One of Robert Aldrich’s most subversive (and financially most successful) films is his 1967 color and wide-screen World War II saga of legalized criminality, THE DIRTY DOZEN (available on DVD). Aldrich had first dealt with this war eleven years earlier in his violently gripping cult picture, Attack! (1956), which featured the brilliant Lee Marvin in a strong supporting role. In The Dirty Dozen, Marvin takes the lead, playing–with his usual restrained gusto–a maverick major who recruits twelve condemned soldier-misfits for a suicidal mission behind enemy lines; if they survive, they’ll be reprieved.
It’s a terrific setup–from an E.M. Nathanson novel, scripted by veteran Nunnally Johnson, heavily revised by the director’s long-time associate Lukas Heller–and carried out with Aldrich’s typically energetic, often refreshingly perverse, always personal dexterity and viewpoint. At two and a half hours, the picture seems half that long, never flagging in intensity, and was subsequently much imitated.
The essentially all-male cast looks like a who’s-who of quirky off-center character actors, each of them excellent in their own particular ways: Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy, Jim Brown and especially (in an Oscar-nominated turn for best supporting actor) John Cassavetes, who just about steals the movie.
Bob Aldrich (1918-1983) was himself always a kind of insider/outsider in the Hollywood industry, a maverick who played by the rules, but bending them as much as possible in an ornery iconoclastic fashion that produced a number of complicated, darkly ambiguous works. Having been assistant to such unique filmmakers as Jean Renoir (on The Southerner; see Picture of the Week 1/18/11), Abraham Polonsky (on Force of Evil) and Charles Chaplin (on Limelight), Aldrich stamped his own movies with a restless, edgy signature, defying restrictions or easy assumptions.
The results were such angry, oddball triumphs of individualism as his sardonic Gary Cooper-Burt Lancaster action-send up, Vera Cruz (1954); his annihilating Mickey Spillane thriller, Kiss Me Deadly (1955; see Picture of the Week 1/6/11), in which even the title, in a characteristic Aldrich manner, rolled up backward: Deadly Kiss Me; his Clifford Odets anti-Hollywood drama, The Big Knife (1955; see Special Comments: Film as Hell 6/15/11); his Bette Davis-Joan Crawford psycho duel, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), among several others equally enthralling.
Made when Aldrich was 49, The Dirty Dozen was, and remained, his most popular picture, the profits from which he used to buy his own studio and bolster his own independent company, neither of which flourished, sad to say. Especially intrigued by the inherent dramatic potential of men locked together in a life-or-death struggle, he returned most often to those kind of stories—-in other World War II pictures like The Angry Hills and Ten Seconds to Hell (both 1959) or Too Late the Hero (1970)—-and in the all-male trapped-in-desert suspense piece, The Flight of the Phoenix (1966), with James Stewart’s last superb performance, in a role that was tailored to his star persona, or as Aldrich put to me, “Written for what Stewart seemed to be.” A very succinct way of describing perhaps the key factor to the old studio star system. “Seemed to be,” based on the accumulated power of years of roles in a character that seemed to be like the star, occasionally in a number of sometimes quite different incarnations.
Since Aldrich was, no matter what, on the side of the underdog and the loner, it isn’t surprising that when John Cassavetes was essentially blacklisted in Hollywood for having taken a punch (literally) at respected liberal producer Stanley Kramer—-over the cutting of a movie John had directed (A Child is Waiting) and Kramer produced—-Bob Aldrich stepped into the breach and hired Cassavetes as one of The Dirty Dozen. The role was originally quite small but Aldrich encouraged Cassavetes’ improvisational talents—John used to talk out (dictate) all his own screenplays for films he directed–enabling him to create one of his most incendiary portrayals. (See Pictures of the Week: Opening Night 3/26/11 & A Woman Under the Influence 8/31/10.)
Though the musical score is too often overly insistent—-scores many times are the first thing that dates a picture—The Dirty Dozen remains a memorably abrasive film, with the irreplaceable Lee Marvin continually subverting conventional expectations—-like Aldrich, like Cassavetes—-a smoldering volcano of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian revolt; and how refreshing they remain today.