DIRTY WHISPERS

Dirty whispers, for lack of a better term, is a rather lascivious device used in some films to set the stage for an eventual brutal showdown. There are of course several memorable examples but this being a blog dedicated to the life and career of Lee Marvin, I can think of no better example to start with than the man himself. 
 In researching Lee Marvin Point Blank, I discovered that he attempted this device in The Killers (1964) but ran into conflict with costar, Ronald Reagan, who hated the idea. Instead, he let it be known to the audience what he intended when he gets in the face of frightened costar Angie Dickinson and angrily whispers, “Lady, you tell us what we want to know or so help me god you’re going out that window.” 
  A few years later, he was able to use the device to much better effect when he collaborated with British director John Boorman on Point Blank (1967).

Lynn (Sharon Acker) warms up to a drunken Walker (Lee Marvin) as they circle each other on the Santa Monica pier in POINT BLANK.


In the opening prologue, in which Marvin as Walker confronts his estranged wife, played by Sharon Acker, an ingenious montage is utilized  to give the films’s back story to the viewer, as narrated by Acker. Costar Angie Dickinson told me how Marvin and Boorman would themselves whisper on set about how they would do a scene without letting the other actors in on it to maintain the film’s freshness. The opening montage is one example. Acker’s narration of course explains what’s going on for us, but in the scene itself, no words are heard but we do see Walker saying something to her (of probably the most lascivious nature) ,as they circle each other amid the other drunken denizens of the pier. 
   Later in the film, as Walker confronts his adversaries up the chain of command in an effort to get what he believes he is owed from the organization, he employs the device again to even greater effect as Marvin wanted to do in The Killers

Walker (Lee Marvin) uses a dirty whisper on a reception in POINT BLANK. Note the placement of his gun barrel.

Bursting into the outer office of kingpin Lloyd Bochner, he confronts the receptionist before she can even react to his entry, and while he scares her to near death with whatever dirty whispers we can’t hear, he uses his oversized Oxford to smash the secret alarm hidden under her desk. It’s a brilliantly realized moment in a film spilling over with brilliant moments way ahead of its time for audiences and film critics alike. 
   One can only imagine not only what Marvin was saying but what he must have sounded like, as his voice, whether booming loud or frighteningly whispered, was one of the actor’s greatest attributes.

 Film history has provided some other noteworthy examples of dirty whispers. Chronologically, to my mind, one of the first and still best is Edward G. Robinson terrorizing Lauren Bacall in Key Largo (1948). It’s amazing to think Robinson was never Oscar nominated for any of the memorable performances he gave throughout his lengthy career as this should have been one of them. 

Lauren Bacall reacts accordingly to Edward G. Robinson’s lascivious dirty whispers in KEY LARGO.


The scene induces shivers in the way Robinson gleefully does it, as much as the way Bacall reacts to it. It’s one of many stand out moments Robinson has in the film as over-the-hill Prohibition-era gangster Johnny Rocco hiding out in a Florida Hotel besieged by a hurricane. The greatness of his menacing performance has faded in moviegoer memory, since the film is largely remembered for the well-known sparks that flew and ignited between Bacall and toplined star, Humphrey Bogart. Pity, really, as Robinson was amazing in it.

The memorable near fight scene in From Here to Eternity (1952) that leads to a an even more memorable confrontation is not remembered as such but it’s initiated by another dirty whisper.

Ernest Borgnine (center) drools over the photo he snatched from Frank Sinatra (right) in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY as Montgomery Clift (left) prepares to respond.


As Frank Sinatra as Maggio shows off a photo of his big Italian family to his buddies in the bar, stocky and vicious Ernest Borgnine as “Fatso” Judson ambles into the bar. He snatches the photo, sees the image of Sinatra’s sister, kisses it, smiles menacingly, then leans over to Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, to whisper what has to be an undoubtedly filthy suggestion. Clift rises to the challenge but is pushed out of the way by the more maligned Sinatra who proceeds to smash Borgnine with a bar stool. All looks lost until Burt Lancaster steps in with a broken beer bottle. Damn exciting stuff, again the result of a probably forgotten dirty whisper.  
 Last but not least is possibly the best example of a dirty whisper and its aftermath. In The Hustler (1961), the great Piper Laurie plays Sarah Packard, the tragic and crippled girlfriend of the title character, ‘Fast Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman.

(L-R) Paul Newman, Piper Laurie & George C. Scott enjoy Louisville’s Derby Day party in THE HUSTLER.


Celebrating the Kentucky Derby at a Jazz party, Felson’s manager Bert Gordon, played by George C. Scott, sees how vulnerable Ms. Laurie’s character is and proceeds to take advantage of it. While a Dixieland band blares in the background, he sidles up to the fragile woman, out of ear shot of everyone (especially Newman) and whispers something so devastating to her, she breaks down in tears and eventually does the unthinkable.
   What was said? Well, we may never know for sure what is said in such emotional scenes, but there is one interesting anecdote. According to Piper Laurie in her autobiography, “I finally asked him [Scott] what he had whispered into my ear in the big party scene in The Hustler that elicits a violent response from me. We shot it perhaps three or four times, and I could never figure out what he was saying: it sounded something like ‘isha-pa-pish-po.’ He told me he chose to use just gibberish, knowing he could never invent words or phrases as powerful as what my imagination could summon up. Probably true.” 
 Whether a result of avoiding the censor or the fertile imagination of gifted actors and actresses, such moments remain dramatic and powerful in their own right. Anybody remember any others?

  • Dwayne Epstein
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STEVE McQUEEN: A PERSONAL APPRECIATION

Steve McQueen was born March 24, 1930. It’s a date I remember better than some other important dates that I should remember and with reason. Readers of this blog and personal friends who know me well, know what a fan of Steve McQueen that I am. In fact, it was my adoration of the actor that led in a roundabout way to my writing Lee Marvin Point Blank via my friendship with Marshall Terrill, as explained here.
What I’ve never discussed here is what it was about Steve McQueen that made me such a fan, although I’ve threatened to do so previously. Since he would have been 91-years old on the 24th, I figure this to be as good a time as any.
It began when I was 13-years-old and saw Papillon (1973) in the theaters for the first time. I was aware of him beforehand and seen some of his other films on TV and at the movies but Papillon changed everything. I have to word this carefully but when I was very young I was..how shall I say this….the victim of bullies, to the point in which I figure I may have suffered some mild form of PTSD. I was constantly being picked on and in fights in school and elsewhere. I’ll just leave it at that.
Well, when I saw Papillon, everything changed for me psychologically. I had never experienced anything like it. Beside the fact that Steve McQueen gave a towering performance throughout the movie, it was when he uttered the words, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” that effected me the most. It had never occurred to me before that you could take whatever abuse is dished out and manage to rise above it; hell, even be better for it! Yeah, I know it seems obvious and has been said a million times but the visual example of McQueen in solitary, eating the rancid food given to him and then jumping up on the bars and angrily whispering those words to passing guards, drove it home to me. It was an epiphany!

Steve McQueen in solitary watches the guards pass his cell above him in PAPILLON.

Later in the film, he does it again and to even greater effect which I won’t give away if you haven’t seen the film. Suffice to say, I saw the film over and over again that year and believe it or not, a few days after I saw it the first time, The Great Escape (1963) was aired on TV. Talk about your one-two punch! Everything about the film, and especially McQueen’s performance, was exceptional.

The look Steve McQueen gives the Nazis after crashing his motorcycle in THE GREAT ESCAPE.

However, the scene after he gets hung up in the barb wire trying to jump the fence into Switzerland and the look he gives the Nazis who caught him, was priceless! That did it for me. I was hooked. I hate to admit this but I even got a a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweatshirt, cut the sleeves accordingly, and wore them to school. Gimme a break, I was thirteen!

From that moment on, I could not get enough Steve McQueen: collecting the posters to all of his films, magazine articles, maintaining scrapbooks, soundtracks, biographies, you name it! I remember at one point my grandmother said to me, “What’s the big deal about Steve McQueen? Did he ever cure a disease? Help humanity in any way? He just made movies, for crying out loud!” I tried to explain to her what he meant to me, but again, I was only thirteen. I wished I had the moxie then to really explain it well.

I should emphasize that I was not some kind of weirdo about it, trying to contact him, or stalking him, like some fans do with favorite performers. I just found everything he did fascinating. Being a movie lover, I admire many film stars, in fact, to me the holy trinity of favorites are James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen. Here’s the exception: I like almost all of the films of Cagney and Lancaster but their output was so prodigious, some of their films were not as worth watching over and over again. Not so with Steve McQueen. Granted, he did not make as many films, only 30 in total but, with the possible exception of Le Mans (1970), I found everything he did revelational. Seriously. His choice in projects from the very beginning of his career were amazing to me, whether they were any good overall, or not.

Steve McQueen as Boon Hoggenbeck about to convince young Mitch Vogel with an important life lesson in THE REIVERS.

The Reivers (1969) is a good example. I know for a fact he himself did not care for his performance in it as he hated doing comedy. Not only was he appropriately funny in it, the film contained another revelation in it for me. In order to convince young Lucius (MItch Vogel) in the film to steal his grandfather’s new-fangled automobile, he tells him, “If you ever wanna reach your manhood, you gotta say ‘goodbye’ to the things you know..and ‘HELLO!’ to the things you don’t!” I don’t condone grand theft auto, but the message in the dialogue is something all adolescences should heed in the right context. I know I did.

Naturally, his untimely passing at the age of 50 in 1980 was devastating to me. Luckily, I have some very good friends I was able to confide in and one in particular had the intestinal fortitude to stay on the phone with me that night for hours as I poured my heart out to him. Talk about being blessed!

In the years since he shed his mortal coil, some pretty off-putting things had been revealed about the man. I won’t lie to you, it did change my opinion of him. The worst was the revelations concerning his abusive attitude toward the women in his life. “The King of Cool” was not always cool. I discovered these aspects of his persona when I was older and more mature so I was able to deal with it.

Bottom line, I still love his films and watch them whenever I can, I’ve never been fascinated with his personal love of speed like many other fans, which is why I didn’t care for Le Mans. Everything else he did? Hell, I even prefer some of his lesser know films maybe more than his bigger hits, like Soldier in the Rain (1963) Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), and An Enemy of the People (1978).
It’s the films that last. Nothing else matters as much. It’s been over 40 years and it’s as if he still telling us: “Hey, you bastards! I’m still here!”

– Dwayne Epstein

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS OF LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK

Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQs), has become a popular aspect to most websites, and this one dedicated to underscore my book Lee Marvin Point Blank, is now no exception. Don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it until now but a recent transaction with a friend on social media gave me the idea. I’ve since amassed enough frequently asked questions I thought this a good time to address them. So, with that in mind…

Cover of the trade paperback that includes a quote from Leonard Maltin and a starburst heralding some exclusive additions.


1. How did you come to write about Lee Marvin?
I get this one a lot. Short answer is that of course, I’m a fan. Long answer is slightly more involved. Marvin is just one of my personal favorite actors that include the likes of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and most of all, Steve McQueen. I’ve read a lot about all three actors so when the biography entitled STEVE McQUEEN: PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN REBEL came out in 1994, I had to read it. Having done so, I decided to try to contact the author, Marshall Terrill, to discuss a few aspects of his book. Much to my surprise, he responded and when he was next in L.A., we met up. A casual conversation turned into a friendship that exists to this day. Because I had a journalism background, early on he asked me if I ever considered writing a biography? I responded, “Yeah, you wrote it!” Since Marshall had a marketing background, he then proceeded to discuss possibilities based on what would sell and who has not had a definitive bio done about them. Enter Lee Marvin. I told him I’d think about it and he persisted so that over time I became fascinated with the research I was uncovering. Eventually (almost 19 years later!) it came into existence.

My copy of Marshall Terrill’s book that he inscribed: “It’s been a real pleasure to meet someone with the same zeal that I do for Steve McQueen. You really know your stuff. I’d really like to see you pursue a book on Lee Marvin. The timing is right and there’s no one better qualified to write it. Please keep in touch as I think you are incredibly well-versed in movies, which makes for great conversation. Take care, Best wishes, Marshall Terrill  2/15/94.



2. Did Lee Marvin ever attend any USMC reunions, why or why not? 
According to Lee’s first wife, Betty, he did maintain contact with his war buddies but didn’t particularly care to go to any reunions. Despite his sincere efforts towards promoting and helping the Marines throughout his life, the idea of reunions was something he was not fond of being involved in. As he told Johnny Carson one night, “I went to a few reunions but after awhile, you get bored hearing the same old war stories.”

Lee Marvin happily hands over a check for a USMC charity in support of his favorite branch of the service.



3. Why is there no mention of what Lee’s daughters are doing and why didn’t you interview them?
There is mention of what his daughters, Courtenay, Cynthia and Claudia have been doing in the bibliography entitled Posthumous Events Related to Lee Marvin. As to interviewing any of them, I did speak with each of them but none of them wanted to go on the record about their father which of course, is their choice and I respect it. Luckily, their brother Christopher did agree to be interviewed as well as write the poignant Afterword to the book.

Pictured here at Cynthia’s 1982 wedding are (L-R) Christopher Lamont Marvin, his sister Courtenay Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin, Cynthia Louise Marvin Michaels, Betty Marvin, and youngest of the four siblings, Claudia Leslie Marvin.


4. Is the story of Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) saving Lee’s life during WWII true? My agent, the late Mike Hamilburg, once called me up and asked me this as a friend of his said it was true. I told him exactly what I had written in a blog later on about the same subject involving such urban legends as found here. In other words, despite it’s nagging persistence, it is not now nor has it EVER been true. 

5. Who were Lee Marvin’s favorite and least favorite actor to work with in his career? 
Marvin was a professional and veteran of countless performances so he basically learned to get along with pretty much everybody he worked with. If he had a favorite actor my guess would be Toshiro Mifune, his costar in Hell in the Pacific (1968), of whom his admiration was immeasurable. 

At the press conference for the Japanese premiere of HELL IN THE PACIFIC, Marvin admires Toshiro Mifune as he fields a reporter’s question.

As to who was his least favorite actor to work with, well, that question got answered a while back but still worthy of this FAQ blog in terms of symmetry. The answer can be found here.

6. How come your book doesn’t have a filmography?
Ahh, but it does. It’s just not done in the obvious way of previous film biographies. There’s one of several bibliographies in the back of the book, and in the one entitled Important Dates in the Life of Lee Marvin ALL of his film (and most TV) appearances are listed. 

7. When does your next book come out and what’s it about?
Been avoiding this one for a quite a while now. The answer is….well, that will be in the next installment of Frequently Asked Questions *wink, wink*

There you have some of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve come across over time. Naturally, if any of your questions were not addressed, by all means feel free to ask them here and I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks!
– Dwayne Epstein

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