The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

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Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

Lawman (1971)

lawman_281971_movie_poster29Cowboy or a sheriff? Sheriff or a cowboy? Which is the more iconic figure of the western genre? It’s gotta be a split down the middle because both are so immediately recognized as the key character. Today’s entry tackles the changing portrayals of a wild west peace officer. It’s not the heroic sheriff versus the dastardly killer. It’s somewhere in between in 1971’s Lawman.

It’s 1887 in the dusty western town Sabbath when Marshal Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) rides into town. He has a warrant for the arrest of seven men responsible for the death of a man in Maddox’s town, Bannock. The death was accidental, a stray bullet killing an old man as rancher Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) and his men celebrate after delivering a herd. Now, the two sides are a standstill. Even with the odds stacked against him, Maddox intends to bring the men to justice. Bronson offers to pay damages, but Maddox refuses to listen. Is there an alternative other than a gunfight? Two stubborn men will go toe-to-toe to find out.

One of the better revisionist westerns to hit theaters in the 1970’s, Lawman comes from director Michael Winner (who would direct Death Wish 2 years later). It isn’t always mentioned as a classic, or even a very good western, but I’ve come away incredibly impressed both times I’ve seen it. Filming locations in Durango are familiar but add an element to the story, a feeling of being there in 1887. Composer Jerry Fielding turns in a solid score but nothing crazy.

What sets it apart – without being too heavy-handed – is its portrayal of the usual heroes and villains. Lancaster’s Maddox is the expected hero, but he’s so steadfastly stubborn, so icy cold in his job, that it becomes hard to see him as anything other than a robotic lawman without emotions. Cobb’s Bronson plays a rancher that could easily have been an out-and-out villain. He’s layered, logical and sympathetic as the situation degenerates in front of him. Maddox all but admits nothing will come of the arrests and eventual trial. Bronson knows it too but can’t bring himself around. Still, the ball is in play and pride, stubbornness and a sense of right and wrong – however skewed – will have its say.

Lancaster had quite the 2-year stretch among westerns with Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming. It isn’t a flashy part, leading some critics to say Lancaster looks bored. I thought that reflects the character as we know him. Emotions just aren’t part of his decision-making. He knows what he believes and goes with it. Cobb is a great counter, an aging rancher who has carved a life out for himself with hard work, sweat, bullets and a whole lot of death. Surprisingly, Cobb’s Bronson ends up being the far more sympathetic character. Rounding out the lead trio is the always dependable Robert Ryan as Cotton Ryan, a sheriff bought by Bronson to “take care” of the town. Lancaster and Ryan’s scenes together are a highlight, but overall, that is three incredibly worthwhile performances.

Quite a supporting cast here too full of familiar faces. Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, John Beck, William Watson, and J.D. Cannon round out Bronson’s men, a strong variety of individuals and not just a collective gang of sorts. Sheree North is excellent as Laura, a woman from Maddox’s past, who now lives with one of the men the lawman is chasing. Some of the townspeople include John McGiver, Walter Brooke and Richard Bull. Joseph Wiseman gives an interesting turn as Lucas, the saloon and gambling house owner who knows Maddox’s tendencies well. Of the supporting parts, North, Jordan, Duvall and Cannon especially stand out.

For a movie with a 99-minute running time, ‘Lawman’ is a bit of a slow burn. You know it’s building to something…but not quite what exactly. There are some quick hard-hitting (and some shocking) moments along the way, lots of good dialogue sprinkled throughout, and it all leads to a genuinely startling finale. Heavy doses of squibs and blood mark the final shootout that is more uncomfortable than exciting. A doozy of a finale.

Highly recommended. Well worth checking out for its strong, deep cast, layered story and a whole bunch more.

Lawman (1971): ***/****