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.

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.

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?
Richard: Yeah.
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.

(L-R) Lee Marvin, stepdaughter Kerry, and director Richard Fleischer on the set of Spikes Gang in Almeria, Spain.

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The 1970s is now considered a golden age of American filmmaking as the studio system and production code became extinct and new filmmakers and revisionist ideas took hold. For Lee Marvin, that period was a mixed bag with a nary a hit film throughout the decade but several that went on to become bona fide successes with the passage of time. Monte Walsh (1970) for example, based on Jack Schaefer’s novel, found an audience years later but flopped when first released. Below are several paperback tie-ins from that very tumultuous decade….

1spikesPrimeOn the right is Prime Cut (1972) with Gene Hackman, a strange gangster/exploitation/action film that featured a mostly nude young Sissy Spacek and a whole lot of strange imagery. It has gone on to become quite cult phenomenon. On the left, The Bank Robber, retitled Spikes Gang (1974) for cinematic release that held promise but ultimately failed at the box office. Director Richard Fleischer explained why Marvin agreed to it in  Lee Marvin Point Blank (p. 204).




1973 was a banner year for two quality Lee Marvin projects that just didn’t click with audiences for various reasons. Book versions of two literate projects failed to even take advantage of ripe promotion at the time. Instead, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was in print highlighting the stage version fro the 50s, not the Frankenheimer film put out by the American FIim Theater in limited release then remained unseen for decades.

On the right is a recent reprint of the original source material for Emperor of the North written by the actual A No. 1 himself pictured in the center with his hobo cohort Cigaret, better know as writer Jack London.




Marvin attempted to recapture the fun of Cat Ballou with the 1975 AIP release of The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday but with a much more bawdy attitude. The result was lost on audiences. Worst yet, was the film adaption of William Bradford Huie’s well received novel, The Klansman, a well intentioned project that proved a dismal failure on every level. Marvin does get to pull a gun on O.J. Simpson, though.



 The downward turn continued with 2 films that were just a case of too little, too late. Shout at the Devil (right) was based on a popular European novel by Wilbur Smith but would have been more suited to the 1950s or 1960s as a film than its release year of 1976. Cold War spy thriller’s were also a thing of the past by the time the ill-fated Avalanche Express was released in 1979. It is not largely known that cult film director Monte Hellman actually took over the film when originally assigned directed Mark Robson died suddenly during production, as did costar Robert Shaw (Lee Marvin Point Blank, pp. 213-214)


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