Monday, February 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Strange One"

Although not remembered as one of the classics of its era, 1957's "The Strange One" is notable for a number of reasons that urge its consideration as a seminal film.

The first is that it was essentially an experiment by producer Sam Spiegel, in which the entire cast and crew came from the famed Actors Studio of New York, the wellspring of Method acting that influenced generations of performers. It would be like a modern Hollywood bigshot recruiting a graduate NYU film class and giving them a few million bucks with which to make a movie.

Ben Gazzara, George Peppard and Pat Hingle all made their film debuts in "The Strange One." All would go on to long and respectable careers in film and television.

It also launched the career of writer Calder Willingham, who wrote the screenplay based on his first novel (also a play). Stanley Kubrick noticed his work and picked him to do the screenplay for "Paths of Glory," perhaps the most overlooked movie of the great director's body of work. Willingham also had screenwriting credits on a number of important films: "The Graduate," "One-Eyed Jacks," "Rambling Rose" and "Little Big Man" -- probably my favorite Arthur Penn flick.

A number of other people associated with the film did not enjoy a similar level of future success. Rookie director Jack Garfein made only one other film. And actor Paul E. Richards, who had perhaps the boldest role of a homosexual cadet at a fictionalized version of The Citadel, saw his first and only screen credit of any kind.

Cadet Perrin McKee, or "Cockroach" as everyone calls him, starts out seeming a foolish and bumbling character, borderline moron in fact. But he later reveals himself as a schemer on par with any one of his classmates.

This was a time, don't forget, when Hollywood's production code forbade any overt depiction of homosexuality. Also notable is the character of Cadet Simmons, memorably played by Arthur Storch, a severely sexually repressed figure who is petrified when another cadet sets him up on a date with a woman.

The star, though, is Cadet Jocko DeParis, played by Gazzara. DeParis is a despicable upperclassmen who takes delight in manipulating and torturing those under his command. Even worse, he does this not out of any apparent sense of malice, but simply for the Machiavellian delight of it.

Willingham's novel and stage play were titled "End As a Man," but it was changed to "The Strange One" to emphasize the creepy charisma of Gazzara's performance. Neither is particularly great title.

Hingle plays Cadet Harry Koble, DeParis' right-hand man who experiences a case of the jitters when one of DeParis' jokes goes too far. While hazing Simmons and another freshman, Cadet Marquales (Peppard), in order to win poker money from another upperclassman, DeParis ends up framing a Cadet Avery for drunkenness. DeParis and his stooges beat up Avery and force whiskey down his throat to get him kicked out of school.

Avery's father, a major at the military college, confronts DeParis about his actions in an attempt to get him to fess up, but the cagey cadet brilliantly controls the conversation to gain the upper hand, in the film's most powerful scene.

It's a good movie, and would seem to be one in the long line of movies about the depravity beneath the shining surface of an elite prep school or military institution ("The Lords of Discipline," "School Ties") -- except for the fact that "The Strange One" was one of the first forays down this path.

For a movie that started a lot of careers, "The Strange One" also kicked off a worthwhile cinematic genre.

3 stars

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