Feb 20, 2011
Dog Day (1984)
Few films in Marvin's career really investigate his larger-than-life mythic status in cinema (Point Blank is an exception), however this scruffy, bizarre melodrama explores the iconography of the American movie gangster while in an unconventional setting. Truly, it feels like this all-American archetype stumbled onto the set of either a Luc Moullet or Pasolini film.
Lee Marvin plays Jimmy Cobb, a crook known for wearing boutonnieres in his lapel and shooting people in the knee, who, after a botched robbery and on the run from the law, hides out on a farm occupied by a truly dysfunctional family. This brood consists of a patriarch is a pig who barks at his servants, and treats his wife (Miou Miou) as no greater than one (witness the ritualism of his after-dinner pokey), a man who dresses as a scarecrow in the cornfield so he can spy on topless hippies camping nearby, a near psychotic nymphomaniac woman, and the teenaged stepson who finds some of Cobb's hidden loot and takes off to the brothel (where incidentally, the cops are also staying)! Plus, there's a white-suited panama-hatted pencil-thin moustachioed gangster who also has an interest in Cobb's hidden money. The wife offers to spirit Cobb to safety if he'll kill her husband. However, as we know in these types of movies, nothing goes to plan, and this melodrama becomes even more bizarre and surprising as it goes along.
This screenplay (credited to five writers!) is more an allegory of class structure than a traditional mobster-on-the-run plot, as those of the lowest social order regard the ruling class (namely the law) as pigs, and throughout this narrative, the police are always depicted as hypocritical and buffoonish. Also importantly, the myth of the American gangster is explored through the character of the stepson, who is enamoured with American culture and its spectacle of fame and fortune that he both idolizes and manipulates Cobb. (Posters of such iconography as Once Upon a Time in the West and James Dean in Giant hang on his walls.)
Marvin looks admittedly haggard throughout this film (perhaps he was of failing health during its production), but the actor still, refreshingly, plays the role with his usual stoicism, offering a counterpoint to the surrealist cartoon that unfolds around him. (And perhaps his tired appearance compliments Cobb's world-weary behaviour.) Co-star Tina Louise has basically a glorified cameo as Cobb's partner, however it is great seeing the two play off each other in their one scene together. (Interestingly, compare this sequence to a later one where Cobb also speaks to Miou Miou in her car.)
Literally and figuratively, this is a film of contrasts, no less emphasized in the central relationship of Cobb and the wife. She rightfully reveals that in addition to their common behaviour of "hating something enough to do anything", and that this American man and Dutch woman in a French farm house are both strangers in a strange land.
Like the films of Luc Moullet, it is a scruffy valentine to American iconography, and those of Pasolini, it is a scatological look at social structure gone awry. One genuinely feels the dirt and grime so abundant in this decrepit environment. The latter is indirectly aided by the dark video transfer (at least on the DVD I viewed), and the full frame presentation, where actors (often those currently speaking) are squeezed to the edge of the picture, add to the claustrophobia.
I'll have to hunt down my copy of Lee Marvin's biography written by his widow to learn of any back story on this film's making. Despite its general availability (however haphazard), this is truly a unique movie. There is simply nothing else like it in his career. Dog Day is strong stuff, and isn't for everyone, but is a fascinating excursion for those willing to explore what exists beneath the muck.