When I worked in a psychiatric hospital I noticed that one or two of the patients had a peculiar tendency to stand up, start walking purposefully across the ward, stop and look around, then begin walking just as purposefully in another direction, then sit down again. A kind of ambulatory non sequitur.
This whole movie is like that. I mean that to be a compliment. People break up the interactive script they've initiated and do something completely unpredictable. I'll just give one example. Walker (Marvin) and his companion (Angie Dickenson) have an argument and she begins whacking him across the head with her purse. At first he guards himself with his arms but then lowers them and stands silently and without any expression as she beats him, slaps him, and pounds his chest, finally slumping to the floor exhausted. At that, he strides wordlessly to the couch, plops down, turns on the TV and begins surfing the channels.
It's a neo-noir film if there ever was one. There is betrayal, a false woman, suicide, multiple double crosses, revenge, an urban setting, and an ambiguous ending.
So, although it is a genre film, it is nevertheless unique. Everything comes together. The production designer gives us sterile urban vistas, featuring bland cement boxes and the Los Angeles River, without which no noir would be complete. The apartments these people live in look like ordinary arid gray middle-class bourgeois digs. Wardrobe, too, has fitted these performers out in ordinary suits and ties, and the women are always rather chic looking.
The direction and editing are splendid. I'll give an example of what I mean here, too. Lee Marvin throws John Vernon out on the roof of his penthouse, wrapped only in a bed sheet. Vernon begins to tumble over the edge, Marvin grabs for him but winds up holding only the sheet while Vernon plunges some dozen floors to the street below. (His body winds up impossibly intact. A cat might have survived such a fall but a full-grown man would have splashed.) In an ordinary movie, we'd get a cut from the body hitting the street to Marvin staring down at it over the railing. But here, Marvin is still holding the sheet. Not only that but it's WINDY on the fourteenth floor roof and the wind is whipping the sheet up into billows around Marvin, like some demonic object with its own malevolent life force, before he is finally able to unwrap himself and fling it away.
The editing gives us a couple of brief flashbacks, but not just to evoke a mood. They are instrumental in letting us know what Marvin is thinking. Marvin is holding a gun to his ex-pal's, Vernon's, face and the poor guy faints until Marvin slaps him awake, and then he begs Marvin to trust him. A flashback lasting only a few seconds reminds us of an earlier scene in which Vernon begged Marvin's help in carrying out a heist and shouted at him, "Walker! Trust me!" The editing is so precise that in this -- and in a dozen other scenes -- a few seconds more or less would drain them of their impact.
The score is by Johnny Mandel, an arranger and composer whose work I've admired for years. He was a child prodigy, played both trumpet and trombone with Tommy Dorsey's band before turning to composing and arranging. He's never edgy or irritating. His music is smooth and melodic and sometimes strangely orchestrated. Here he suits his talents to the demands of the scene. When a man is trying to seduce a woman, a romantic piano melody tinkles behind them. At other times, again depending on the context, the score glides from Henry Mancini to Gil Evans. Nicely done.
So is the acting. Marvin has been this good in other films but never better. The plot has to do with his regaining $93,000 that "the organization" has cheated him out of. (There is no mafia-ness to the movie. The only foreign language we hear is Portugese.) And $93K was a lot of money then. You could find gas at 29 cents a gallon. Marvin more or less kills his way up the ladder searching for someone in a position to "pay me my money." He finally gets to Carrol O'Connor who explains to him that in a huge corporation like this, nobody ever handles any money. O'Connor has got maybe eleven dollars in his wallet. And Marvin, holding a gun on him, hesitates and looks genuinely put out -- puzzled, the way a child might be puzzled by a disappointing reply. ("No, there's no Santa Claus.") I think I'll leave it at that before I run out of space. I've pretty much skipped the plot but that must be adequately covered elsewhere. Besides, the plot is either extremely simple or very complicated indeed, depending on how far you want your conjectures to dig. (Is the whole movie nothing more than the fantasy of Marvin as he lies dying on Alcatraz after being shot at the beginning of the story? See what I mean?) Don't miss it.