Thursday, August 19, 2010

In short: The Secret Invasion (1964)

1943. The British Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger) is tasked with freeing the former commander of the Italian troops in the Balkans, General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte) from German captivity in Dubrovnik, in the hopes that the general will be able to rouse his loyal troops into changing allegiances and fighting the Germans.

To achieve this goal, Mace is provided with various prisoners of dubious talents as a commando troop. They are Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone), an Italian with excellent talent for operational planning who would in peace times probably be the wise middle-aged boss in a caper movie; Terence Scanlon (Mickey Rooney, as dreadful as is to be expected), an "Irish" terrorist/freedom fighter and demolitions expert; Simon Fell (Edd Byrnes, even more dreadful than Rooney), forger and whiner; John Durrell (Henry Silva), a silent and reserved professional killer; and Jean Saval (William Campbell), the guy they took on because Tony Curtis wasn't available professional thief and man-with-a-thousand-faces-and-badly-plucked-eyebrows.

The group only has to get to Yugoslavia, meet up with the local partisans, and break into the German headquarters in Dubrovnik to get their man. Whatever could go wrong?

The Secret Invasion is one of Roger Corman's higher budgeted (different sources talk about $500,000 to $750,000) efforts, and Corman seems to have made the most out of it by shooting the film in Yugoslavia. For the sort of movie I'm usually talking about here, it's sensational to have a film mostly taking place in Dubrovnik that was actually shot there instead of a random studio backlot. Corman seems to have relished this opportunity. At least, he's using the attractive landscape and the city as much as possible, to quite satisfying effect.

On the negative side, Corman with a high-ish budget isn't Corman at his most daring, and so much of the film plays out exactly as one would expect from a war movie of this type, if a very competently done one featuring equally competent actors (except for Rooney and Byrnes, obviously) - or in the case of Silva and Vallone, competent actors being casually much better than anyone else on screen.

There are, however, two moments in The Secret Invasion that don't fit into the "war as a nice adventure for boys mould" it slavishly follows at all. First, there's the scene in which Silva accidentally smothers a baby to death while hiding out from German soldiers, breaks down into a crying fit and is comforted by the dead child's (partisan) mother. This sort of existential grimness isn't something you can expect to find, well, anywhere apart from 70s horror films, and feels like a secret invasion of actual human pain and suffering of a film that just doesn't deal with that sort of thing.

The other moment of equal import is The Secret Invasion's incredibly cynical ending, in which the good guys win, but achieve their victory in such a way that only the most thoughtless audience member will be able to cheer for it. Like the baby sequence, it doesn't fit the rest of the film's tone too well, but it's these two little shocks of a less easily digestible idea of what a war movie might be that make this movie worth watching, and not the routine and the competence.


No comments: