The Dirty Half-Dozen

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Roger Corman’s THE SECRET INVASION is a clear fore-runner of Aldrich’s DIRTY DOZEN, dealing as it does with a crack elite squad of crack elite rogue maverick criminals on a top secret utmost importance type mission. For once working for a major studio (well, United Artists), Corman unfortunately wasn’t able to stress the cynical aspects that would make such a story most effective and original. (The best film of this type, and maybe the only really good one, is Andre de Toth’s PLAY DIRTY.)

Corman’s original title was THE DUBIOUS PATRIOTS, which I find endearingly weak. I suggest THE QUESTIONABLE HEROES and THE INSIPID MARTYRS as decent alternatives. Or maybe THE INGLOURIOUS SCAMPS.

The flick played at Edinburgh Film Fest’s Corman retro, and was introduced by Niall Fullton, who told how Corman conceived the story at the dentist — reading an article about the WWII battle of Dubrovnik, he dreamed up a war movie plot to distract him from the dentist’s uncomfortable ministrations (think LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS). UA money and Yugoslavian locations (with the partial cooperation of the local armed forces) enabled him to make his biggest film to date.

It’s enjoyable, but still has a somewhat cheap quality. Corman doesn’t pay that much attention to performance (the extras in particular are troublesome — there’s always one guy spoiling the mood by running into battle in a spazzy way, or pulling a strange expression during a crowd reaction shot) — and the production design isn’t fully up to the period movie challenge. The TV aerials on the rooftops didn’t bother me much, but the Nazi officer’s desk calendar for some reason seemed hilarious. It reads “1943:” That may be the funniest colon in film history.

When I wasn’t chuckling at the punctuation, I appreciated the deft use of stock footage (“Cairo” proclaims a proudly superimposed title, and it is Cairo) which Corman intercuts with the main characters’ introductions in a snappy way that actually achieves a sort of Oliver Stone liveliness, the different film stocks playing off each other. The day-for-night wasn’t so hot: underexposed evening shots set up a reasonably convincing facsimile of dusk, but then it becomes broad daylight for ten minutes before returning to dusk all of a sudden.

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Rooney, Byrnes, Campbell. The Dirty Trio.

Our heroes are —

MAJOR RICHARD MACE — Stewart Granger, boldly doing his own stunts and trying to steal other actors’ lines, causing a rare delay on a Corman shoot. Granger gives a horrible perf as the disgraced officer assigned to a suicide mission — everything is completely obvious and on-the-nose, which is especially problematic in a script as un-nuanced as this one. He’s not the most graceful actor either. The film is full of scenes where soldiers fail to take cover when they easily could, or run crouching behind low walls with their heads and shoulders sticking up into plain view.

ROBERT ROCCA – ORGANIZER — Raf Vallone gives the only really authoritative perf, nailing every line and exuding machismo and intelligence. His Rocca has degrees in psychology, Greek classics and structural engineering (Corman shares the latter qualification), none of which play any role in the story. But he is the guy who devises an escape plan in which all of the gang snap their fingers to maintain split-second timing in the absence of watches to synchronize. Of course, none of the actors snap at the same rate, and it turns out the timing was only relevant to allow them to all meet up in a corridor at approximately the same time. Still, nice thought.

TERENCE SCANLON – DEMOLITION — Mickey Rooney tests his well-known versatility by taking on the role of a feared IRA leprechaun. With the same dauntless courage he displayed as Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S — you can keep your Mifunes and Shimuras — he boldly plays the stage Oirish dialogue in an unmoderated American accent. But, one has to admit that his dancing training makes him a nimble and eye-catching physical player. He’s ridiculous, but with rare panache.

SIMON FELL – FORGER — Edd Byrnes is the handsome one, so it’s a surprising pleasure to see him die first. He essays the most histrionic, James Dean-like death, which is fine (Granger pulls off one of those nice life-leaving-the-eyes jobs in a pastoral setting). I was baffled by why the needed a forger, but they actually find stuff for him to do, stamping important Nazi documents with an artfully honed potato, and the like.

JOHN  DURRELL – ASSASSIN — Henry Silva once killed a man using only his cheekbones. And maimed a dog with his eyes. He’s well cast. “Of no known nationality,” Durrell is on death row for doing in his mistress. Nice to see that the professional hitman finds time for some pro bono work, I suppose. Silva gives a rubbish performance which, weirdly, isn’t quite inexpressive enough. And his romantic interest (!) is Spela Rozin, who projects even less emotion and seems more cold-blooded. Her credit, “And Introducing” practically guarantees her a lifetime of obscurity.

JEAN SAVAL – KNOWN AS “THE MASTER OF DISGUISE” — William Campbell is a very good too, a natural type with a great face and delivery. But unlikely casting as a man who can morph into anybody else, since he’s so distinctive-looking. A nice goofy moment is when he examines an unconscious Nazi guard so as to effect a transformation. “The key is the expression,” he intones. The expression of an unconscious man? Even if he can pull this off, aren’t the other Nazis going to wonder, “What’s Horst doing walking about unconscious on guard duty?” Campbell also does vocal impressions, by the simple method of being dubbed by whomever he choses to impersonate. It’s a handy skill!

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27 Responses to “The Dirty Half-Dozen”

  1. Corman doesn’t pay that much attention to anything. He’s really a conceptual filmmaker like Warhol. Once he’s thought up the idea the next step is simply to see it through as simply and cheaply as possible. This was a break for his Poe cycle. But the Poes are much more interestign cinematically.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    I remember this film with fondness but agree with David E. over the Poes. However, I thought Silva gave a sympathetic performance, very touching when he lives with his responsibility for an accidental killing and sacrifices himself at the end of the film.

    Granger was, of course, Granger strolling into the film after the end of his MGM contract, as if he had never left the realm of Gainsborough Melodrama, merely acting “cool” despite the fact that Dino will always be the archetypal Mr. Cool.

    (I write these lines as there is a 105 heat index outside so should be excused for my “cool” references.

  3. Whoof! Proustian rush going on over here. The poster you reproduce at the top of this post was on my bedroom wall for most of the nineties. “That explains a lot”, I hear you think. I never actually managed to track the film down, not that I tried too hard – aside from oddities like The Intruder and The Trip, I think Corman’s a far more interesting producer than director. I hope you get to meet him, though – he’s a very entertaining speaker, has a great deal to say about the practicalities of film production, and is the only one who ever told me that the Golden Rule for directors on their first feature is “Sit down as often as possible or you’ll wear yourself out before the end of the shoot.” Good advice which I have heeded relentlessly ever since.

  4. Joe Dante (who knows more about Corman than anyone) has for years been trying to get off the ground a movie about the making of The Trip.

  5. stewart granger always comes across as solid, stodgy and vain. the two most interesting things about him are jean simmons and deborah kerr – third place is occupied by his ridiculous plot to murder howard hughes

  6. i should probably add that i don’t know if he was vain. maybe he was very humble and interesting. i’m just saying how he comes across to me. i don’t want to get in any trouble on the internet or anywhere else

  7. “Print The Legend” Dept.:

    I have no idea how true it is, but friend Matthew David Wilder has passed on this lovely Corman anecdote:

    “Roger went down south when Scorsese was shooting BOXCAR BERTHA, a few days in. He’d just kinda…walk around the set, fold his arms, and scowl. People started doing stuff faster. Roger wrapped his arm around the director, saying, ‘Marty, I’ll be down here for two more days. Call me if you need me to scowl again’.”

  8. A friend, Steve Simpson, interned for Corman in LA for a while. All he saw was the scowl. He was around for the legendary Fantastic Four movie that was made specifically to be shelved, though.

    Corman became a fascinating stylist on the Poe films, and a thoroughly able maestro on his small contemporary movies. And The Intruder just blew people away when it screened here earlier in the week.

    I don’t really like war entertainments unless they’re exceptional, but at least this one has some original and surprising plot turns.

    Is MD Wilder the IMDb reviewer who writes the great pieces? I gather he’s a screenwriter too.

    My friend Lawrie went on safari/location for King Solomon’s Mines, and everyone was surprised when they couldn’t find Granger in his tent the second morning. Turned out he’d heard lions in the night and caught the next flight home. I kind of sympathise.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    David E, This sounds a fantastic project. I remember seeing both THE TRIP and THE WILD ANGELS at the now absent Manchester Film Theatre when they were banned in England. I hope Joe succeeds.

  10. Tim Lucas, of Video Watchdog fame, is the author of the screenplay. When I first heard about it, I was rather touched. It’s like Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus film — I’d totally see it, but who’s going to give them the money to make it?

  11. Holy Shit, first Ed McMahon, then Farah, now Michael Jackson. When they say it happens in threes they weren’t kidding.

  12. Holy Shit, first Ed McMahon, then Farah, now Michael Jackson. When they said it happens in threes they weren’t kidding.

  13. Yup. That’s the same Matt Wilder. (He’s been known to use the “David” in order to avoid confusions with other Matthew Wilders.) I got to know him when he was directing theater in San Diego — memorably, a “Hairy Ape” at the La Jolla Playhouse into which he inserted the theme song from Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.”

    He’s also directed a picture, one which he wrote, with Bill Pullman called “Your Name Here.” Here’s an interview with Matt …

    http://www.collider.com/entertainment/article.asp/aid/8239/cid/13/tcid/1

    Last I heard, Matt was working on putting together a picture about Linda Lovelace.

  14. For best effect, Guy, you should have posted this one more time. I’ll take the liberty:

    Holy Shit, first Ed McMahon, then Farah, now Michael Jackson. When they said it happens in threes they weren’t kidding.

    Don’t worry, your royalty cheque is in the mail.

    David, good to read your tangential praise of Play Dirty. A truly fine picture that deserves far more praise and attention than it has heretofore received.

  15. I ought to do Play Dirty for The Forgotten, it certainly qualifies. And de Toth’s stories of making it are hugely entertaining. Scottish theatre guy John McGrath had a hand in the script too, so that’s of subsidiary interest too.

    Ed McMahon was not well-known outside the US, so the rest of us are still waiting for the third shoe/man to drop, as it were. But I can’t see anyone pushing Jackson out of the headlines.

    Fiona immediately said that now the truth will come out, because his former employees can sell their stories without fear. Actually, a few things besides the truth may come out.

  16. I submitted the comment, but then faced a blank screen, which had me thinking it hadn’t gone through so I submitted again. I admit it was off-topic, but whatever you thought of the singer/performer (I was never a big fan but I understand why many were) the news of his death is still pretty stunning. Not surprised that Ed McMahon isn’t better-known over there, as the sidekick of Johnny Carson he was more of a celebrity-by-association, but the media over here found it newsworthy. Looking forward to that royalty cheque.

  17. Jacko still dominates the news here, even though there have been no new developments. They call it the silly season for a reason, I guess. Was pretty startled when I first got the news, then plunged into the film fest where no outside events seem to be discussed!

  18. Great googa mooga! Sky Saxon ALSO died yesterday? There’s your third shoe, David.

    As much as I enjoy the early Jackson 5 sides, nothing compares to The Seeds. As a wise man once said of them, “three great chords–FIVE great albums!”

  19. A fine tribute. Just played “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” in homage.

  20. I thought Silva was great in Secret Invasion as Death personified (cf. Masque of the …).

  21. He’s a man whose face always promises great things, or terrible things. Absolutely disastrous in something like Cinderfella, where he carries into the comedy an inescapable foretaste of mayhem. I like him a lot, and maybe if they’d paired him with a more expressive actress, this would have worked for me more.

  22. Tony Williams Says:

    That is John McGrath is the 7/89 Theatre Company? If so, he is one of those radical theatrical talents who suffered in the Thatcherite “kulturkampf” as Trevor Griffiths terms it.

  23. Yes, that’s the guy. Writing with Melvyn Bragg! Not obvious choices for a hardboiled WWII movie, but the result is astonishingly taut.

  24. Thanks for reminding us of André De Toth.
    I also liked his House of Wax a lot.
    And The Indian Fighter is interesting,too.

  25. I must remember to write something about Play Dirty soon. Also, I have a copy of Crime Wave waiting to be watched.

    De Toth came to the Edinburgh Film Festival some years ago, and I saw him speak. He was about ninety, and still ferocious as hell!

  26. CRIME WAVE is excellent. Do you have the DVD with commentary by Eddie Muller and James Ellroy? The second Timothy Carey appears on the screen they both bust out laughing. When you see it you’ll know why.

  27. I think that IS the one I have, yes.

    Kubrick was asked by his stills cameraman why he kept casting people like Carey, who “can’t act at all!”

    “They bring a texture to the picture that a better actor wouldn’t.”

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