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The Strange One

The Strange One(1957)

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teaser The Strange One (1957)

The Strange One (1957), a psychological drama about military school mores and veiled homosexuality, was promoted as the first picture shot entirely by a cast and crew from New York's the Actors Studio, and the connection shows. Both the power and self-indulgence of that particular school of performing is on ample display here. However, even though some scenes were eventually censored or made less explicit by the Motion Picture Production Code, The Strange One was still a shocking film for its time, and was a harbinger of greater things to come for several of its cast members.

Ben Gazzara plays Jocko De Paris, a macho troublemaker who lords over his younger classmates at a southern military school. De Paris and his dim-witted partners in abuse, Koble (Pat Hingle) and Gatt (James Olson), take special joy in tormenting Simmons (Arthur Storch), a young man who appears to be gay. Maj. Avery (Larry Gates) is an adult who's on to Jocko's power trip, and attempts to get him kicked out of the school. Jocko, on the other hand, recognizes his enemy, and tries to harm Avery's reputation. Gazzara's character is so wholly despicable that the tag line on The Strange One's movie poster actually states: "The Most Fascinating Louse You Ever Met!" He might also be fighting his own homosexual tendencies, but that wasn't the kind of thing you shouted about on movie posters in 1957.

Producer Sam Spiegel, who was deep in preparation for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and had already produced Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), originally wanted Kazan to adapt Calder Willingham's play, End as a Man, into a high profile film starring James Dean. When that proposal went nowhere, he decided to position the picture as a low-budget launching pad for several Actors Studio members who had originated their roles on stage. Spiegel then hired Jack Garfein, who had introduced the play to the actors during a Studio workshop, to direct the picture. As generous as this seemed at the time, things quickly headed south once filming began.

Initially, Garfein had a close relationship with Spiegel, but he eventually grew to dislike the producer intensely. For starters, Spiegel had problems with the play's powerful, open-ended final act, and he also felt that Willingham was a long-winded bore. To get a small amount of revenge on Spiegel for his needless antagonism, Willingham would actually steal expensive cigars from the producer's desk when he wasn't looking; he'd open his jacket and show them to Garfein after their meetings. Tack on that Spiegel couldn't stand hot weather, and that most of the picture was shot in central Florida, and the kettle boiled over on a regular basis.

In his autobiography, In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, Ben Gazzara wrote that Garfein's "command of the film surprised me. It was the first movie for all of us but he seemed especially comfortable and assured. There were two actors who had not been in the Actors Studio production: the young, handsome George Peppard, who I had never heard of, replaced William Smithers, and James Olson played the dumb football player that Al Salmi portrayed so well. Jack got them to blend in perfectly. Peppard brought an innocence and vulnerability to the part that helped the story, and Olson got all the same laughs Salmi had gotten. Arthur Storch, who played the butt of all the insults and hazing, took the additional step of having a dentist fit him for an upper plate of very bucked teeth. Onstage he used no visual device to demonstrate how unattractive his character was, but it was decided that on film it would work well. And it did. Paul Richards' comic take on a homosexual who is writing a book about Jocko was as good as ever. And my sidekick, Pat Hingle, with his fear of flouting protocol, was even better on film than he was onstage."

During filming, however, Garfein finally grew irritated with Spiegel's unexpected, angry appearances on the set, so he asked director George Stevens, who was obviously a heavier hitter than Jack Garfein, what he should do about it. Stevens' answer: throw Spiegel off the set! One day, Garfein, who had already learned how to be pushy from his experiences with Lee Strasberg, did exactly that, thus completely poisoning Spiegel against him. Spiegel ended up taking the film away from Garfein before he even had a chance to edit it and add a score. When several pivotal scenes dealing with homosexuality were removed by the censors, Garfein's original vision had been altered beyond recognition. "Sam's vengeance was long-lasting and far-reaching," Gazzara stated in his autobiography. "The Strange One was a good movie, very well made, but Jack's film career was hurt badly by his run-in with Sam. He messed with the wrong man, and it hurt all of us. Sam never promoted our movie. It was as though he wanted to do nothing to help Jack Garfein succeed. There was no publicity junket, no screenings for opinion-makers. I don't remember doing even one interview. There was a small ad in the New York Times and the movie opened at the Astor Theatre on Broadway to decent reviews, but business was soft. At the same time, though, it had opened to spectacular notices in London - for the movie, and particularly for my performance. Many people in England went to see it. But that didn't help any of us in the United States."

Bosley Crowther, the legendary critic for The New York Times, could well have pointed his finger directly at the censor's edits when describing The Strange One's failings: "The plot for corrupting one boy with a prostitute is sketched vaguely in a feeble scene wherein Julie Wilson ably plays a slack-jointed dame, and the suggestion of the homosexual angle, so strong in the play, is very cautiously hinted here." One is simply left to wonder how Gazzara and his fellow revolutionaries at the Actors Studio approached the material when they appeared in the uncensored play...and if Spiegel ever missed all those pricey cigars.

Producer: Sam Spiegel
Director: Jack Garfein
Screenplay: Calder Willingham (based on his novel and play, End as a Man)
Editor: Sidney Katz
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Joseph C. Wright
Sound: Edward J. Johnstone
Principal Cast: Ben Gazzara (Jocko De Paris), Pat Hingle (Harold Koble), Peter Mark Richman (Cadet Col. Corger), Arthur Storch (Simmons), Paul Richards (Perrin McKee), Larry Gates (Maj. Avery), Clifton James (Col. Ramsey), Geoffrey Horne (Georgie Avery), James Olson (Roger Gatt), Julie Wilson (Rosebud), George Peppard (Robert Marquales).

by Paul Tatara

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