Should I Stay Or Should Iago? THE STRANGE ONE Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Indicator. PG.
Limited edition (3,000 units). World BD premiere.

If you’re expecting an uplifting tale of America’s Finest doing the right thing as they heroically uphold truth, justice and the ol’ Red, White and Blue here, you’ve got the wrong film, mister. Try An Officer And A Gentleman, instead. Actually, some of the characters in this one end up doing the right thing. Eventually. Sort of…

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“The Southern Military College” is an ostensibly upstanding institution, propagating a noble tradition. For many of its doughboys, though – certainly those within the orbit of junior officer Jocko De Paris (how’s that for an alpha male name?) – it’s a homoerotic hazing heirarchical hell hole (and that’s only the “H” words!) Jocko (as played by Ben Gazzara in his screen debut) is described on the film’s poster as “the most fascinating louse you ever met” though you’d undoubtedly be better off not meeting him, representing as he does the point on the graph where “evil Sgt. Bilko” meets “dime store Iago”.

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Motiveless malignity indeed, as Jocko’s Machiavellian machinations progress from humiliating uptight WASP weirdo Simmons (Arthur Storch) to getting star cadet George Avery (Geoffrey Horne) dishonourably discharged and goading Major Avery, George’s  father (Larry Gates) into slapping him, effectively terminating the military careers of two generations of Averys in one fell swoop. So why does Jocko have it in for this family? After puzzling over that one for a while, Robert Marquales (George Peppard, also in his first film appearance) works out that he doesn’t. He has it in for … everybody! “A man has to have a hobby” offers Jocko, when challenged. Should his peers blow the whistle? He’s taken pains to implicate most of them in some outrage or other and they’ve got a lot invested in their own careers. Will anyone have the moral courage / sheer balls to speak out?

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Calder Willingham adapted his own 1947 novel End As A Man to the stage, achieving  a Broadway run, no less, in 1953/4. Director Jack Garfein and most of the Broadway cast were retained for this screen adaptation (and Julie Wilson’s blousey character introduced to temper the otherwise overwhelmingly gay ambience), hence the strong ensemble playing. There’s inevitably a stagey feel about the film but it also derives much of its sheer power from the same source, much like Sidney Lumet’s almost exactly contemporaneous 12 Angry Men (Lumet would take The Strange One’s themes to their most brutal conclusion in his gruelling 1965 effort, The Hill).

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The film’s in b/w, BTW…

As well as the barely restrained sexual threat always simmering just below the surface at Southern Military College, plenty of other ugly American attitudes linger on. The racism is almost palpable, with several characters openly lamenting the Confederate States’ defeat in the Civil War. Quite the poisonous concoction and when somebody suggests that maybe Jocko is just a bad egg, Marquales develops the food metaphor by pointing out that mushrooms thrive best in a swamp. Tribal dynamics, a charismatic amoral leader, the acquiescence of underlings… what could poissibly go wrong? No surprise that this material was so interesting to Garfein, an Auschwitz survivor. Interviewed in the extras here, the late director recalls how producer Sam Spiegel (of all people) ordered him to remove any shots of black people, so that The Strange One would sell better in The South. Garfein disobeyed and Spiegel retaliated by soft-pedalling the picture, which promptly disappeared. Instead of going on to the Lumet-like career of which he was clearly capable, Garfein only directed one more feature (Something Wild in 1961, starring his then wife and future giallo queen Carroll Baker)… but hey, he’d done the right thing.

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Move along please, nothing remotely homoerotic to see here…

Additional extras include an interview with Gazzara, trailer and image gallery, collectors’ booklet and an audio commentary with critic Nick Pinkerton which alternates dry biographical detail with interesting observations on The Actor’s Studio, Bertolt Brecht and (believe it or not) the thoughts of Morrissey and Mark E. Smith. I’d hate to call Pinkerton a strange one, but Manchester? He’s clearly mad fer it…

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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