Two giants of the film industry, Lee Marvin and John Huston, died last week, but home video fans can continue to enjoy their many outstanding movies.
Marvin was great at playing shady, sinister heroes--the bad good guys. He started out excelling as a villain, shining in '50s movies such as "The Big Heat" and "The Wild One" before settling into hero roles in the mid '60s.
If you want to sample the best of Marvin, focus on the second half of the '60s. Many of those movies are available on home video.
"The Professionals" (RCA/Columbia, 1966, $69.95) is a truly great western. Marvin plays one of the gunmen hired to rescue a woman (Claudia Cardinale) from Mexican bandits. It's almost identical to his role in the rousing World War II adventure, "The Dirty Dozen" (1967, MGM/UA, $24.95). Both movies helped define that rugged, stony, deep-voiced hero that Marvin played so often.
"Cat Ballou" (RCA/Columbia, 1965, $64.95) can't be overlooked because Marvin's performance won him the best-actor Oscar, which led to all those prime roles later in the decade. But this comedy western, starring Jane Fonda as the schoolteacher out to avenge her father's death, is drastically overrated. Marvin does energize it with his portrayal of twin gunfighters--one typically steely and one a hopeless drunk. But the performance seems dated because, with alcoholism being approached much more seriously now, drunks aren't really funny any more.
Marvin was also excellent in the World War II allegory "Hell in the Pacific" (1968), playing an American who's stranded on an island with a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune). Though somewhat pretentious and saddled with a shoddy ending, it's basically an absorbing movie. This was on home video but it's been discontinued. Possibly Marvin's death will inspire CBS-Fox to put it back on the market.
Marvin's other great '60 role--and arguably the best performance of his career--was in "Point Blank" (1966), the surrealistic thriller that has belatedly been recognized as one of that decade's finest films. Marvin is terrifying as Walker, the vengeful, rampaging mobster. Unfortunately, this isn't yet available on home video.
The other side of the Marvin image--his villain roles--are exemplified in "The Big Heat" (RCA/Columbia, 1953, $59.95) and "The Killers" (MCA, 1964, $39.95). Marvin plays a sadistic killer in "The Big Heat," a chilling cop-drama directed by Fritz Lang. "The Killers," a surprisingly good melodrama, is famous for Ronald Reagan's role as a vicious gangster, but Marvin, playing an icy hit man, gives the best performance in the movie.
"The Big Red One" (CBS-Fox, $69.95), a gut-wrenching World War II movie about a sergeant and his infantry squadron, was celebrated in 1980 as director Sam Fuller's return to film making. But it will be long remembered as Marvin's last quality film.
Other Marvin films on video that are worth a look: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (Paramount, 1962, $49.95), "Monte Walsh" (CBS-Fox, 1970, $59.95), "Prime Cut" (Key Video, 1972, $59.95).
HUSTON ON HOME VIDEO: Much of the current generation may know the films of director John Huston only through the heralded "Prizzi's Honor" (1985), "Under the Volcano" (1984) and "Annie" (1982). But you might want to investigate his oldies to get a better notion of his talents.
These '80s films were far from his best. "Prizzi's Honor" (Vestron, $79.95), the black comedy about the mob, is overly wry and generally overrated--mostly because of a crowd-pleasing performance by Jack Nicholson. Aside from a magnificent performance by Albert Finney as the drunken diplomat, "Under the Volcano" (MCA, $79.95), set in late '30s Mexico, is slow and muddled. "Annie" (RCA/Columbia, $29.95) is one of the most expensive--and dullest--musicals ever.
Huston's most fertile period was the '40s and early '50s. Most of his best movies in those days were character studies embellished by interesting plots and usually starred Humphrey Bogart: "The Maltese Falcon" (CBS-Fox, 1941, $69.95), "Key Largo" (CBS-Fox, 1948, $29.95), "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (Key Video, $19.95, 1948), "The African Queen" (CBS-Fox, 1951, $29.95) and "Beat the Devil" (RCA/Columbia, 1954, $59.95).
"The Maltese Falcon," which helped define the hard-boiled detective genre for the '40s, may be Huston's finest movie. The script, adapted by Huston from a Dashiell Hammett novel, is littered with great tough-guy talk. But it's the cast of quirky characters--Sam Spade (Bogart), Bridget O'Shaunnessy (Mary Astor) et al--that make this one special. Remarkably, it was Huston's directorial debut.
In "Prizzi's Honor," Huston was trying to recapture that wry tone he created so masterfully in "Beat the Devil"--a classic, low-key satire. After "Beat the Devil," "Prizzi" pales.
Other Huston films worth a look: "Red Badge of Courage" (MGM/UA, 1951, $24.95), "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (Warner, 1967, $59.95) and "The Man Who Would Be King" (CBS-Fox, 1975, $59.95).