by David Lamble
In The Strange One, a gorgeous, widescreen b/w restoration of Calder Willingham’s send-up of hazing rituals at “The Southern Military Academy” (based on South Carolina’s notorious Citadel), a young cadet officer (a youthful Pat Hingle) sneers at two cadet students, shaking in their boots and looking especially foolish standing in their pajamas minutes after lights out. “I want to turn around from here, and I want to see two powerful little chests lifted right up into the atmosphere.”
Emerging from the shadows in his first screen role, a 27-year-old Ben Gazzara steals this newly rediscovered treasure, playing Cadet Sgt. Jocko DeParis, a sadomasochistic schemer who can charm, tease and bully the pants off virtually every male on campus up and down the chain of command.
The Georgia-born Willingham would go on to concoct a string of outstanding screenplays, including a 1967 breakthrough collaboration with Buck Henry on The Graduate. Here he gives us an unforgettable look at an American institution at a crossroads: the training rituals of a pre-Vietnam, Jim Crow Army officer corps, a bastion of white male privilege about to be assaulted by ferocious winds of change: feminism, desegregation and (gasp) gay liberation.
One of the few miscalculations of this ferocious piece is its awkward Hollywood title. It began as Willingham’s first novel, soon adapted for the stage as End as a Man. Workshopped at New York’s Actor’s Studio and soon Broadway-bound, End as a Man became the career launching pad for a tough Sicilian-American kid from the Lower East Side. Biagio Anthony Gazzara had pioneered two landmark stage roles, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ‘s Biff and the lead in A Hat Full of Rain, losing the screen versions to hotter names. In an interview filmed for this Columbia DVD, Gazzara explains that James Dean was sniffing around the part of Jocko DeParis, but a friend of Gazzara’s at the Actor’s Studio made sure that this brass ring was his.
The film pivots around DeParis’ complex maneuvers to get a campus rival unfairly cashiered out of the academy by sweet-talking his buddies into the actual dirty work, a suspiciously homo assault and forced intoxication of a cadet officer. What distinguishes The Strange One from other 1950s attacks on military abuses is the filmmaker’s decision to force us to see the action significantly from Jocko’s perspective. It’s as if The Caine Mutiny had been told from the viewpoint of Captain Queeg.
Gazzara smartly withholds all the standard snorting, nasty, over-the-top trademarks of the typical screen bully, instead offering us a slyly amused young man who’s sorry not to find rivals worthy of testing his mettle for mischief. Much of the performance is in the eyes, projecting a ferocious intelligence, the film perversely conveying the irony that Jocko, for all his contemptible deeds, might truly be great officer material. The Strange One is a prescient preview of Gazzara’s screen breakthrough as the dangerously charming, wife-beating Army officer in Anatomy of a Murder, two years away.
The film offers young male eye-candy aplenty, from Gazzara’s caged cobra strut to the leaner, more nuanced beauty of George Peppard, just out of the Marine Corps and a few years shy of his breakout turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Throughout the film, Willingham knowingly mocks the dying days of Jim Crow, particularly through a clever use of a lynching motif â€“ first in a joking reference in Jock’s first monologue, and finally in an ironic twist of the bully’s fate, which is sealed on a segregated railroad car.
Special features include a present-day interview with Gazzara, and the widescreen format.