Saturday 1 August 2009

The Secret Invasion (1964)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: Stewart Granger, Raf Vallone, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes and Henry Silva

I seem to be watching a lot of war movies lately and here's one from a director more in tune with my tastes than many more renowned names: B movie legend Roger Corman. He sets up his version of The Dirty Dozen, low budget of course so it's really only The Dirty Half Dozen, with Stewart Granger as a British major collecting his bunch of criminals from notorious prisons around the world and congregating them all together in Cairo. Surprisingly it predates the film it seems to rip off by three years.

It's 1943 and the invasion of Italy is about to begin. The Allies believe the odds will be very much in their favour if only they can persuade the Italians to be on their side, and they believe that there's one Italian general who can make the difference, Gen Quadri. Of course there's a catch. Quadri has been imprisoned by the Nazis in a stronghold in Dubrovnik and the inevitable dangerous mission this bunch of misfit crooks get sent on is to rescue him.

The Secret Invasion only has a standard running time of 95 minutes so there's not enough time to build up a complex rescue mission. What we get intead is an opportunity for each of our characters to be focused on, with little subplots, motivations and redemptions for the actors to have fun with. Given who's playing the characters, they're successful in degrees. William Campbell would seem to have garnered the best part given that his brother, R Wright Campbell, wrote the script, but it doesn't quite turn out that way. He has fun though as Jean Saval, art thief and master of disguise, and his part builds wonderfully as the film runs on.

Edd Byrnes, who had just finished his six year stint on 77 Sunset Strip, is Simon Fell, an American forger, but he's too much of a pain in the ass to do much of anything. Raf Vallone was always like a continental Burt Lancaster: a dynamic force with a strong physique and a strong mind, to say nothing of a strong jaw. It's easy to believe that men have no hesitation in following him and so it's hardly surprising that he's Roberto Rocca, highly educated organiser of criminals. For some reason, to play Terence Scanlon, IRA demolitions expert, Corman hired Mickey Rooney tries the Irish accent but doesn't get very far. Given that he was a mere 5'2" in height, the voice turns him into something of a leprechaun, so I unfortunately kept waiting for him to be after my lucky charms.

The best casting decision was to have Henry Silva play John Durrell, the assassin from parts unknown who was awaiting execution in Alcatraz. He was always great in roles like this one because he always looks almost but somehow not quite entirely human. For some reason I always picture him as a waxwork whose face has been melted and then reassembled by an artist who couldn't quite get it right. It helps that he doesn't move very much and that he can keep his eyes dead. He gets the best part of the bunch too with a couple of the best scenes, though Stewart Granger keeps some for himself too as the leader of the pack.

This is a pretty nicely made film for a low budget, but then that's what Roger Corman did best. To be fair this one comes reasonably late in his career and it was a little less low budget than usual: he had $600k to work with and we see what appears to be a lot more than that on the screen. Apparently he conjured this one out of the ether in a dentist's chair to take his mind off the pain. He'd read an article about Dubrovnik while in the office and tried to figure out what movie he could set there.

I bet he came up with the psychological twists too, which are often very powerful indeed and well above many of the film's bigger budget and higher profile competitors. Frequent Corman collaborator R Wright Campbell does a solid job with the script, though many of the scenes of heroism are a little dumb. They're the biggest downside to me and there are a few of them. Luckily there's so much suspense and astute psychology that it's not a big downside. Another winner for Corman, one that garnered some of his best reviews.


Θεόδωρος Α.Πέππας said...

Great coincidenc, my dear friend I am just watching the film running now, on satellite MGM channel, and I was looking forward to it, after a good 45 years! and I still remember vividly a few scenes, like the one jumping from the cliff catching the grenade. Thought it quite great stuff at the time, and having learned the name of the director only 9 minutes ago, when I saw the titles, explains why! Of course, even if I knew it then, Roger Corman would not mean much to a 9 year old! But the silver screen bug is still alive in me! Greetings from Athens, Greece

Θεόδωρος Α.Πέππας said...

Sorry if the signature looks all Greek to you!
Theodoros A. Peppas. MD
Athens, Greece