Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Buried Treasures: The Strange One (1957)

I majored in what was described as “Speech Broadcasting” during my short academic career at Marshall University in the early 1980s, and because I spent a goodly amount of time at Marshall’s student radio station, the student manager asked me to tackle the production of FM 88’s weekly pop culture broadcast, Entertainment ’83.  It was a half-hour show that focused on news from the world of music, television and movies, and one of the perks of the job was that I was given free passes to the local movie theaters to do reviews on the latest film releases.  (To be honest, “I was given” isn’t completely accurate—if memory hasn’t failed me, I had to beg, wheedle and cajole the theatre owners to give us gratis passes.)  People who worked at WMUL-FM and wanted to check out a particular movie need only ask me for a pass, and I would bestow upon them those riches in return for a five-minute recorded review.  (I was a most benevolent producer, to say the least.)

It was early 1983, and for some odd reason the local movie houses hadn’t kept up with the release schedule so there would be times when there was nothing new to review…and to keep the passes from expiring, I would often persuade my paisan Jeff Lane (again, to be truthful—he did not need much persuading) to accompany me to the flickers…where we would sit through such turkeys as Spring Break (1983—from the director of the Friday the 13th movies) and a particularly odious bit of celluloid fromage called Joysticks (1983—from the guy what directed 1977’s Satan’s Cheerleaders).  This last movie is proof positive that Joe Don Baker will be spending a little time in Purgatory once he gets that visit from The Grim Reaper, before he moves on to his greater reward for films like Junior Bonner (1972) and Charley Varrick (1973).

Jeff and I saw Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) ten times on free passes alone.  We also saw The Lords of Discipline (1983) several times, a movie that Jeff positively loved but I found difficult to embrace because of its plot (based on the novel by Pat Conroy) of hellish conditions at a military academy.  I do not mean to disparage such institutions of higher learning, and have no plans to do so provided they tend to their knitting and I to mine.  But those places make me very uneasy, and always have.  The Powers That Be were always threatening to send problem kids to those kinds of places when I was growing up, and my experience (admittedly limited, but still) saw a friend of a friend of mine sent to one and upon doing his time, he was a bigger essobee than ever when he got out.  And besides: Donald Trump went to one (though he seems to have confused his time there with some sort of actual military service).

I didn’t see The Strange One (1957) until several years after watching Lords, but that oh-so-familiar déjà vu came back when I did (I think I originally caught this on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™’s TNT days).  Tee Cee Em showed this one the other night (a double feature with 1961’s Something Wild) as a tribute to its director, Jack Garfein…whose movie career dissipated after only two films.  Strange One is an adaptation of Calder Willingham’s play (and novel) End as a Man, and takes place at a fictional military academy where several cadets are terrorized by a charismatic bully (Ben Gazzara) who answers to “Jocko de Paris.”

Jocko has it in for another cadet, George Avery (Geoffrey Horne)—the son of one of the school’s commanders, Major George Avery, Sr. (played by Larry Gates).  He lays out an elaborate plan to frame George for violating the rules—all under the guise of a “practical joke”—with the help of four other cadets: his roommate Harold Koble (Pat Hingle), Roger Gatt (James Olson), and freshmen Robert Marquales (George Peppard) and Maurice Maynall Simmons (Arthur Storch).  De Paris and his quartet start up a card game after lights out, and while playing poker the liquor starts to flow freely.  When young Avery comes around to investigate, he is beaten up by Gatt and has some of the demon rum poured into him by Marquales and Simmons.

George is found passed out on the quadrangle the next morning, and is quickly drummed out of the academy.  His father is convinced that Jocko is responsible, but he’s unable to pin it on him—and De Paris has skillfully manipulated his accomplices into lying about both his and their involvement (the cadets stand to be expelled as well if anyone confesses).  Though he has a lot to lose—his family is button-popping proud that he was accepted into the school—Marquales eventually realizes they have no other choice but to confront Jocko, which he and an army of like-minded cadets from the school do in a memorable climax.

For a film that had to tap dance around some taboo issues—there’s a strong suggestion of homosexuality in two of the characters, Simmons and a cadet nicknamed “Cockroach” (Paul E. Richards), and at one point in the film Jocko employs a prostitute (Julie Wilson) for the purpose of humiliating Simmons—The Strange One remains a powerful piece of drama since its release over fifty years ago.  Director Garfein was hired by producer Sam Spiegel to take on the project after the initial plans to star James Dean fell through, so Spiegel reworked the idea as a low-budget release that would spotlight the talents of several of the thesps who originated the roles on stage as part of New York’s legendary Actors’ Studio (a number of the crew members who worked on Strange were also affiliated with the Studio as well).

The Strange One marked the film debut of Ben Gazzara, who was simply without peer when it came to playing rat bastards.  (My father doesn’t always notice these things, but he pointed out as we watched Strange the other night that Ben’s character sported a cigarette holder similar to the one he used in the later Anatomy of a Murder [1959].)  Gazzara’s Jocko De Paris is not without his charm (which is why so many cadets fall under his spell) but he’s a truly contemptible douchebag—the kind of individual I always seemed to have the misfortune to run into throughout my high school and college careers.  (I wish I had seen Strange earlier in life—it might have given me pointers on how to avoid these guys.)  And yet, there’s a homoerotic subtlety in that so many cadets regard De Paris as an object of hero worship…a nice example of getting things under the radar.

Actors Pat Hingle (members of the TDOY faithful know how much I enjoy this man’s work, and The Strange One is one of his best acting showcases), Paul E. Richards, (Peter) Mark Richman, and Arthur Storch all reprise their roles from the stage production, with newcomer George Peppard (also his debut) and James Olson taking over the parts originally played by William Smithers and Albert Salmi, respectively.  (I would have loved to see Salmi in this—another actor for which I have tremendous respect.)  The stage version of End as a Man also featured Anthony Franciosa and Harry Guardino, and no one was more relieved than I about Tony not making the cut because I had enough of his faux Southern accent the other night in The Long, Hot Summer (1958—coming to a future post).  The only other vehicles I’ve seen Storch in were an episode of The Phil Silvers Show and a small part as a psychiatrist in The Exorcist (1973), so his teeth in Strange kept bothering me because I didn’t remember them being so pronounced in the Bilko outing.  (I learned after the movie that he asked his dentist to fit him with a special upper plate of buck teeth for his character.)

The Strange One was a first-rate directorial debut for Garfein (who told a few stories about the production to Bobby Osbo on the night it ran on TCM)—but sadly, Jack’s future career behind the camera would eventually crash and burn after his second effort.  The production history tells the tale that Garfein clashed with producer Sam Spiegel on the set (the humid Florida weather played a large role in Spiegel’s irascibility, plus he didn’t care for Willingham’s ending in the play) and that Jack exercised his director’s prerogative by seeing that Spiegel made no more surprise visits.  (In retaliation, Sam took the film from Garfein before the editing was completed and a score added, and allowed the gay subtext of Strange to be watered down by the censors.)  Though it received good notices on the other side of the pond, it wasn’t promoted much here in the States; a shame, really, since The Strange One is a most worthwhile movie despite its flaws (I’m like Spiegel—I think the ending’s a little weak, too).  Just remember: “I'll be back!  I'll get you guys!  You can't do this to Jocko De Paris!”

1 comment:

ClassicBecky said...

I have loved The Strange One since I saw it as a young teenager and didn't really pick up on the homosexual content. After I saw it as an adult, I admired even more the story, the actors, everything about it. Why has it not been shown on TV more? I don't have TCM anymore (ACK!), and before that I don't remember seeing it anywhere for years. Excellent review, Ivan, on a movie that deserves much more attention than it ever got.