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.
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!