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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MARVIN? QUINN? CASSAVETES? ALMOST!

Of the films Lee Marvin almost made, one of the standouts is a project in which he would have costarred with Anthony Quinn and been directed by….John Cassavetes! Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank have commented to this author on how much they enjoyed the appendix in which films the actor almost made are listed but some have questioned the veracity among the titles. I can assure one and all they are indeed documented as the Marvin-Quinn-Cassavetes project is proof of below.
Actually, Marvin and Quinn had worked together briefly in the early 50s western Seminole (1953) with Marvin in little more than a glorified cameo. However, on the face of it, Marvin and Quinn may seem an unlikely pairing based on their different cinematic appeal. Quinn was ethnic and earthy, while Marvin came off more weather-beaten and militaristic.
Their screen differences aside, Marvin was actually cast in a role meant for the Mexican-Irish actor. According to novelist, JPS Brown, author of the autobiographical novel Jim Kane which was the basis for Pocket Money (1972), Marvin’s character of Leonard, opposite Paul Newman, told me that Leonard was based on Brown’s Mexican business partner:

Lee Marvin as Leonard in Pocket Money, originally meant to be played by Anthony Quinn.

“His name was Andres Canye. He’s the character they tried to base Lee Marvin’s character on. They called him Leonard. I called him ‘The Lion’ in Jim Kane. So they got Leonard from that. A lot of imagination there, don’t you think? There’s only one Gato Canyes [‘Big Cat’] in the world….A man that knew the name of every plant, every weed, every grass, every rock. He knew the medicinal capabilities of everything on the range. He knew the mountains…he lived there in those mountains on horseback. He was a real man. In Pocket Money, here’s the two big gringos on great big stout horses. ….Gatos Canyes was just a great, big, course-looking Anthony Quinn. Really. And Anthony Quinn really liked the book.”
It was actor/director John Cassavetes who thought Quinn and Marvin might work well together. Marvin and Cassavetes had of course, worked together in The Killers (1964), and a few years later in The Dirty Dozen (1967). In discussing his career on the set of Emperor of the North (1973) for Rolling Stone’s Grover Lewis, Marvin opined: “Remember Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen? Jeez, he was sensational in that. Then you go see Husbands and you have to say ‘What are you tawkin’ about Jawn?’ I mean, he’s a bizarre little guy. Very juicy. John’s a violent little Greek, is what he is.”

Actor/director John Cassavetes around the time he considered pairing Marvin and Quinn.

Grover Lewis also interviewed Cassavetes the same year who at the time mentioned teaming himself with Marvin and George C. Scott. He said at the time, “Maybe it’ll happen. Who knows? The thing about acting is…Well, I like to do it.”

Over a decade later,  when asked about Cassavetes in a 1986 Orange County Register interview, Lee Marvin said:

Renaissance man Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, or as he may have looked barhopping the Midwest with Lee Marvin.

“A wild greek. He wanted to get Tony Quinn and me to travel around the country, stop in all these honky-tonk bars, then he’d write a story based on all that and we’d go shoot it. I said, ‘No, John. Please. Oh, Jesus please, no. I don’t wanna die in some barroom brawl in the Midwest.'”

One can certainly understand Marvin’s feelings but it still leaves one wondering. As the old verse goes:
“Of all the words of tongue or pen,
the saddest of these:
‘What might have been.'”

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