When our senior writer digs into a Paul Newman boxed set, he's reminded of a great sidekick performance: Lee Marvin's turn in ''Pocket Money''

By Chris Nashawaty
April 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Pocket Money

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DVD Insomniac: Lee Marvin’s ”Money” role

A couple of nights ago, I found myself in a staredown with a Paul Newman DVD boxed set. It had been sitting on top of my TV for the better part of a month, pleading with me from behind its shrink wrap.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Paul Newman movies. But this particular collection could only be described charitably as second-tier Newman: Harper, The Drowning Pool, The Left-Handed Gun, The Mackintosh Man, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Young Philadelphians, and Pocket Money. Some good movies there; some not-so-good. Kind of like how I feel about his salad dressings.

Nevertheless, the guilt radiating from this hulking thing was killing me. So I decided to finally unwrap the sucker and throw on Pocket Money. It turned out to be a pretty good call. Because not only is this 1972 south-of-the-border comedy a pretty decent little movie, it also made me realize a couple of things.

First, there’s never been an actor more selfless than Newman. I can’t think of another leading man as willing to cede the spotlight so his supporting actors look like stars. Would Robert Redford ever have become an A-list star if it wasn’t for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting? Maybe. But I kinda doubt it. Not that Redford doesn’t have an easy (and easy-on-the-eyes) charisma, but no one would ever confuse his acting range with Brando’s. Teaming up with Newman made his career.

The second thing I realized — or rather, realized again — is just how awesome Lee Marvin was. Not exactly a news flash. But it’s worth reminding yourself of this fact every once in a while by throwing on a movie like Pocket Money… or Point Blank, or The Dirty Dozen, or Prime Cut, or The Professionals, or The Big Red One, or… hell, basically anything except the stuff he sings in.

One of my favorite lines in Reservoir Dogs is when Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde says, ”I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t you?” right after Steve Buscemi gets all wound up and pointy with his gun. I love it not just because, well, who the hell isn’t a big Lee Marvin fan, but also because Marvin’s brand of badass swagger manages to inform Tarantino’s movie even though he’s not in a single frame of it. He’s the patron saint of these gangsters, hovering over the proceedings with a smirk and smoldering Lucky Strike dangling from his lip.

Still, one of the best reasons to check out Pocket Money (other than the fact that it was an early script from ”Terry” Malick and directed by Cool Hand Luke‘s Stuart Rosenberg) is to see a different side of Marvin. Yes, he’s still got the unmistakable baritone foghorn of a voice and the devilish squint that makes his eyebrows look like menacing question marks. And sure, when we first see him he’s in some stinkhole Mexican town, laying on a stained mattress, wearing a wifebeater, and sleeping off a tequila bender. But his character, Leonard, is an unlikely Marvin softie — an unlucky lug with a heart of gold.

At the beginning of the film, Newman’s cattle man Jim Kane is in a tight spot. The horses he was planning to sell at auction have been quarantined. His alimony is past due. And he’s been hired by the fey, shifty, and always excellent Strother Martin to go down to Mexico, buy some rodeo cattle for him, and bring them back over the border where a fat payday is promised. Newman’s character is a bit of a naïve simpleton. But even he knows that he’s gonna get screwed and probably never see a cent. Nevertheless, he needs the job.

So he heads south and hooks up his old pal. Marvin’s Leonard takes up his offer like a dog being thrown a T-bone even though he says he doesn’t need the money because he has ”a land deal on the back burner.” Leonard, who’s always dressed in a door-to-door salesman’s suit and a fedora, has a lot of get-rich-quick schemes on the back burner, including my favorite, inventing colored salt: ”So you know it’s on food. Something to bear in mind.”

Of course, Leonard only gets Newman into deeper trouble. First, he gets him into a feud with a shady local (played by a young and, yes, already bald Hector Elizondo) and then gets him thrown into a Mexican prison. When Newman gets out, Marvin’s Leonard doesn’t bother apologizing. Instead, he hires a sad mariachi band for the occasion and offers Newman the following wisdom: ”You gotta understand the character of these people. They lead a rough and tumble life. They don’t have a word in their language for rough and tumble, did you know that?” Leonard is a classic flake and Marvin plays him to the hilt. If he’s not cooking up some harebrained pipe dream, he’s launching into some pointless story that starts off with something like ”Which reminds me of two hookers I knew in Flagstaff…” Newman and Marvin bicker, get rip-roaring drunk in seedy cantinas and fleabag motels, and crisscross Mexico getting beat to a pulp by life. And yet, through it all, they’re more or less happy to have each other as company for the ride.

When these two lovable losers finally make it back to the States with their cattle and wind up getting cheated as expected, a defeated Newman turns to Marvin and says, ”Leonard, you come down here and what do you got?” Marvin replies, ”You’ve got me, Jim.” It may be the most romantic same-sex closing line since Bogie turned to Claude Rains and said, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

What’s your favorite Lee Marvin movie?

Pocket Money

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