#silverfoxfriday: Lee Marvin in the Twilight Zone
Over on the Twitter last week, I kicked off #silverfoxfridays with John Hannibal Smith. This came from inebriated conversations with friends about (weaponizing) past crushes and is really just an excuse for me to post pictures of rando handsome dudes that I find charming to my timeline to break up the usual feed of television angst, political weeping, and injudicial teeth-gnashing. This week, however, I’m taking it up a notch, because when I landed on my second choice for #silverfoxfriday — well, he gets plenty of coverage in my other social channels — I wanted to really dig in deep.
So today’s #silverfoxfriday selection is Lee Marvin, which is a gimme. But instead of waxing on about his most familiar awesome cinematic roles, which I’m bound to do if you hang around me for any amount of time, I’m going to ramble a bit about Marvin’s turn as Conny Miller in the season 3 Twilight Zone episode “The Grave“. The episode is an adapted piece of folklore which elementary school book fair maniacs like myself are familiar with from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark. The plot follows thus: Some bad dude dies. Lee Marvin gets dared to stick a knife in the fresh grave to prove he wasn’t afraid of aforementioned dead dude and ends up dying of fright and/or supernatural intervention.
Now, this is definitely not peak Twilight Zone, but what the episode lacks in narrative genius it makes up for in the casting and sound design that elevates the mood and makes the episode a sterling entry in the Twilight Zone oeuvre.
While there are a few other day players in the opening, most of the character interaction is with Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef as meddlesome gamblers who helped vigilante this whole sequence of events into motion by killing the outlaw Pinto Sykes. They are the whole town as far as we’ll see, and they have this sadistic and needling quality throughout, dialogue pushing our hero toward his inevitable end. Then, of course, the lovable James Best, familiar to most as Roscoe P. Coletrain, as Johnny Rob, a simpering and weasely on-looker who seems from the start to have more sympathy for the dead Pinto than anyone and seems bent on getting slapped in the face by Lee Marvin, which eventually he does.
Which, now that I think about it, makes me want to start #gettingslappedinthefacebyleemarvinsaturdays because that’s quite a catalog itself, but let’s put a pin in that and get back to the real reason for #silverfoxfriday Lee Marvin.
So you have Lee Marvin, the toughest of tough guys, who never quite plays Conny Miller with over-the-top fear you’d expect from this tale. Is that just because he’s Lee Marvin and would never sell straight up yellow cowardice? Because this is just half-hour television? Or was it deliberate? I wonder about this because a year or so later Marvin plays Liberty Valence and manages a frantic, trapped and violent sort of terror with much more verisimilitude. He could be sweating bullets, it could be on-the-nose turmoil and the ‘weak heart’ twist ending would be much less of a stretch. But Marvin is just sublime in his stoicism here, from the first moment inside the saloon it’s obvious that Conny’s carrying secrets, but he’s not ruffled. He makes woobie eyes at Pinto’s sister Ione played by Elen Willard, who isn’t a very convincing drunk, but somehow invokes the double, double toil and trouble sequence from Polanski’s MacBeth to me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the cloak she comes on screen in, but I think it’s also something to do with her vocal pitch or something. Anyway, Willard doesn’t have the chops to smolder across from Lee Marvin, and I guess I can’t fault her much for that because there are few up to the task.
So the first thing you get after the TZ title fades is a dusty street and horses battered by the elements, and a haunted, howling wind. The wind unrelenting throughout the whole episode, muted only inside the saloon, but then is mentioned repeatedly, lest we forget about it. It becomes the dead man Pinto’s voice, needling Conny as much as anyone else in the story. And it eventually becomes the classic Twilight Zone twist, because it somehow ‘proves’ Pinto’s revenge to crazy sis Ione.
Speaking of Ione, while I was thinking about the sound of the howling wind throughout the episode, I knew the name choice had to be significant, whether something simple like a Shakespearean ode, but there was something about ‘Ione’ stuck in the back of my head and sure enough, it’s was the storm name for a 1955 hurricane that hit North Carolina and subsequently was retired. Given the timeframe of the episode’s production in 1961, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch that writer/director Montgomery Pittman chose ‘Ione’ specifically for the stormy sense of foreboding it might have in the collective American unconscious.
The whole episode has this vibe of purgatory to me, which is endemic to Twilight Zone in general but takes a strange context in this claustrophobic western setting. Every time I rewatch this I keep thinking James Best’s Johnny Rob is the Devil and Conny makes some sort of Faustian bargain in agreeing to go to Pinto’s grave.
I love the suspicions that bloom when Conny makes smokey eyes at Ione. I’m split between ‘Well no wonder Conny never apprehended Pinto’ star-crossed such and such, or projecting even more fangirlish avenues that have absolutely no support or evidence in the episode.
The ending is weak and feels rushed for the sake of the ambiguity. There’s a definite sense that Conny’s unease is escalating by the time he gets to the graveyard — you know, what with the wind getting stronger and louder — but I never quite get the frantic pitch I’m wanting. Now I’m a jaded twist-loving kid, and it’s again a super familiar urban legend, but I can’t help but think that just a bit more care in that last two minutes would have really put ‘The Grave’ higher in the Twilight Zone canon.
“I’m just a poor old boy, I work hard for not too much. But dogs and kids they like me, they follow me around all the time!” – Johnny Rob
“Imma tell you something boy, I don’t like you…” – Conny Miller
“I don’t get my nerve from this gun, Mothershed. I had it long before I could even pick one of them up.” – Conny Miller
“I don’t get my nerve out of a bottle, Ione.” – Conny Miller
In closing, if you’re not familiar with it and you’re a fan of Lee Marvin, you should definitely check out ‘The Grave.’ Seasons 1-3 of Twilight Zone are available on Netflix, so no excuses. And while I’m not sure I’d do full on bloggage in all future #silverfoxfridays, there’s more than a fair chance Lee Marvin will make another appearance.