I interviewed Monte Hellman in his home in 1996 and he could not have been nicer, even going so far as making us dinner while we spoke. Most of what he told me went into the book of course but sometimes not everything can fit the narrative. With that in mind, and in tribute to his unsung talent, here exclusively is part of the unused portion of our interview….

Dwayne: I guess the best way to start is to ask you how you got involved in Avalanche Express.
Monte: (Long pause) I had sold a picture to Lorimar. My former attorney, Jack Schwartzman was an executive at Lorimar and they had a problem with the movie in that Mark Robson died before finishing the picture. So, they asked me if I would come in and do the kind of thankless job of finishing the movie.
D: At what point did that take place? Was the film completely done and in post-production or was there a little bit of filming left?
M: No, they had shot 90% of the film.
D: So, it was almost done but not quite.
M: Almost but not quite. Then, what happened was we looked at the footage and decided that there was probably, there were other problems so we actually planned to do quite extensive re-shoot..not re-shoot but shooting of additional material, in addition to what had not been shot. That was eventually cut back from. But I would say we wound up shooting maybe 15% of the picture, as opposed to 10. But the post-production was a major part of the movie as well because there was a lot of special effects.
D: Yeah, with the train going through the mountain passes…
M: Yeah, all the train stuff was..miniature, essentially.
D: You said that there was more problems than you had not anticipated in terms of what was shot..
M: Just that after..we did a kind of a rough assembly and some of the story just didn’t work so well. Some changes were made. One of the things that I did was loop the entire opening sequence that took place in Russia.. All subtitles, thank you. It was actually shot in English and we looped it in Russian with subtitles. It was just because we thought it added a kind of..in reality that’s what they would be speaking. Then they would all speak English when they were out in the middle of the spy world
D:How much of what the original idea of what the film was in production, how much of that was changed by the time the film was done?
M: Oh, I think the basic premise was all, none of that was changed. It was still the same basic movie. We just tried to, I guess add a little bit more tension and..Originally, we had actually planned to go Europe and do some re-shooting there. I went and scouted but didn’t actually re-shoot. Everything we did was shot in Hollywood.
D: Where was the film originally shot? In Switzerland or something?
M: Yeah, I think they shot in Switzerland, Germany, whatever. All over Europe.
D: That’s what it appears to be in the film.
M: Robert Shaw died actually before I got on board, as well.
D: That was my next point.
M: So, we had to..obviously we couldn’t shoot any additionally footage of him but I had to loop his entire performance. Because there were things that we needed from him and we wanted the voice to be consistent. So, we found an actor who was able to do his voice. D: Do you remember who the actor was?
M: I could look it up after we’re finished, if you want [Robert Rietty].  It’s a terrible thing to say but in some ways it actually helped because Shaw had a very strong Irish or whatever his accent was. And not, he never sounded Russian. It’s better to at least lose the accent that he did have, which this guy was able to do.
D: When you got involved on a post-production level, what was the sense of the people who had worked on the film from the very beginning in terms of what took place?
M: Well, [director Mark] Robson was very sick during the shooting of the film. So, I don’t think it was a happy experience for anybody. It was just really arduous and he wasn’t able to give his full power as a director. When I started working with the actors, everybody was cheerful. Nobody seemed to be..the morale was not bad when I took over.
D: What work with the actors did you actually do?
M: Well, we shot the 10% or 15% of the footage that was principle photography and then, besides all the special effects and the miniature work, we did.
D: When Robson died, I don’t know how much of a time span there was between his and Robert Shaw’s’ death but when..
M: I think it was very close.
D: Was it?
M: Yeah.
D: When they both passed away, was it assumed that the film was done and then you had to bring everybody back together again or was it…
M: No, everybody knew that we still had things to shoot.
D: You said that you worked with Lee Marvin for awhile. I didn’t know that.
M: I shot, there were several scenes on a plane I remember.
D: Wasn’t that a sequence towards the end of the film?
M: No, there was one sequence early on..
D: Oh yeah, with Mike Connors.
M: That’s right, that’s right. I shot that scene.
D: What was Lee Marvin like to work with as an actor?
M: Well, I had been warned that he was problematic. That he had a drinking problem. That is was best to get him finished by noon and so forth and so on. I didn’t have any problems with him at all.
D: Do you know if he had been drinking during the shooting at all?
M: I assume that he had been drinking during the other shooting [with Robson]. I didn’t have any problems, though. I didn’t notice that he was under the influence in any way.
D: From the people I’ve spoken too, I get the impression that he couldn’t have reached the level he did in the industry and been drunk all the time.
M: That was my experience, that he was not, that he was a very conscientious actor. He was fun to work with.
D: What kind of things would he bring to a scene as an actor?
M: Just as his star power. I think he was a movie star and he had tremendous ease with what he did. He was just really easy and fun to work with.
D: How did he get along with the other actors?
M: Seemed to be fine. The scene I did, I think he was with Linda Evans and the others, Connors and so forth.
D: It was a pretty eclectic cast. Not a typical Hollywood cast. (Joe Namath, Linda Evans Mike Connors, etc.) What was it like working with this diverse group?
M: I don’t recall that Joe was in that scene. If he was, I don’t remember him. I did work with Maximilian Schell only on his looping. We re-looped his whole performance as well. D: Really? Why was that necessary?

(L-R) Maximillian Schell and Robert Shaw as they appeared in AVALANCHE EXPRESS.

M: Just for consistency. Because he was in a lot of scenes with Shaw I guess where we didn’t want to have one sound…
D: A sound pop or something?
M: Yeah, yeah. So we looped everything of his and also it enabled me to help him with his accent, as well.
D: I know you mentioned a moment ago that it was thankless, but what for you was the working experience like?
M: How did you know that I even worked on it? I don’t take a credit as the director.
D: You don’t take credit but you got screen credit. I’m one of those poor schmucks that watches the entire movie. At the very end, when the credits are done, “The producers wish to thank Monte Hellman,” and I think they also mention Gene Corman.
M: That’s right.
D: Yours and Gene Corman’s name are the very last one mentioned.
M: Yeah, but it’s hard to know what we did, though (Laughs).
D: That’s another reason I wanted to talk to you. I need to know exactly what your input was. Knowing what the project would entail, what made you decide to do it? Was it because of the deal you had made with Lorimar?
M: Well, it was more or less that I had a very friendly relationship with them. It was a chance I had to repay them for something nice they had done for me.
D: It seems, although I’m not familiar with a lot of the films you’ve done, except the westerns you did with Jack Nicholson, it seems a lit bit out of the genre you are used to working with. Was it hard to acclimate your self?
M: Well, to me it wasn’t really that different. I cut my teeth on melodramas and war movies, action/adventure. It was like doing Flight To Fury (1964) again.
D: That makes sense. Had you had a previous working relationship with Gene Corman? M: Yes. He had actually produced the first movie that I directed…
D: I’m trying to remember.
M: (Smiles) You’ll never guess it.. 
D: I want to say something like Monster Beneath The Sea..
M: That’s almost exactly right; Beast From Haunted Cave (1959).
D: I was close.

Monte Hellman as he looked when I met him in 1996. Rest in Peace.

It’s a cliche to say it but cliche’s are borne of truth: Rest in peace Mr. Hellman as we shall not see your like again.

 

Share Button

FEBRUARY 2021 ON TCM

February 2021 is upon us and so is a new list of watchable films for interested Lee Marvin fans. Unfortunately, they are only showing one actual Lee Marvin film for February 2021, but there are a couple of interesting highlights to consider, as well. All times are PST so set your DVRs accordingly…

AVALANCHE EXPRESS (1979): Tuesday, February 2nd, 4:45 am. 

Old style advertising artwork for AVALANCHE EXPRESS, which was infinitely better than the film.


Lee Marvin heads an all-star cast of Robert Shaw, Maximillian Schell, Linda Evans, Horst Bucholtz, Mike Connors and Joe Namath in this Cold War thriller that’s part dated spy film and part creaky disaster film. Marvin had been off-screen for a few years and he effect is jarring as he looked infinitely older than his mid-fifties. The production was fraught with disaster itself, including the untimely death of both the film’s director Mark Robson and costar Shaw. Readers of LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK discovered the truth behind the finished film and the input of filmmaker Monte Hellman. Like any Lee Marvin project, though, it’s still worth viewing. 

THE RISE & FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (1960): Friday, February 5th, 6:30 am. Dashing Ray Danton stars as the title character in this classic genre film that also proved to be the film debuts of both Dyann Cannon and Warren Oates. The Marvin connection? The film was directed by Budd Boetticher, known largely for his cult westerns starring Randolph Scott, his contribution to Marvin’s filmography gave the actor’s career a major boost. As he told yours truly in an exclusive interview, “I directed a couple of westerns and they typecast me as western director. After Legs Diamond they called me a gangster director. Go figure.” Check it out and see how veteran filmmaker put his touch on the tommy guns and molls entry.


IN COLD BLOOD (1967): Monday, February 15th, 5pm.

IN COLD BLOOD writer/director Richard Brooks (behind the camera) and cinematographer Conrad Hall behinds Brooks.


Writer/director Richard Brooks brought this Truman Capote true-crime thriller to the screen with bone-chilling reality. Shot on actual locations by Conrad Hall in stark black & white and starring Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Dick and Perry, the Marvin connection had been recounted here the last time TCM aired the film. Watch it again but by all means, leave the lights on!

THE PAWNBROKER (1965): Wednesday, February, 17th, 6:45 pm.  
Marvin won his only Oscar for Cat Ballou (1965) but the odds on favorite that year had been Rod Steiger who plays this film’s title character. As concentration camp survivor Sol Nazerman, Steiger gives an emotionally powerful performance as a New York City pawnbroker grappling with his memories of the camp. He seemed a shoo-in for the Best Actor statue but we all know what happened that night. Marvin’s wife had other plans, Marvin himself had a plan for Steiger and the cherry on the sundae happened after the show at a nearby traffic light, all recounted in LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK. So, watch The Pawnbroker and see for yourself who was more deserving of the award that year. 

Lee Marvin backstage after winning his Oscar.



In other TCM news the Star of the Month is the great John Garfield and that alone makes for wonderful viewing. Check listings for film titles and times. So there you have February 2021 on TCM. Until next month, stay safe and enjoy classic movies!

Share Button

ROBERT SHAW & THE ILL-FATED AVALANCHE EXPRESS

Robert Shaw would have been 91 years-old last Thursday, August 9th. Sadly, he never lived beyond the age 51, dying shortly after completing principal photography on Avalanche Express, his sole costarring credit with Lee Marvin.

Old style advertising artwork for AVALANCHE EXPRESS, which was infinitely better than the film.

The old-fashioned Cold War spy thriller left Robert Ludlum and John LeCarre nothing to worry about.  Shaw played a Russian master spy defecting to the west with KGB chief Maximillan Schell hot on his trail. Shaw’s defection is arranged through the auspices of American spy master Lee Marvin who plans to use Shaw as bait to ferret out some old KGB adversaries. Mike Connors, Linda Evans, Horst Bucholtz and even Joe Namath join in on the title train’s cliche’d yarn.

AVALANCHE EXPRESS production stills from the film’s pressbook.

Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank are well aware of the film’s bedeviled production. For example, veteran director Mark Robson died suddenly, June 20, 1978 as principal photography was near completion, followed two months later by Shaw’s untimely passing from a massive heart attack near his home in Ireland. Producers were left in a quandary about what to do about it as some footage was actually still needed, or in some cases, reshot. Enter maverick filmmaker Monte Hellman, who took over the production in ways only Lee Marvin Point Blank readers know about thanks to an exclusive interview he gave me.

The great Al Hirschfeld’s drawing of the AVALANCHE EXPRESS costars. Can you spot all 3 Ninas?

It proved to be the great Robert Shaw’s last screen appearance as the actor was coming more and more into his own following the success of Jaws (In the role Marvin turned down) and The Sting.
It isn’t widely known but he had actually wanted to be remembered more for his writing than his acting. His play, The Man in the Glass Booth earned him a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination for the performance of his Avalanche Express costar, Maximilian Schell. The loss of Shaw’s talent can never be fully measured.
As for Lee Marvin, he had not made a film in 3 years but came out of semi-retirment just to work with Shaw. He was not disappointed as the two men got along wonderfully, making Shaw’s passing even more tragic for Marvin. He was in Ireland shooting scenes for The Big Red One when he got the news. He said at the time: “In leaving Ireland I am leaving a piece of my heart with Robert Shaw and his family.”
-Dwayne Epstein

Share Button