The Dirty Dozen

by Peter Bogdanovich
September 7, 2011 3:54 AM
5 Comments
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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.

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5 Comments

  • Jerome Courshon | October 5, 2011 11:21 AMReply

    One of my favorite films from the '60s, "The Dirty Dozen" was so well cast, and well done. And it's really held up well over time. Great choice to highlight.

  • Jessica Rosner | September 29, 2011 7:30 AMReply

    As perhaps the biggest Aldrich fan out there a few notes.

    The Dirty Dozen is not widescreen to the degree that it is not scope. I had a techie friend who referred to it as the most heavily matted non scope film he knew. Aldrich was not a fan of scope and as far as I know the only film he made in scope was The Angry Hills

    The tragedy of The Dirty Dozen is that there has not been a circulating print for over 25 years. When Lincoln Center did the major retrospective in 1994 they used a 16mm print. When MOMA showed it in your program about 15 years ago the then head of the film department knowingly and falsely claimed no prints existed and it needed to be restored which they (MOMA ) would make sure happened. Long story behind that but it was all lies and MOMA made no attempt to locate a good print and there some IB prints in the UK at the time. The camera negative exists, but for many years Turner and later Warner Bros simply saw no point in making a print claiming the cost was not justified given it's long running time. They said there was no real demand. FINALLY in 2007 Lee Marvin's window prevailed upon the producer Kenneth Hyman to have a new print made for the Lee Marvin retrospective at Lincoln Center. It was decent, but certainly not great. To the best of my knowledge that print has never shown since and there have been no further 35mm showing of The Dirty Dozen. There are still a few of us out there that love to see films in theaters in 35mm.

  • peter Bogdanovich | September 14, 2011 12:08 PMReply

    You're right, Ronald, Lee M. would have been great, more authentic than the Duke.
    And please give my love back to Dorothy Holmes with the fondest thoughts and thanks for the kind words.
    PB on September 14, 2011

  • Ronald Payne | September 13, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    "The Dirty Dozen" is also one of my favorite films. Aldrich was a great director and much under-rated. (2.) Way back in 1968, my uncle James Ellsworth and director John Ford were planning a film about General Lewis B. 'Chesty' Puller, the most decorated U.S. Marine in history. The script by Bernie Ley, Jr. (12 O'Clock High) and Harry Brown (A Walk in the Sun) was a proposed vehicle for John Wayne. (Lee Marvin, another Ford alumni, also wanted to play Puller and said so.) When Wayne's film, "The Green Berets" bombed at the box office, "MARINE...!" as the film was to be called (from Burke Davis's biography) was shelved, but Lee Marvin still insisted he was "the only real guy for the role." Anyone seeing Lee Marvin in "The Dirty Dozen" knows that right away, and it is a shame that Ford and Wayne kept a stranglehold on the script. Robert Aldrich and Lee Marvin, teamed-up again, coming right off of "Dirty Dozen" could have made the greatest film of their career...! (3.) One last thing, my friend, 92 year old Dorothy Holmes, who used to work for Peter, "sends her love to the greatest director in America." She is currently living in Locust Hill, Virginia (Middlesex County) and keeps a photo of Peter on her mantel.

  • Shaun | September 8, 2011 10:29 AMReply

    I love this movie. Emperor of the North is another one with Lee Marvin and Aldrich which is just as good in my opinion.

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