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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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