Tag Archives: Lee Marvin

Cat Ballou

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2013

Cat Ballou—Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Darryl Hickman, John Marley, Tom Nardini, Reginald Denny, Bruce Cabot, Arthur Hunnicutt (1965; Dir:  Elliot Silverstein)

The movie is schizophrenic, mostly a comedy but with some very serious elements.  Musical narration is provided by troubadors Nat King Cole and Stubby Kay as Professor Sam the Shade and The Sunrise Kid, kind of a western Greek chorus.  Although the Cat Ballou of the title is Catherine Ballou, a recently-graduated schoolteacher played by Jane Fonda, this is actually an ensemble comedy dominated in some ways by Lee Marvin, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance(s) in this film. 

Cat Ballou 2 Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou

After an education in the east, Cat Ballou is returning by train to her father’s ranch in in Wolf City, Wyoming, in 1894.  On the train she meets Clay Boone (Michael Callan) in the custody of a sheriff, and Clay’s religious-minded uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), a couple of charming small-time criminal ne’er-do-wells who make an escape from the train.  Once home, she finds her father under threat by the Wolf City Development Company, owned by Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), which wants his water rights for a large planned slaughterhouse.  He’s holding up all right, but she sees him threatened by silver-nosed gunman Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin).

All her father has for protection is Clay and Jed, neither of whom has ever shot at any one, and Jackson Two Bears (Tom Nardini), a good-natured but not very intimidating Sioux ranch hand.  So Cat sends for dime-novel gunman Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin again), only to find upon his arrival that he is now a useless drunken sot.  Strawn easily kills Frankie Ballou (John Marley), and when Cat tries to get the sherriff’s help, she finds that Sheriff Ed Cardigan (Jay C. Flippen) is one of those providing Strawn with an alibi.  The community wants the slaughterhouse built.

cat-ballou-cast Planning a robbery.

Evicted from the ranch and filled with frustration, Cat and her gang retreat to Hole in the Wall, where a very over-the-hill Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt) is a bartender.  They carry out a train robbery which nets them $50,000, much more than they expected.  Kid Shelleen has a moment of soberness, in which he returns to his former gunfighting self, dresses in his old gear, seeks out Strawn in a bordello and shoots it out with him.  As Shelleen describes it later to the gang, they are surprised to hear that Strawn was his brother.  We are less surprised, since both characters are played by Lee Marvin.

Determined to get Percival to sign a confession, Cat dresses as a lady of the evening and meets him on his special train car.  They struggle for her gun, Percival is shot, and Cat is sentenced to hang by the disappointed citizens of Wolf City, whose dreams of slaughterhouses and jobs are now gone.  Needless to say, the movie doesn’t end with Cat’s hanging.


There are some serious themes, like hanging, the death of a major character, and the futility of dealing with a corrupt justice system.  The film tries mostly to slip by those, and the cast is quite charming.  It’s Lee Marvin who steals the picture in his dual role; he provides the most memorable images.  The scene in which the now-sober Kid Shelleen bathes and dresses in his gunfighting gear (complete with corset) aided by Jackson Two Bears and accompanied by toreador music is a gem.  As Cat and the gang make a getaway, the drunken Shelleen on a horse that appears equally inebriated covers the escape through what seems to be sheer ineptitude.  On accepting his Oscar the next year, Marvin was willing to share credit:  “I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley.”


Marvin and co-star, holding up a wall.  It took them an hour to get this still.

Young Jane Fonda is good, and the rest of the supporting cast (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman and Tom Nardini) are engaging as well.  There are some good lines and a fair amount of sexual innuendo, but the movie doesn’t really seem to care much about the romance element.

Occasionally the music telegraphs a little too strongly what we’re supposed to be feeling:  The immediately rollicking music when a fight starts tells us a little too quickly and heavy-handedly that we’re not supposed to take it seriously, for example, and the rattlesnake-like sounds when Strawn appears don’t really afford us the opportunity to make our own assessment of him.  He’s scary enough with just the silver nose.

Director Elliott Silverstein also directed A Man Called Horse a few years later.  Mostly his career was spent in television.  Maybe that accounts for the heavy-handed use of music, the charming but lightweight supporting characters and the easy but incomplete resolution.  Still, it’s fun to watch.

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The Professionals

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 31, 2013

The Professionals—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Ralph Bellamy (1966; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

This one takes place in the late western period just before World War I, when the American west was closing down and the action was in northern Mexico.  The professionals of the title are Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan and Strode, playing a band of mercenaries in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.  Marvin is an ex-military weapons expert and tactician, and Lancaster does explosives.  Ryan’s skill is with horses, and Strode is a tracker and bowman.  They’re not young, but they are very good at what they do, and for $10,000 each they take on a dangerous mission from which they are unlikely all to return. 


They are sent into Mexico to retrieve the beautiful young Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale) of J.W. Grant, an older mining baron (Ralph Bellamy).  She has been kidnapped for ransom by Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), whom Marvin and Lancaster know well from their days supporting Mexican revolutionaries.  Grant selects the Marvin, Ryan and Strode characters for the team; Marvin brings in Lancaster.  It still seems like a small group for the task, given the rough terrain and the odds against them.  But they are, after all, professionals.  And that’s a large part of the enjoyment provided by this film—watching them accomplish their task.  The question is what kind of transformation will take place, and the tension is not only in the action but in the frequent balancing of one code of behavior against another.

Marvin plays Rico Fardan, a version of the hard-bitten, ultra-competent military man he has done in other films (see, for example, The Dirty Dozen from about the same period).   In his period campaign hat with the flat brim and four creases in the crown, he organizes and directs the team, and he’s very good at it.  Note his use of a pump shotgun (a Model 1897 Winchester trench gun?).  Burt Lancaster was probably a bigger star than Marvin at the time, although Marvin was fresh off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou.  Lancaster had won his own Best Actor award for the lead in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, working with director Richard Brooks there, too.  Here, Lancaster plays Bill Dolworth, the womanizing explosives expert and Fardan’s closest friend on the team.  They have a lot of history together in revolutionary Mexico.  More inclined to think about what it all means than Fardan is, Dolworth has some of the movie’s best lines and Lancaster’s effervescent performance is the best in the movie.  Robert Ryan, always an excellent actor but seldom a lead at this stage of his career, is Hans Ehrengard, the horse wrangler and packmaster for the team.  He is the least physically robust of the group and often seems to care more about horses than about people.  His part also seems underwritten, especially for an actor as good as Ryan.  Jacob Sharp, the tracker and bowman, is the smallest role of the four, well-played by the quiet Woody Strode.  Jack Palance is good, but not entirely authentic, as the leader of this particular band of Mexican revolutionaries.  And sultry Italian actress Claudia Cardinale does what is required of her, looking beautiful and voluptuous.


The four professionals, plus Cardinale.

Since their employer is (a) a wealthy mining baron, and (b) played by Ralph Bellamy, he is inherently an unsympathetic character, and you know he’s not going to win in the end even if the team is successful.  When Fardan spells out the final terms of the deal, Bellamy spits out, “You bastard.”  In the movie’s final line, Fardan returns with:  “Yes, sir.  In my case an accident of birth.  But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.”  And he walks off into his personal sunset, having kept to his code with his mercenary’s integrity intact.


Cross-cultural appeal.

Producer and director Brooks wrote the excellent script.  The roles are well differentiated, and there are many memorable lines with engaging notes of fatalism and philosophy, especially in the interplay between old friends Fardan and Dolworth.  Dolworth, upon being surprised:  “Well, I’ll be damned.”  Fardan responds:  “Most of us are.”  (Maybe it’s all in the timing, or maybe it’s just Marvin’s way with a line.)  The central question of the film is voiced by Dolworth, as he considers his current fight against former comrades:  “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning—the good guys versus the bad guys. The question is, who are the good guys?”  It was true of the Mexican revolution, and it’s an apt observation on the immediate situation in this movie, too.


Lancaster as Dolworth negotiates from a position of dubious strength.

Having said that, it must also be admitted that there are moments when this movie is a little too fond of the sound of its own script and could have used some tighter editing.  At times there is just too much talking, especially where Dolworth is involved.  Look, for example, at the final duel between Dolworth and Raza in the canyon.

There’s violence of the pre-Wild Bunch cinematic sort, but this is rated PG-13.  This is another western beautifully shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many other movies).  It was shot largely in Nevada’s Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas and in California’s Death Valley, making excellent use of the desolate landscapes there.  The movie got Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay (both for Brooks) and Best Cinematography for Hall.  The score is by prominent 1960s movie composer Maurice Jarré.

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