Sony // 1957 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 17th, 2009
The Strange One is a strange one!
Based on a play based on a novel by Calder Willingham, The Strange One holds a unique place in cinematic history. The film offers the first cinematic leading role of actor Ben Gazzara, who would later go on to achieve great critical acclaim in the intense independent films of John Cassavetes. The cast was primarily comprised of members of the New York Actor's Studio, and the film was censored due to the inclusion of scenes that seemed to have homoerotic undertones. Despite a dynamic performance from Gazzara and the aforementioned historically important elements, The Strange One has not gained a significant reputation amongst lovers of classic film. Perhaps this DVD release will help to change that situation a bit, as it makes the complete uncut film available for the first time. It's amazing to consider that this film hasn't been released until now. While not a perfect motion picture, it's certainly a very engaging slice of controversial cinematic history.
The setting is a strict military academy in the south. Gazzara plays an older student at the academy who has learned how to get just about anything he wants in life. Using a combination of his silver tongue and his complete lack of conscience, Gazzara lies, steals, and cheats his way through life, all while taking advantage of hapless young cadets. During the early portion of the film, he uses his considerable skills to get an opponent kicked out of the academy. At first he seems immensely satisfied with his brutal victory, but things quickly take a turn for the worse. Slowly but surely, Gazzara begins to realize that his reign of terror may be coming to a conclusion. He's not going to go down without a fight, though.
Gazzara is magnetically nasty in the role, creating genuine tension and terror throughout. He treats everyone he encounters in the film with sly contempt. There is a brooding confidence and naturalism here that is nothing short of remarkable considering that this was the first leading role Gazarra had ever been given. Other young performers such as George Peppard and Pat Hingle seem a little green and uneasy during certain moments, but Gazzara has all the swagger of a 30-year veteran. There's a surprising measure of brutal nastiness here that seems atypical for an American film of the 1950s. Despite the wonderfully gritty crime films that were so prevalent during the decade, this one seems closer in tone to the rugged and cynical characters studies of the 1970s.
I'm glad to finally have the film available in its original form, but the sexually charged scenes are rather nasty viewing. The character of Cockroach (Paul E. Richards) is a rather stereotypical queen who is treated nothing short of miserably in the film. To be sure, Gazzara treats everyone in the film badly, but there is a certain sadistic glee in the way Gazzara mocks Cockroach's romantic advances. I could only shake my head at the scene in which Cockroach squeals in the shower as Gazzara torments him with soap. It's easy to see why the scenes were cut; there is no subtlety whatsoever to these moments. I suppose the filmmakers deserve credit for so bravely depicting homosexual behavior in so flagrant a manner during the late 1950s, but truth be told these scenes feature some rather bad writing.
The film very nearly self-destructs during the scenes featuring actor Arthur Storch as Cadet Simmons. Storch sports bug-eyed glasses and laughably false buck teeth, and he matches his cartoonish appearance with an equally over-the-top performance. The result is the sort of overindulgent role that Peter Sellers or Jerry Lewis might have played on an exceptionally bad day. The performance is disastrously distracting and irritating, occasionally making the film a very unpleasant thing to sit through. Fortunately, the merits of the film are plentiful enough to outweigh this particularly bothersome performance. I should also note that certain elements feel dated, particularly the score (which uses jazz in an unintentionally silly manner to portray sleazy aspects of the film).
The DVD transfer is fairly solid here, as the scratches and flecks are fairly minimal considering the era in which this film was made. Occasionally the image is a bit soft. A few of the darker scenes lack definition at points, but otherwise I have no significant complaints to make. The 1.0 audio is fairly clean and simple. This film is technically based on a play, and as such it feels fairly dialogue-heavy and stagy at times. The only extra on the disc is a 10-minute interview with Ben Gazzara, whose voice is sadly slurred due to the stroke he suffered back in 2005. As such, it's occasionally a little tough to make out everything he's saying, but this is worth checking out.
Despite its noteworthy flaws, The Strange One is a compelling curiosity worth checking out if you consider yourself a cinema buff.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated