Robert Aldrich promised no-holds barred rough-tough dramas, and his first two Associates & Aldrich productions certainly hit hard. This play adaptation shows its director’s strength (no-flinching full shock impact) and weakness (theatrical overplaying) in full measure, but the unrestrained performances of Jack Palance and Eddie Albert are unforgettable. The main event can’t have pleased the Pentagon: shooting one’s own officer in combat. Plus, Lee Marvin and Richard Jaeckel get in early innings for their future work in Aldrichs’s The Dirty Dozen.
KL Studio Classics
1956 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date December 1, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers, Buddy Ebsen, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Jon Shepodd, Peter van Eyck, Jimmy Goodwin, Steven Geray, Strother Martin.
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editor: Michael Luciano
Original Music: Frank Devol
Written by James Poe from the play Fragile Fox by Norman Brooks
Produced and Directed by Robert Aldrich
Robert Aldrich rose from respected assistant director to near-bankability with his two pictures for Hecht-Lancaster, Apache and the remarkably violent Vera Cruz. He signed on with Victor Saville and UA for Kiss Me Deadly and soon had a multi-picture arrangement with Harry Cohn at Columbia. For his own deal at UA he formed a production entity called ‘Associates and Aldrich,’ a name that emphasized loyalty to the team. Initial associates included assistant director Robert Justman. Editor Michael Luciano stayed with Aldrich through his entire career.
The first two Associates and Aldrich pictures were designed for maximum controversy, as such was defined in the mid-fifties. Both were derived from angry plays with something to say, or better, to scream. The Big Knife paints Hollywood three times blacker than had Billy Wilder — not just greedy and crass, but criminally murderous. Jack Palance chewed scenery for ninety minutes, with a break for Rod Steiger to rip it out of Palance’s maw and chew it up even more. Taken on its own terms The Big Knife is strong stuff, with scenes that play as over-boiled, almost parodic. Aldrich could wield an iron fist on the set but he was a sucker for ‘big’ performances. Overacting sometimes takes his dramas over the edge.
Attack has dramatic extremes that justify performances bigger than life. After decades of military films saluting esprit de corps and gallantry under pressure, the Norman A. Brooks’ play suggested that screwups, incompetence and outright cowardice were also part of on-the-ground combat. The play ran for fifty-five performances. Its cast included Dane Clark as Costa, Andrew Duggan as Captain Cooney and James Gregory as Clyde Bartlett. James Poe’s adaptation allows Aldrich to stage some excellent combat action.
Aldrich’s first war film doesn’t do what was being done to the movie versions of novels by James Jones, Irwin Shaw and Norman Mailer. Poe’s adaptation retains the play’s controversial depiction of an act that wouldn’t be given a name until the Vietnam war: fragging. In 1956, no studio would have touched that topic, even as a possibility. My generation saw this film when we were kids, and it held us spellbound. How could anybody dare to suggest that such a thing could happen? Coupled with that was a scene of violence that had the kick of a horror movie. None of us forgot ‘the passion of Joe Costa.’ You sign up for combat, things like that can happen to a guy.
Known as ‘Fragile Fox’ in dispatches, Fox Company is reacting to a German breakthrough in WW2 France. The unit is plagued by a critical SNAFU. Its Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert) is a craven coward who repeatedly sends other men to their deaths because he’s unable to deal with the pressure of combat. Lt. Harry Woodruff (William Smithers) and tough, hard-fighting Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) despise Cooney but can do nothing because Cooney is protected from above. Corrupt Lt. Colonel Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin) looks the other way because he’s counting on a postwar political boost from Cooney’s father. Costa is already near mutiny when Fox Company is ordered to launch a full attack. Cooney instead commits Costa’s small patrol. When the brave soldiers find themselves in a tight spot, Cooney abandons them. His men almost wiped out, Costa returns to H.Q. to make good on his threat — to kill Cooney.
Attack dares to present an Army with the same flaws as any hierarchy, where politics could tolerate an officer so incompetent and cowardly that he betrays his own men. It even depicts the staff officer enabling the murderous injustice as a Southerner who seeks political connections. For once there’s no cop-out or back-pedaling on the view of military command issues: Attack offers the idea that murdering the cowardly officer responsible might be a great idea, the only sane thing to do. By the time Vietnam rolled around, it had to be conceded that this situation might crop up in any war, even on ‘our side,’ among ‘the good guys.’ Frankly, anyone with experience dealing with the decision-making process of tired and unhappy men can imagine the battlefield equivalent of Dilbert. We civilians have all had our share of crazy colleagues spoiling good work, and I’ve been able to take things calmly by reminding myself that lives are not at stake. But what if they were? What if your best friends were being blown away because of an idiot who wouldn’t back them up?
By 1955 official Pentagon channels had been established for Hollywood to secure filming access to coveted military assets — soldiers, vehicles, technical experts, etc. The military cooperates mainly to advance their own interest — public relations to boost the prestige of the services and promote enlistment. Aldrich didn’t even get suggestions for alterations for Attack — the entire premise was unacceptable and cooperation was denied.
Aldrich’s crew did excellent work giving Attack a modicum of realism without official sanction. The show was filmed on Hollywood back lots with whatever materiel could be scraped together, and the only limitation comes when the enemy tanks show up. The Hollywood mockups look like converted tractors, not sophisticated German army hardware. We were so accustomed to seeing oddball ‘sort-of tanks’ in low-budget movies, that I remember whistles of approval when the impressive Tiger Tanks arrived in Clint Eastwood’s Kelly’s Heroes. Yet Attack achieves an acceptable level of realism. I have to think that the producers of TV’s Combat studied Aldrich’s film. That show managed not to look cheap, despite its overall frugality.
Stage drama magnifies emotions, and Attack’s characterizations are definitely theatrical. Jack Palance’s Lt. Costa is a salt-of-the-Earth Universal Soldier, a trusted team player and a worthy comrade who’ll do anything for his guys. He’s introduced working in a blacksmith’s shop, establishing his credentials as a solid Joe. Costa accepts that getting killed is part of the game; when he puts his life on the line he wants the commitment to go both ways. Palance was known for big, raw performances, and for most of Attack he’s on the money, in full control. Maimed and delirious, his Joe Costa is a pitiful victim out for revenge. The best soldier in the outfit is condemned by his own corrupt and craven superiors. To the credit of Palance and Aldrich, Costa’s fate isn’t directly compared with a crucifixion … but there isn’t much difference.
It’s Eddie Albert’s Cooney that begins a little too ‘big’ and then veers out of bounds. Cooney is perhaps the scariest thing we can imagine in a situation where lives are at stake. He’s not officer material at all. The moment the slightest bit of trouble arises Cooney just doesn’t care. His pea-brain can switch at a moment’s notice from craven dereliction of duty, to sniveling sadism. Wailing and screaming about his disapproving father, Cooney throws infantile tantrums when he should be thinking of his men.
The movie doesn’t really debate the issue of Fragging. Captain Cooney is obviously sick in the head, but he’s offered no mercy: we’re all in favor of shooting him. General Patton would have shot Cooney on the spot. Eisenhower would have had him hanged. Heaven help unpopular officers that make honest mistakes in combat. Although the story is careful to say that the Army command in general is competent, viewers of Attack are given plenty to worry about. It’s nobody’s idea of a recruitment tool.
Before Attack Eddie Albert was known as a cheerful second lead in light comedies, most notably Roman Holiday. Robert Aldrich must have seen him differently, for he cast him as a venal warden in The Longest Yard, and as a predatory pornographer and child molester in Hustle. Just so the record’s straight, in real life Albert was a combat veteran, and awarded a medal for valor on Tarawa. He also stood faithfully by his wife Margo, when her film career was stopped by the blacklist.
Is this Lee Marvin’s first substantial character part? He puts everything into Lt. Colonel Clyde Bartlett, a creep with stripes that keeps Cooney in command even though he knows he’s criminally incompetent. Bartlett belongs in Fort Leavenworth prison, but I can’t see the military command doing anything about him. Perhaps the most radical thing about Attack is its refusal to concoct a phony ending where all villainy is punished. Bartlett might walk away scot-free. Newcomer William Smithers is fine as Lt. Woodruff. The role should be more important, but all of our attention is directed at Costa’s torment and Cooney’s villainy. By the finish we’re so wrung out that we have no energy to care about Woodruff’s moral dilemma. What chance is there that anyone will listen to him?
The balance of Costa’s platoon carries a nice mix of combat film veterans. Fresh from Davy Crockett is Buddy Ebsen, calm and fatherly as Palance’s main sidekick. The dependable Robert Strauss provides comedy relief, and introduces a sober note when we find out that he’s Jewish, and none-too-eager to be taken alive by SS troops. With all the good dialogue taken, the dependable Richard Jaeckel makes less of an impression than he should. Strother Martin has a short bit as one of Cooney’s victims. The enemy Germans are standard issue. They’re played by Steven Geray and Peter van Eyck, of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, and Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
(spoilers) When the movie hit TV in the 1960s it became a whispered legend on grade school playgrounds: ‘You gotta see the scene with the tank!’ The big shock scene shows Lt. Costa trapped and overrun. He lies pinned in the dirt by the tank treads, screaming bloody murder, his arm crushed from the shoulder down. Attack breaks yet another rule: even in war movies, the most violent deaths were usually tidy.
Costa looks re-e-a-a-lly stressed when he reappears. He’s too wasted to complete his revenge, like a walking-dead zombie. We were equally shocked by the horrible open-eyed permanent grimace on Costa’s dead face — why don’t his buddies close his eyes or cover him up? Costa seems to be screaming horror from beyond the grave.
Attack might now seem tame, after sixty-five years of increasingly cynical, pragmatic movie slaughter. In the universe of Clint Eastwood logic, viewers likely lose sympathy for Costa as a dope the moment he gives Cooney the benefit of the doubt. A modern war hero would blow Cooney away and be done with him. That’s what Stallone or Cruise would do. That’s exactly what Aldrich himself says in his later The Dirty Dozen: Lee Marvin’s officer tells Charles Bronson’s condemned prisoner that he’s a damned fool, not because he shot his superior officer, but because he didn’t arrange for a corroborating witness.
(yet more spoilers) After being so bold with its Fragging incident, Attack cops out in the last scene. Aldrich clearly wants to avoid the kind of whitewash seen in From Here to Eternity, where corruption in the Army ranks is limited to one crummy officer. When the truth gets out, he’s properly punished. The really honest ending would have Smithers put the facts in front of the Generals, only to be chastized and threatened.
A year later, Stanley Kubrick indicted an entire Army system as corrupt and degenerate in Paths of Glory. But Kubrick’s ‘daring’ move carried no risk — his corrupt army was French and the incident depicted two wars in the past. All Kubrick sacrificed was exhibition in France, where no criticism of the military was tolerated. At least Aldrich had the courage of directness.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Attack is a fine widescreen encoding. The image is in great shape; I noticed none of the dirt and scratches I associated with older video editions. Some of the images of Jack Palance are joltingly fierce — when he’s forced to do what amounts to a one-armed push-up, we recall the manic actor’s impromptu push-ups on the 1992 Academy Awards broadcast, when he won a Supporting Oscar. The artwork on the original poster is equally iconic — the image of Palance looks like it belongs in a horror comic.
The older DVD was annoyingly flat-letterboxed. This disc’s widescreen aspect ratio restores many of Aldrich’s idiosyncratic camera angles, shooting through broken windows, holes in walls, and even through a shelf to establish Captain Cooney as a bureaucratic incompetent. Aldrich never let a good arch go to waste.
Kino’s extra for this one is just a selection of trailers, including an effective trailer for Attack. There’s no audio commentary, which reminds me that I haven’t heard any good war movie commentaries lately, especially for pictures of this vintage. In the movie’s main title sequence Attack is written as “ATTACK.” In the trailer and all advertising, it’s Attack! Perhaps the Supreme Court can straighten it out.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailer, other war themed trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 13, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson