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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THE OSCAR TRACK

The Oscar track is upon us since the nominations were announced last month, as shown here. I use the term “The Oscar track” as it’s the appropriate term used by Lee Marvin when he was interviewed by TIME Magazine’s Stefan Kanfer in the 1970s. Kanfer had the audacity to tell the actor he didn’t think his Oscar-winning performance in Cat Ballou was even close to his best performance. The writer was amazed to hear Marvin agree with him. Adding, “But y’know, you run this track, and that’s the track that the racers are on; it’s the Oscar track. It really isn’t based on skill as much as it’s based on luck and popularity.” Kanfer’s remembrance of the interview — along with his assistant, future Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Jay Cocks — is hysterically recounted in Lee Marvin Point Blank.

Lee Marvin in POCKET MONEY and as he probably appeared when interviewed by Stefan Kanfer.


 As to the Oscar track, Marvin’s point is well taken. Now, normally this time of the month I’d be blogging about any upcoming Lee Marvin-related films on TCM but since the network is broadcasting “31 Days of Oscar” all month there’s a dearth of Marvin-related films. The sole exception is Ship of Fools, which is a shame since he made other films that were indeed on the Oscar track in one way or another: The Professionals (1966), and The Dirty Dozen (1967) received such recognition but truth be told, I think a few of his films SHOULD have been on The Oscar track and were not. 
 On the technical side, the innovations apparent in Point Blank (1967), such as the editing and the sound advancements (first film in which the actors were individually ‘miked’) and Conrad Hall’s breathtaking cinematography of Hell in the Pacific (1968) were certainly worthy. They may have ran out of the money since they were both directed by the very British John Boorman and both films did poorly when first released. I don’t know if either factor is the case but it’s a pretty safe bet. 
 I can say, for the purposes of this blog entry, two of Lee Marvin’s performances overlooked by the Academy were certainly worthy:
Monte Walsh (1970), remains an overlooked classic for which Marvin gave one of his most poignant performances.

Monte Walsh, 1970


As cited in detail in Lee Marvin Point Blank, several critics at the time of its release said the same and thought an Oscar nomination for Best Actor was practically a foregone conclusion. Sadly, It never happened. 

The Big Red One (1980): Sam Fuller’s semi-autobiographical yarn of his experiences in Europe during WWII allowed Marvin to give one of the best performances of his career, running a gamut of emotions from badass to empathy as a nameless sergeant pushing his young charges on a rifle squad, to the poignancy of caring for a young boy in a liberated concentration camp. 

The Big Red One, 1980.

It’s a pity both of these performances were overlooked and the reasons they were are as speculative as they are varied. Too bad there’s no such thing as a retro Oscar track. If there were, Marvin would win it in a walk.

– Dwayne Epstein

 

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JOHNNY MANDEL: POINT BLANK’S COMPOSER

Johnny Mandel, the veteran composer of many a film score, passed last Monday, June, 29th at the ripe old age of 94. His obituary is a fascinating read in terms of how prolific he was for decades in both film and the music industry.
As the obit states, he was probably best remembered for his score to M*A*S*H (1970), as well as the Taylor/Burton vehicle, The Sandpiper (1965), and their accompanying title songs. Beyond that, his heavily jazz-influenced music remained largely in the background of most films and not nearly as memorable as say the scores of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. In the long run, that’s probably a good thing as film scores are meant to enhance the mood of a film, not necessarily stand out and distract from it.
Fortunately, one of his scores that actually did both, enhance AND standout, was his score for John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). I was not a fan of the film the first time I saw it as I felt it was pretentious in its obvious ‘arti-ness.’ But, like most great films, it grew on me with every successive viewing. In fact, by the time I first came to write about it and later research and write Lee Marvin Point Blank,  I was enthused enough about it to create some interesting perspectives on the production.
One aspect I think is clearly overlooked is the moody score Mandel created. I am a huge fan of film music but not knowledgeable enough about it to write with any discernable skill. Luckily, a limited release CD of the score was put out by the good folks at Turner Classic Movies in conjunction with Film Score Monthly. The results included some great and detailed liner notes I believe was penned by the late, great Nick Redman. So, below is his detailed description, scene by scene, of Johnny Mandel’s haunting score.
SPOILER ALERT: The details are so exact, that if you have yet to see the film, be forewarned as the film’s entirety is given away in the notes. If you have seen it, then enjoy this belated tribute to a Johnny Mandel score ripe for rediscovery. Rest in Peace, Mr. Mandel, your work will not be forgotten.
– Dwayne Epstein

POINT BLANK CD cover.

1st page of POINT BLANK liner notes.

2nd pages of POINT BLANK liner notes.

3rd pages of POINT BLANK liner notes.

4th pages of POINT BLANK liner notes.

concluding page of POINT BLANK liner notes (Johnny Mandel pictured).

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