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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 }

"it tolls for thee"

samuel fuller, 1962.

~ by john cribbs ~

"It's a miserable thing to live in suspense. It's the life of the spider."

As I was re-watching The Big Red One for last week's Sam Fuller 100 list, I realized that I hadn't flipped over to the Lee Marvin Channel too much recently. Since I was in a Marvin mood, I tuned in and, wouldn't ya know it - that episode of The Virginian in which Fuller directed Marvin nearly 20 years before they reunited on the big red screen just happened to be on. That's a hell of a coincidence, even for one based on a made-up anecdote involving on a fictional TV station.

Marvin is Martin Kalig (possibly Kalek), an escaped convict in Wyoming circa 1886 who reclaims his old gang by shooting their current boss in the back and promptly enlisting them in a plot to abduct the judge who put him behind bars. Unfortunately for Kalig he makes the mistake of targeting series regular Lee J. Cobb, whose Judge Garth serves as a judicious father figure to the title character. Needless to say, this whip is not cracked; despite successfully securing the ransom money, Marvin goes 0 for 2 in this one, failing to put his rival gang leader down for good despite popping him from behind, and ultimately being robbed of his revenge against Cobb when The Virginian and his pals finally turn up. He does outdraw one of his itchy-trigger minions, but I don't think he should be allowed to count guys he kills on his own team. No - Marvin's very much on the losing end of this one, winding up, for the fourth straight segment of Lee TV, on the ground, pathetically and utterly defeated.

Like most TV shows that aired over 15 years before I was born, I'd never seen an episode of The Virginian until now, but was aware of its reputation as one of those popular, long-running post-war westerns along the lines of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. I'm impressed the show went a full nine seasons without giving its star a proper name; as I recently pointed out, even Eastwood's Man With No Name was given established monikers in the Dollars Trilogy. I can only imagine how tired people got of saying "Hey, The Virginian - we need help corralin' this here stampede" or "No, I haven't seen your wagon wheel cover, did you ask The Virginian?" It was the first western show to clock in at 75 minutes an episode (its predecessor, the eight season-long Wagon Train, inspired by John Ford's superior Wagon Master, ran an hour) which means that the series either gave writers and directors extra time - nearly feature-length - to further draw out ideas that may have been lost in a condensed 30 minutes committed to chases and shootouts, or opened itself to lots of worthless padding. Based on this episode, it's a little bit of both: Fuller delves into a plot involving the American West's shaky transition from ungoverned vigilante justice to the establishment of a legitimate court system that's fairly complicated (for TV.) But since it mainly plays out in dialogue between a kidnapper and his abductee while the stars of the show are stuck with the underwhelming task of sneaking around sets stroking rifles, the formulaic demands of television stretch a smartly-conceived idea across the tedious measures of a standard search-and-rescue story (one example of a non-standard search-and-rescue story being, you know, The Searchers.)

Since several western films rank among my all-time favorites, I've always been lenient towards "Head 'em off at the pass"-style clichés, the outlaw clutching his gut and somersaulting off the second tier of a saloon or the sheriff threatened to leave town by sunset, so long as there's more to appreciate, conceptually and aesthetically. The production of The Virginian seemed to offer cinema-sized possibilities, shot on 35mm and featuring a rotating cast (Marvin's co-Killer Clu Gulager joined the ranch hands in the second season) and a showrunner willing to bring in big guns like Fuller to helm episodes. But judging by the cheesy studio sets, it's questionable whether they had the budget, or innovation, to match the grand scope of big screen cowboy pictures. In fact, it was my familiarity with the great western films coming out around the same time as The Virginian that made it hard for me to accept some of the show's cast members as morally upright characters. Star James Drury is too ingrained in my memory as sleazy Billy Hammond from Ride the High Country (released in 1962, the same year this episode aired) for me to accept him as the laudable hero (although Drury was apparently impeccably dapper no matter what role he played.) Even moreso, I couldn't quite buy Lee J. Cobb as the mild-mannered, scrupulous Judge Garth, considering the classic western role I most associate him with is the depraved Dock Tobin in Anthony Mann's Man of the West. Cobb practically emits debasement as Tobin: his minacious ogling of victims and accomplices alike leaves the impression of a lascivious goblin attempting to burrow beneath the skin of anyone who wanders into his line of vision. Tobin's grungy duds, his scarred, dirty face and explosion of grey beard make him look like he just crawled out of a hole somewhere in far reaches of the desert, hardly in keeping with the finely-groomed, well-spoken ranch owner seen here. For a good portion of the episode, I was genuinely concerned that Lee Marvin might get raped.

For his part, Marvin is right at home as the swaggering, unshaven heavy who gets off on intimidating his helpless mark. Engaging in the same psychological warfare as any Max Cady-type revenge-seeking ex-con (Cape Fear also came out the same year), he punches Cobb off a horse, pours fresh coffee on his hand (Gloria Grahame could have warned Cobb not to trust Lee Marvin around coffee) and teases his uncomfortably trussed victim with breakfast, first inching the plate just out of Cobb's reach, then knocking it over when the judge extends a fork to scoop up some eggs.

Yet killing Cobb seems furthest from Marvin's intentions: even after receiving the ransom, he insists on hanging onto the hanging judge, which makes the other members of the gang increasingly nervous (so why don't they just ride off with their share of the loot? Marvin points out this exact plot discrepancy) and antsy to dispatch their hostage. Marvin is more interested in prolonged, one-way dialogues with his captive in which he both attacks the judge's integrity and offers flashes of his own intellect to show Cobb that they're both on the same level, that despite being a "sadistic mongrel," Marvin is able to keep up with him.

This is something you don't typically see from Marvin: the pretentious bad guy, one who not only relishes his villainy but has practically developed a philosophy for it. "The art of abduction" he labels his masterstroke (plotting to create a stampede of cattle and grabbing the judge in the confusion) as he gloats like a Bond villain; he also recites the Lizzie Borden poem and name-drops Daniel Webster. He can't help but merge his thuggish threats with a bit of poetry, like "One shot out of you, and the pious brains of your anointed watchdog will be blown from here to Shiloh!" He's clearly self-conscious of his lack of education, but defends it by putting himself ahead of the conversation - when the judge says he has "Only one regret," Marvin anticipates the one-liner, "Not hanging me, right?" - and acknowledging his own ignorance, like when he reads the inscription on Cobb's fob watch, a gift from a certain pioneering journalist: "Pole-itzer, is that it?" He maintains an impatience with his hostage's obstinance that's also begrudgingly respectful, threatening him by saying "I'll let you write your own epitaph," then when the undaunted judge responses thatMarvin can do the writing, compromising with "We'll collaborate on it!"

You get the feeling that Marvin really would honestly enjoy working with Cobb on something like that, to be able to show the man he's kidnapped, tortured and plans to kill that he's smart and creative enough to co-author a meaningful verse for a headstone with him. Having hinted at killing his own father as a boy by saying "I remember the last time I saw my daddy - he caught me stealing his life savings",* Marvin seeks approval from the man he's attempting to break, who is himself a father figure to the show's hero. For his part, Cobb treats Marvin with utter contempt, even when uneasily agreeing with him on certain points. But although he doesn't admit it, he recognizes some of his old days as a gunfighter living off the land in Marvin's crude Kalig. None of Fuller's movies focus on parental relationships: the father-daughter relationship in Baron of Arizona turns creepily incestuous, Run of the Arrow deals briefly with Steiger and his mommy, Cliff Robertson's dad is introduced getting beaten to death at the beginning of Underworld U.S.A., etc. The closest he's come is in Big Red One, with Marvin as the tough-but-caring head of his four young underlings. And just as the sarge dispassionately instructs his "sons" to "Get his dogtags," Kalig meets each violent experience with instant pragmatism: after he mows down an insolent minion, he calmly instructs another to "Get his cut." (An order he humorously repeats every time yet another one of his droogs gets mowed down.)

In having Marvin and Cobb wax judicial, with Kalig calling out Garth for being a man powerful within the community, the owner of several acres of land, who set himself up in the judge's seat and enlisted his own ranch hands as lawmen, Fuller somewhat subversively knocks the show's heroes off their moral pedestal. Well, nudges them anyway - I'm probably giving him too much credit to say he consciously set out to specifically defame the The Virginian's main characters (I mean this was only the ninth episode of the first season); all I know is, his writing comes alive through Marvin as he accuses Cobb of "building an empire out of violence." Fuller was a history buff, as well as a debunker of hypocritical moralism and a staunch iconoclast when it came to phony American values, so in writing Garth he probably saw the kind of opportunistic fanaticism of Hanging Judge Isaac Parker or Judge Roy Bean, subject of a reverent TV series that aired five years before The Virginian who in real life once acquitted the killer of a railroad worker under the ground that he could find "no law against killing a Chinaman."

Turning the gavel around to judge the judge would have been rational for an upstart like Fuller, especially considering the show's source material, the famous "first true western" novel by Owen Wister, which he based on the events of the Johnson County War (it's even set in Wyoming.) Wister's Virginian is depicted as a born aristocrat who joins a thriving ranch to help civilize the country, which involves dealing with no-good outsiders; all perfectly noble it turns out, because Wister sides with the conspiring, murdering rich stockmen! For anyone who's seen Heaven's Gate, that means Wister thought what Sam Waterson was doing - hiring a small army of assassins to wipe out independent landowners on trumped-up rustling charges - was ok! Wister, the son of a wealthy Philadelphia doctor who quit being a lawyer because he thought it was too boring, spins a tale of the west that's not only romanticized, but told through the eyes of a privileged yuppie who considered the corporate assholes the heroes (the book was dedicated to Wister's friend and fellow wild west enthusiast/myth embellisher/rich douchebag Teddy Roosevelt.) That he presents the clear villains of the Johnson County War as his protagonists betrays Wister's artistocratic background as well as a general misunderstanding of western history, which self-proclaimed post-modernists like Fuller sought to disparage.

In his own book, Fuller remembers his original story for "It Tolls for Thee" as being about a judge who "turns out to be a thief too, exploiting the law for his own benefit...the rustler knows that the judge is just as much a criminal as he is...since the judge has the law on his side, he condemns the rustler and ends up looking like a saint." While that irrefutably confirms my feeling that Fuller sided more with Marvin's kidnapping/murdering outlaw than Cobb's law-abidingmagistrate, none of those ideas are plainly expressed in the episode itself. It's possible Fuller is simply misremembering a 30-year-old television episode, although it's just as likely that at the time the producers convinced the director to turn Marvin into more of a solid villain and Cobb less a despicable con artist. Instead, Fuller levels things out by having Marvin's indignation rise from class conflict: he believes the judge would "revert to the savage that's buried deep inside" were it not for his money and power.

It's clear from the first half of the episode that Judge Garth is a man who doesn't like to think too much about his past, although it's presented as character growth: he punches The Virginian to stop him from beating up a bad guy, having hung up his gun and reverted to pacifism, hoping the rest of the west will follow suit (all I'll say is, does that sound like a character Sam Fuller would lend a cigar to?) But since he finds the only way to stop the violence is to pile on more violence, Cobb hasn't moved far enough beyond his gunslinger days, his fob watch from cowboy admirer Joseph Pulitzer a shameful reminder of the dirty hands which hold it. Fuller suggests, though not all that successfully, that the unimpeachable citizen isn't necessarily beyond moral reproach - so the title is kind of on Marvin/Fuller's side, a brutish cry that all men are equally susceptible to savagery no matter how high the moral ground. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls - it tolls for Lee!**

The consequence of making this a story about Lee J. Cobb's character is that there isn't much for Lee Marvin to work with beyond your basic evil outlaw outline. "It Tolls for Thee" aired in 1962, the same year Marvin played his most notorious western heavy, and the chief difference between Martin Kalig and Liberty Valance, each a bully targeting a respectable representative of the legal system, is that Valance has a detestation for civilization that principles every reprehensible action. The first time Valance meets Jimmy Stewart's lawyer, he and his gang are rifling through the goods they've stolen from the stagecoach. Valance finds one of Stewart's law books and starts flipping through it curiously; when he notices Stewart watching him, he immediately tears out pages and hurls it to the ground. Valance's priorities are the opposite of Kalig's: he might be genuinely interested in educating himself in higher culture, but stomping Stewart's pansy hashslinger and his ideals of cultivation and order are what he's all about. Rather than try to butter up his victim with an advanced understanding of justice, Valance makes a point of lashing out against any hint of progress, even if he's in the minority of townspeople who still rely on guns and whips to do the talking for them. Marvin's Kalig opines that to live a life of suspense is to live "the life of a spider," a wily predator who has to be wary of being squashed underfoot, something Valance seems to understand in his adamant tormenting of Stewart: by sucking his mark dry, he also risks being flattened by the wheel of social evolution (or, more literally, John Wayne's protective gunslinger.) Kalig doesn't have anything to defend, only something to prove - that sheer brute force is also a more expedient, and arguably more honest, path to justice than the so-called "civilized" courts. Not a lot of ground to stand on there, at least not to the extent that you honestly believe, when Cobb has the drop on him in the final scene, that Marvin has sufficiently pushed him into a Brad Pitt-in-Se7en sort of scenario where if Cobb pulls the trigger Marvin will have won by having Cobb prove his point. And because Fuller doesn't fully commit (within the episode) to Kalig being truly wronged in any way - he doesn't deny his own criminality, he's even introduced shooting a dude in the back - he doesn't really have that spider-like sympathy of being alternatively victimizing and vulnerable.

In fact you feel a little more sympathy for Sharkey, the man Kalig shoots in the back so he can take back control of his former gang: after all, getting shot and turning up later for revenge is something we all associate with Marvin's Walker in Point Blank. Although Marvin makes Kalig pathetically delusional ("The losing side's always full of confusion" he states at one point, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his confused gang is the losing side), the inevitable outcome for him is the same as it was for Woody Biggs and Victor Rait: defeated in the dirt. You can sense that Marvin might have been bored by this kind of role by this time, that his enthusiastic performance as Liberty Valance was a "liberating" kind of final encore for it, the last time he'd end up burned in the dirt, and that it should have surprised no one that, a mere five years later, he'd be the one leading the ragtag squad tasked with rescuing a victim kidnapped by bandits in Richard Brooks' big screen western adventure The Professionals.

Unlike future American mavericks Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, Fuller didn't cut his teeth on television before moving to the big screen - this was a detour for him towards the end of his career. It wasn't common at the time for big shot filmmakers to downgrade to television work (although Ida Lupino did, and Jacques Tourneur somehow got talked into directing an episode of Bonanza), and Fuller doesn't have anything nice to say about this experience or TV directing in general in his autobiography. It's clear that he wasn't able to be as loose with the action or as experimental with the camerawork as in his feature films (he'd immediately follow this with his two of his craziest movies, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss) and didn't have the money he needed to make the production really stand out. I mentioned the show's seemingly small budget; usually, Fuller specialized at creating a lot out of nothing, making a handful of actors seem like "the entire American army" in the words of François Truffaut, but here it's all tiny movements around a stationary set. What I learned from re-watching several of Fuller's movies recently is that the idea doesn't have to necessarily work, as long as its cinematic representation can stand on its own. And since the execution of this episode is less than exciting, what we're left with are Fuller's ideas, most of which make up Lee Marvin's character. Fuller's first film was a western whose "hero" was a pathetic murderer obsessed with a man of higher stature who shoots a fellow unarmed outlaw in the back, whom Fuller was still able to sympathize with. Marvin's skill at planning (though also lacking in the "execution" stage) recall Vincent Price's James Addison Reavis from The Baron of Arizona, an arrogant con artist of insatiable ambition and preternatural patience. Kalig is obviously a more complicated villain a'la Robert Stack in House of Bamboo, and is similarly humiliated and defeated in public. Kalig's backstoryis full of Fullerisms. He reveals himself to be a former marine; Fuller has him seeing action at the Battle of Ganghwa, which was part of the Shinmiyangyo, the first U.S. military action in Korea in 1871, a diplomatic expedition turned into an ugly and unnecessary armed conflict - the details aren't discussed within the episode, but mentioning it feels like more history-debunking Fuller subtext (and creates obvious parallels to modern times, the Korean War being a favorite subject of the director.)

Through Cobb's character Fuller exercises his other main obsession, journalism. Joseph Pulitzer gets as many shout-outsas he did in Park Row and, previous to the kidnapping, Fuller predictably gets a lot of use out of Pippa Scott as local newspaper editor Molly Wood. The journalism subplot is something else Liberty Valance shares with Fuller's episode, with Edmond O'Brien's drunk journalist Dutton Peabody a living embodiment of reluctant progress: "I'm a newspaper man, not a politician!" Stewart's smearing of Valance's name across the headlines as a thief and murderer are another tool of civilization he uses against the outlaw, the local paper subsequently becoming a target for Valance, Peabody another of his victims. Another subplot of Ford's film has corrupt ranch owners trying to protect their claims by hiring Valance to get himself elected as a delegate so he can oppose the territory's induction to statehood, the demonizing of these jerks was something Owen Wister probably wouldn't get behind. It's just another example of how much more a film could do than a TV series, something Fuller must have realized at the time as he didn't continue to toil in the "sausage factory" of tv storytelling - he directed six episodes of another western show called Iron Horse in the five years between Naked Kiss and the troubled production of Caine, a job Fuller acknowledges he only did for the money.

As if further evidence of The Virginian not quite matching the scope of the big screen was required, this episode was given a bizarre second life when, in 1978, Universal re-edited and spliced it together with another Virginian episode, "The Reckoning," which guest-starred Charles Bronson, and released the resulting 90 minutes theatrically in Sweden, Portugal and Finland under the title The Meanest Men in the West. Since both former character actors had become huge international stars by then, the idea had to have been to try and sell ignorant audiences on a brand new Marvin-Bronson movie.*** Meanest Men in the West makes for an incredibly weird viewing experience. A prologue, freshly-shot to attempt and tie the two stories together, has li'l Lee Marvin murdering his brutish stepfather after being caught stealing his savings (just as Marvin proudly confessed to Cobb, except it's an evil stepfather and therefore not as cold-blooded as we were led to believe, apparently.) He hits the road with his baby half-brother, a.k.a. Baby Bronson, and a spyglass - next thing you know a full-grown Lee Marvin, "many years later," is looking through a spyglass at footage of a full-grown Charles Bronson, apparently off in the distance somewhere. Then a condensed version of the Bronson episode, which has to do with Chuck getting revenge on The Virginian for blabbing to the cops about a bank Bronson's gang intended to rob, plays out more or less the way you'd imagine it did on television with an occasional off-screen comment or conspicuously-placed 1978 actor talking about Bronson's tough relationship with his brother - you know, Lee Marvin? The last 25 minutes or so is all a condensed version of "It Tolls for Thee," with the addition of a scene showing a shot of an apparently befuddled Bronson being informed (again, by some off-screen party) that it was actually Marvin who gave up his gang to the authorities (for the reward money, of course.) The Marvin-Cobb scenes are then interspersed with random shots of Bronson riding a horse; after Cobb has knocked Marvin to the ground, we cut to Bronson pulling out a gun and firing, followed by a shot of Marvin putting his head down, apparently because Bronson just shot him. Seamless, huh? There are lots of hilariously incompetent editing tricks utilized to tie the two stories together - in one of my favorite transitions, The Virginian tears away from Bronson's gang on his horse, only to be seen next casually riding up to his front porch and finding a ransom note from Lee Marvin (good thing he always wore the same clothes on the show I guess.) He then apparently foils Bronson's plans for revenge on his way to deliver the ransom to Marvin. Just a little detour, I guess. Although the whole thing makes for a bizarre curio (and superimposed shots of Bronson - the same image used multiple times during the episode - standing by a bank or in front of some background from Marvin's episode are just horrendeous), it's a dubious artifact of sleazy studio tactics to make a quick buck prior to the dawn of knock-off DTV movies. Even Martin Kalig would never stoop so low.

~ 2013 ~
* This reminded me of Lance Henriksen's Chains from a little Craig R. Baxley classic called Stone Cold. His plot also based on getting revenge on a judge (which he's shockingly more successful at than Kalig), he alludes to having killed his daddy in a similar kind of punchline set-up: "This reminds me of my father's last words: 'Don't son, that gun is loaded!'"
** I'm not even sure which "Lee" I'm referencing here - oh well. I will point out that two years later Marvin would star in The Killers, based on the famous short story by Hemingway, who of course had also made use of the John Donne poem from which this episode borrows its title.
*** Bronson had guest starred on an episode of M Squad - after Dirty Dozen, they'd reteam in earnest for 1981's Death Hunt.