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Lee Marvin wasn't created with Cat Ballou: everything he appeared in up to that point played a part in his whiskey-soaked evolution into the bitter, hard badass we all know and love.

John Cribbs got to thinking about how amazing it would be if there were a channel that you could flip to any time of the day and see Marvin in some long-forgotten TV serial. Since nobody's had the inspiration to create such a glorious shrine, he decided to program his own personal Lee Marvin Network by unearthing some examples from the first leg of Lee's filmography and make them part of a series called "LeeTV."

{ LeeTV index }

"element of danger"

bernard l. kowlski, 1962.

~ by john cribbs ~

"Working with you is like bleeding in front of a shark."
- hired goon to Lee Marvin

I wonder at what point during the filming of "Element of Danger" the director decided to just hand the whole thing over to Lee Marvin. The episode is what I take to be a fairly standard Untouchables script, revolving around a den of opium dealers converting their product into heroin (by processing the morphine inside it, I guess?) while Eliot Ness and his crew try to shut the operation down. But even though the opening teaser tantalizes with what appears to be a scene of Ness accepting a bribe from the head crook - I thought that cat was untouchable! - the real reason to watch this episode is the raw, uninhibited lust of Lee Marvin. It really is a sexy performance, considering that he plays a self-destructive sadist who loves lighting fires and watching them burn, both figuratively and literally. You see a lot of Lee's crotch in this, usually when he's standing legs apart ready to mow some mugs down with a machine gun*, and when it's not a full body shot you can still feel the crotch in his face (I've re-read that sentence several times, and there's literally no way to word it any better than that.) Marvin's all-crotch gunman is named Victor Rait (middle initial possibly "I"?) and is described by narrator Walter Winchell as "a man who had fed on his own particular brand of narcotic once too often!" That narcotic is violence, but Rait doesn't just get off on simply drilling whatever poor bastard's on the wrong end of his barrel: he has to create situations that result in the maximum amount of carnage. By the end of the episode, he's blasting away indifferently at anything with a pulse as a factory burns around him. And although the hell-bent, blaze-of-glory gangster had already been portrayed dozens of times on the big screen (half the time by Jimmy Cagney) by 1962, when this episode aired, Marvin brings so much intensity to the character that he never feels like a cliché and demonstrates once again how varied the actor's villainous roles really were.

In the last Lee TV entry, I mentioned how impressive it is that Marvin could make a misogynistic sleazeball as charming as he does; here, he makes you care what happens to a psychotic violence-freak. I don't think it's unintentional either, I think you're supposed to care about Rait: his victims, cops and crooks alike, are mostly faceless bullies or sniveling cowards who have it coming to them. Not that I'm endorsing the murder of any fictional tv character, but there isn't a moment when Rait doesn't seem absolutely free, giddy and at peace with himself as he improvises new ways to bring everybody down on both sides. He sets up a date with a beautiful female companion as he stakes out a trap he's set for the cops, something you suspect comes naturally to him - maybe he even wants to make like Parker and spend some post-crime time in bed with the little lady, but like Parker his mind is entirely on the job beforehand so she ends up taking off. He's a lover as well as a sick chaos junkie. In comparison, Robert Stack's Eliot Ness is a boring pencil pusher boy scout, a stickler for the rules who seems to be constantly bossing his underlings around, responds coldly to the Biblical level of bloodshed taking place in his town and considers the dead bodies of his fellow lawmen without a trace of grief or compassion. I don't know if the show was trying to convey that Ness got bored after putting Capone away and half-assed every case after that, but that's how it comes off. He doesn't seem particularly determined to end this opium ring; in fact, Rait's carefree recklessness more or less hands him the case in a pretty package (Rait even ends up destroying all the product.) I know Stack is an actor famous for his deadpan delivery and "tough guy" monotone... his performance just makes it seem like Ness could give a shit about all these public gun fights and attempts to blow he and his men up in opium labs. So although Marvin's Rait is on the other side of the law, he clearly loves every minute he's allowed to walk the streets and destroy what's on 'em. Stack's Ness is practically stealing glances at the station clock to see when it's time to put on his overcoat and call it a night (it's really his heart that's untouchable.)

In the first scene we have "The Untouchables" equivalent of a Red Shirt up on a Chicago rooftop, an anonymous cop spying in on a gang of bad guys mixing chemicals in a lab through a skylight who we'd know had only a short time to live even without Winchell's sensationalistic opening narration, "The roof of a rotting tenement - a grainy setting for the portrait of a man about to die!" Sure enough, Rait catches a glimpse of the peeping policeman after Marvin's first act of awesomeness in the episode: using the geyser of fire from a bunsen burner to light his cigarette, gazing luridly into the heart of the flame. He chases the poor guy across another building or two before pumping the flatfoot with a shotgun and sending him plunging down a stairwell. The other crooks want to beat feet, but Rait insists they hang tight and clean out the lab. This seems like an unnecessary risk, but pales in comparison to Rait's decision to shoot a snooping patrolman at point blank range, stay put after sending his goons off in a truck with the evidence... and pull out his gun to shoot at them as Ness and the other 'touchables (just shortening it) appear on the scene! As Ness disarms him, Rait claims to be just another concerned citizen who happened to be carrying a gun and decided to intervene. Why would he put himself in this position when he could have easily hopped on the truck and made a clean getaway with his gang? Who would stick around holding the still-smoking gun that just downed a cop, after already shooting another cop?! Rait's contempt for Ness' abilities is so high, he's willing to hang with him under the flimsy guise of "Howard Carson," concerned citizen who decided to go Bernhard Goetz on the ruffians who killed the cop, in order to gather more information on his adversaries. It pays off when he overhears Ness planning a raid on a tanning factory that's serving as a front for the storage of acetic chloride.

Considering that Rait has complete disregard for whether the cops are buying his act and is on a steady course of self-destruction more or less from the beginning of the episode, Ness comes off particularly pompous in his pursuit of the perps. When the 'touchables collar Rait after he makes a scene at the diner across the street from the opium lab he's just set on fire (with the cops still inside, having left them a note that reads "When you come to a tannery, expect to get tanned!"), Ness gives him a smug "Why 'Mr. Carlson,' what would you be doing here?"...like he just solved some clever scheme! Rait's a loose cannon, of course he's going to give himself away! It's like I mentioned before: Rait practically delivers the whole operation to Ness with a ribbon wrapped around it, but the only time Robert Stack betrays an emotion it comes from satisfaction at his own brilliant detective work, when in fact he has almost no hand in bringing this syndicate down. I mention this because I've never seen an episode of the Untouchables before - only the movie - and I'm curious if Ness is supposed to be as much a glory-hogging desk jockey as he appears to be in this episode**. He's like Hoover, exiting the safety of the backseat of his car two blocks away to have his picture taken standing over the bullet-riddled body of Dillinger...except, in this scenario, it's like Dillinger committed suicide***. Rait's road was always meant to end in personal devastation; that the 'touchables even show up at the end is a formality when the crazy bastard probably would have just hung out in the factory until it came down around him.

This one is Marvin's baby from beginning to end. He puts Rait on the edge, making him as volatile as the acetic chloride that's constantly exploding throughout the episode - eyes frantically yet cunningly scanning over each scenario as he tries to decide what he's going to do and who's going to die. He not only drives the plot forward, he literally creates it by moving from one hellacious, impetuous confrontation to the next. Marvin is billed as a "special guest star" but he feels like the leading man. Rait gets three different classic "gangster" outfits: a pin-striped suit topped with a straw boater (maybe he sings in a barbershop quartet in between murders), a dark Margitte look complete with matching bowler (the "killer Chaplin") and a security guard uniform he wears as a disguise to confuse the bosses in the final scene. There's also the guise of "Howard Carson" which Marvin takes comically over-the-top as a tough guy's idea of what an awkward dweeb must behave like (think Harrison Ford at the strip club in Blade Runner, only less annoying.) So Marvin has a few different angles to work with besides balancing Rait's unpredictability factor - whether he's merciful or unforgiving from one scene to the next - assuring that the character is always interesting to watch on top of being immaculately dressed. And of course he gets plenty of snappy Marvin-isms like "I ought to push a bullet right through your fat mouth!" I don't know how many Untouchables episodes lent the entire stage over to the weekly featured player, but Marvin runs off with it (even stealing the thunder from fine if not mind-numbingly great co-special guest Victor Jory.)

Still, it's his show, so Ness is allowed to get a little miffed when he learns that Rait took out the rooftop cop (who was on loan to the department, so it's like a friend of yours driving the expensive remote control car he borrowed from you into a lake) and shows off some fairly impressive knowledge of drug trafficking ("If you were in Chinatown you'd recognize it!" he tells a fellow agent when they enter the opium lab and smell the chemicals****). The head of the operation, Arnold Stegler, meets with Ness after Rait's arrest and tries to put him on the payroll, sweetening the deal by selling Rait up the creek for the double cop murder. Of course Mr. Untouchable doesn't take the bribe, but has his meeting filmed*** ** (conveniently enough, the footage looks exactly like the scene itself) and plays it for Rait at the station with a lip-reader on hand to interpret the conversation. Her presence seemed a little odd to me - couldn't Ness have set up some kind of recording devise to go with his very professional-looking image? You can kind of see the writer's mind at work here: "How is Rait going to escape the station? Yeah, I got it! They bring in a lady from the School for the Deaf to read lips off the screen, Rait breaks a coffee cup and uses the shard to hold her hostage and make his getway!" Frankly, it might have been cooler if Stegler DIDN'T sell Rait up the creek, but the lady - rehearsed by Ness - acted like that's what he said, forcing Rait to freak out and drop all his cards on the table...it would make Ness look like more of a shrewd policeman, although it would technically be a pretty dodgy move on his part. At any "Rait," it wouldn't have worked anyway since the cornered man simply uses her as a ticket out of police custody.

"If you were to shoot me right now, it would cost you close to a million dollars. You'd do it anyway, wouldn't you?" Stegler asks Rait as he's trying to put together why this unstable maniac would allow himself to be taken in by the cops. Turns out he's right: in the end, Rait blows all the bigwigs to hell and burns the factory with all their opium, but he bides his time. Stegler makes the first move, correctly figuring Rait for a liability and trying to have him iced in an alley.This results in two dead thugs, and Rait turning up with a gun just as Stegler is congratulating himself for a perceived-successful hit by strapping himself into a belt massager to work on his abs ("Why you shakin' Stegler?" Rait inquires as his victim holds his hands over his head while still vibrating with the machine - an irresistibly cool Marvin line!) Sadistically, Rait lets the bosses live so he can kill them later as they literally watch their empire crashing around them, not even looking at the suitcase filled with 1.5 million in cash he's demanded as payoff. He relishes the idea of stripping away everything they've worked for before relieving them of their lives, claiming "I want to see the look on their face when I (pause for a deep, sensual breath) take off with their dough..."(he doesn't even pick up the suitcase, or make a play for the copter he claims to have standing by to escape in...did it ever even exist?) Marvin worked out some great little ticks to express Rait's pleasure at the arrival of the "element of danger," most notably licking his lips when he holds a hostage or fires a gun, like Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison. He also betrays a little grin as he counts down from three, allowing the two doomed would-be hitmen a chance to whirl around and enage him in a shoot-out.

"You haven't been clean since the day you were born," Ness informs him, suggesting the possibility of Rait's psychotic tendencies being biologically pre-determined. Wherever he picked up his dependency for demolition, he is indefatigable in his detemination to destroy. Funderburg pointed out this comparsion which crazily hadn't even crossed my mind, but this episode is a lot like the John Flynn-Steven Seagal film Out for Justice, with William Forsythe's Richie Madano standing in for Rait. In that classic, Forsythe is nothing but an impulsive bringer of eradication, a timebomb who's gone off and has no agenda except to bring pain and misery everywhere he goes. Call it a spree suicide - for Richie it's a night of complete abandon where he's going to keep climbing over dead bodies until somebody puts him down; the crooks in his gang grow increasingly uncomfortable and even end up in the pile themselves. Rait has a similar motiveless motivation: he's not holding out for a big payday or looking for revenge (which is what's kind of suggested set Richie off in Out for Justice), and he knows he'll be the last domino to fall. I should also point out that this makes the third straight Lee TV in which the last shot of Marvin in the episode is of him on the ground - albeit, for the first time, physically dead (not just spiritually crushed.) But it's hard to say Marvin's character didn't come out on top for the first time in this 'smoke series: by the end of the show, it's Rait 8, Cops 1 (apparently an Untouchables record) with him having killed off all the crooks and seemingly the entire city burning down around his corpse. Although boring old Eliot Ness delivers the death strike, Rait's rock 'n roll gangster death was the end he had planned out all along, and it's a hell of a ride following him to it.

~ 2011 ~
* I tried to include the crotch in the banner image, but the title had to go somewhere!
** The real-life Ness is something of a puzzle: half-bloated hero, half-practical lawman. Of course he never single-handedly "dried up" Chicago, but his efforts to clean up the police department were huge considering how corrupt the force had become (he did the same thing, on an even larger scale, as Safety Director of Cleveland in the 1930's.) On the one hand, he was a huge publicity hound who called the press before every raid, but it was just such publicity that convinced the people of Chicago that Capone and his organization was hardly unbreachable and turned the city against them. Taking that into account, his reputation hardly seems undeserved - it was just a little "cowboyed up" by biographers and Hollywood.
*** Which I guess would make him more like Heck Thomas, the Federal Marshall who allegedly found famed outlaw Bill Doolin dead of consumption, shot him in the chest with his Winchester and claimed the reward money (although he supposedly gave it to Doolin's widow.) Incidentally, speaking of Dillinger: it's interesting that Capone's empire was responsible for hundreds of murders yet the FBI, so fervant in their pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde (total body count: 14) and the Dillinger mob (10) never tried shutting him down.
**** It may sound a little racist, but he's right - the On Leong and Hip Sings tongs populated Chicago's Chinatown at the turn of the century, establishing opium dens, gambling pits and brothels that ran unhindered until about 1924. Of course, Ness didn't move to Chicago until 1928, but I'm sure there were still opium-heads scattered across the city. -- professor knowledge
*** ** What if Ness decided he WANTED to take the bribe? What if he didn't expect it to be as big an offer as it was, then he heard it and was like "Oh shit - I'd totally take that deal! Too bad I set up that camera crew across the street, now it'll never happen. Damn, I should have thought this out better."