Friday, April 2, 2021

Jack Garfein | The Strange One

the sadist

by Douglas Messerli

Calder Willingham (screenplay, based on his novel and play End as a Man), Jack Garfein (director) The Strange One / 1957 

The Strange One, the 1957 film directed by Jack Garfein with a screenplay by Calder Willingham based on his stage play End As a Man has possibly one of the most inappropriate titles of the many inappropriately named works of cinema throughout the years. Yes, there are plenty of “strange” beings who weave their way through Willingham’s portrait of the goings on in a Southern Military Academy for young men of high school age. The central figure of this work, however, Cadet Sergeant Jocko De Paris (Ben Gazzara), to whom the title likely refers, is not really “strange” except in the fact that he is a born and bred Iago who spends his days and mostly nights plotting how to destroy people’s lives for utterly no purpose but the joy of it. You might describe him, as most of those writing about this work have, as a bully, except his bullying and hazing activities are usually assigned to his followers, while he spends his energies on toying with and infecting his victims’ minds. Jocko is very much a “hands off” bully being far more skillful at manipulating people’s way of thinking. If he is strange it is only that he is an uncontrite “politician” in the most general sense. Had he not been stopped, as he is in this film, he might have gone on to be a terrifying governor in the manner of Huey Long or even President in the manner of that still hovering despot, Donald Trump. Is it strange to devote one’s energies to bringing out the worst of evils that lay deep within each of us? I’d dare to argue that in some professions such efforts are almost perceived as necessary and normal.


     The most truly strange people of the group of young men and older school leaders we encounter in this self-promoted first “all-Actors' Studio production”* are the religious fundamentalist freshman Cadet Simmons (Arthur Storch)—who refuses to shower with other males because of modesty and rejects the company of females because of his moral scruples**—and Cadet Perrin McKee (Paul E. Richards) who has been nicknamed “Cockroach” just because of his “filthy sexuality.” McKee is a gay man who literally and literarily invades Jocko’s “territory” because he recognizes him as the most handsome man in the academy and, since the “Cockroach” is also a budding writer in the Southern Romantic-Gothic tradition (à la Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers,*** both highly popular LGBTQ writers throughout the 1950s, despite that decade’s reputation of being awash in normative heterosexual fantasies) he recognizes this Iago as the most fascinating of figures for the semi-autobiographical novel he is writing. Despite his designation of McKee also as a “creep,” Jocko lets him enter his room and even listens to a paragraph or two, certainly intrigued by McKee’s romantic adoration of him, who the author has renamed “Nightman.” Flattery is always a way into the darkest of souls, and McKee is a silly sycophant in his desire to play Boswell to this American courser version of the conceited Samuel Johnson. If nothing else, a cockroach is an easy pet to keep around, warning you of danger by scurrying immediately away; however, when Jocko finally does face danger, he curiously ignores McKee’s open warnings.

      Both of these “strange” beings are outsiders who might be of interest to sympathetic LGBTQ viewers if they weren’t presented so obviously as perverted losers. These figures are represented so unsympathetically that even Jocko sees them basically as untouchables, creatures to leave for others to torture, as the fellow bathers do in stealing the Cockroach’s soap—in a kind of reversal of the semi-humorous prison warning to be careful about bending over to pick up soap that has slipped from your hands. De Paris may demand that Simmons deny that the North won the Civil War, he may threaten to beat and lynch him, even take a broom to his ass, but basically he’s simply not interested in torturing men so already self-tortured as Simmons and McKee are.

     In fact, if one is interested in studying gay behavior one might better look to the flamboyant gestures and homoerotic game-playing that De Paris imposes upon figures such as the dumb ox football tackle Cadet Roger Gatt (James Olson) who he lines up to lose at cards with the real intention of getting him drunk, knowing that once drunken the beefy blond lug becomes violent he’ll press his flesh upon anyone who looks at him the wrong way. Dressed in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt kept open to display his hirsute pectorals, and a long cigarette holder pasted to his mouth, Jocko De Paris looks like a campy carney cut-up of Oscar Wilde, a more virile and coarser wit whose epigrams can turn off or around reality with a single quip. And throughout he plays a kind of courtier, creating a rapport between the brute and Simmons by insisting the frightened Bible-boy proclaim his admiration for football tackles and turning the poor good-looking Cadet Robert Marquales (Peppard) into a convertible-driving kid dripping with money. If at first Gatt almost melts into the pleasure of their company, as they fail to meet his expectations—the teetotaler Simmons warning the drunken Gatt about the dangers of alcohol and Marquales choosing the color of his Cadillac to be brown instead of red as Gatt would have it—we almost see the voyeuristic Jocko salivating at the anticipation of flesh on flesh S&M-like physical contact. Even if the Hays office has forced the writer and director to remove most of the homoerotic matter of this film, it oozes its way back in through the intensity of Gazarra’s gazes and gestural hints. At one point, Gatt even is ready to pummel Jocko for making-fun the Simmons. Bible-thumping proclamations; and it almost appears as if he is enjoying the football player’s sudden tackling of him. 


   Jocko even gets a greater rush, moreover, when the handsome next-door neighbor, Cadet George Avery, Jr. (Geoffrey Horne), son of the school’s elder Major Avery, files a complaint with his dad about their goings-on. When that fails—the four poker players and Jocko all rushing back into their own beds like the sexual players of some Feydeau farce—Avery, Jr. comes calling like Williams’ “Gentleman caller” upon Jocko’s follies with Gatt now so drunken that he is ready to award his violent blows on anyone who crosses his path.

    After pumping a pint of whiskey into his gut like the evil neo-Nazis will do two years later to Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Jocko plants the beaten Avery on the morning parade grounds along with the rumor that the drunken upper classman has fallen down the stairs before stumbling out into the yard.

    Much of the aftermath of this event is focused simply on Jocko’s further manipulations of the situation to get young Avery expelled while keeping those involved from telling the truth—an easy goal when the two upperclassmen realize that they will also be kicked out after all their hard work for three long years, and the freshmen will be faced with the reality, in Marquales’ case of returning home to parents who have worked hard for years to send their son the Academy, and, in Simmons’ case to losing the opportunity of becoming a saintly chaplain.

     The ramifications of Jocko’s prank, however, become far more serious than simply a violent prank when the Major, shaken by his son’s expulsion, begins to mentally unravel in his attempts to prove De Paris guilty. Yet nothing seems to stop Jocko from setting up further doomed sexual encounters just for his private titillation. And despite the utter meaninglessness of forcing the female-phobic Simmons to meet up with savvy local sexpot, Peonie (Julie Wilson), who Jocko has renamed “Rosebud,”**** our Iago is determined to carry it through, apparently just to observe how it might turn out—likely with both parties running from the other in disgust.

     Interestingly, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther dismisses the film because, “ much has been left out of the picture that was in the novel and the play that the social comment of Mr. Willingham's story is sadly lacking on the screen. For instance, the fact that the "strange one" was the son of a powerful man whose enmity was feared by the school authorities has been completely overlooked. So has the scene of the beating of the drunken and helpless football star. 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 a homosexual angle, so strong in the play, is very cautiously hinted here. Most obvious and weakening alteration, however, comes at the end. Instead of the school authorities having anything to do with the resolution of the embarrassing problem they have on their hands, the film has the mischief-maker run out of school by a sort of vigilante group, secretly mustered by the cadets.”

     As I suggest above, I am sure a great many of the homoerotic overtones of the play have been erased in the film. But I didn’t have to employ much of my inborn “gaydar” to realize that the homosexual McKee—in another complete reversal of the usual trope—was subtly attempting to blackmail Jacko through the “facts” he had embedded in his novel to join him in his own bed or at least to keep him near and dear as a “friend.”

      When, for absolutely no logical reason, finally, Jocko asks Simmons and Marquales to join him in the bar above the diner where he intends to introduce the religious zealot to his “Rosebud— and that bar, The Hound and the Hare, turns out to be an all-male room where half the men sit around in tables with shirts stripped off—I think even my mother and father, had they seen this film, might have suspected that something else was going on. If, considering it’s sudden appearance in a 1957 movie, I wouldn’t exactly describe this an actual depiction of a “gay bar,” it certainly looks and smells enough like one that Cadet Gat surely might have quickly turned tail upon entering. Simmons even says something to the effect, “Surely he (Jocko) wouldn’t bring a girl into this place, with men half-naked?” Hounds and rabbits are perfectly at home in almost any gay meeting place.

     As film commentator Jamie S. Rich wrote in 2009 about The Strange One:


I am not sure exactly what was censored from The Strange One in 1957, I can find no specific information—though apparently the movie was sunk more by producer Sam Spiegel's bruised ego and his taking the final edit out of Garfein's hands more than it was its salacious content. In addition to the homoerotic elements, there was also some scandal about Jocko hiring a hooker (Julie Wilson) to try and bribe Simmons with her wares. There is no real question about the girl's profession in this cut, nor is there any ambiguity about what the hungry-eyed Perrin, nicknamed Cockroach, is really after. In his only screen performance, actor Paul E. Richards plays Cockroach as a greasy, nervous, and calculating predator, his Southern drawl dripping with lust every time he talks to Jocko. Even if you don't catch Jocko calling him a "three-dollar bill," the sexual tension in the scene they have alone in Jocko's room, or Cockroach's trying to convince him not to go out with the girl, should erase most of the mystery. It's a potent subplot, and well-handled for the time, especially under Production Code restrictions. Sure, it's not a positive portrayal, but the pathology makes sense given the setting and circumstances.

      Perhaps Crowther saw an earlier more censored version than the one currently available. Yet his objections that the school authorities weren’t involved in settling the situation sounds absolutely ridiculous in the context which has already been established: that going to the Colonels and Majors produces no results, and, in fact, is the reason why Major Avery is about to be asked to resign. Those boys involved by Jacko De Paris in this terrible incident and all the others who have long suffered Jacko’s belligerence are about to end up as men (the idea being that through hazing you end up as a man) only by themselves taking the action the school authorities are unable to, arresting the perpetrator, demanding that he sign a full confession, and putting him on a train that might take him as far away from their school as possible. If it seems mean and petty to bind Jacko’s eyes near the train tracks as he screams, quivers, and shouts in fear that he is about to be set out on the tracks to be killed—something which he might ordered others to do with anyone who had endangered his own life—it nonetheless reveals his own cowardice. And, once he realizes that they have simply purchased him a ticket out of town, his race to the caboose to shout out "I'll be back! I'll get you guys! You can't do this to Jocko De Paris!" is recognizable as the feeble cry for the continuance of his sadistic experiments which rational beings will no longer tolerate.

     If this strangely titled film is not a great one, in the end it was a brave one in its day.         

*In 1957 this promotional pitch, given the fact that director Elia Kazan and actor Marlon Brando had recently brought The Actors’ Studio to fame with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), clearly offered this rather odd Hollywood offering a great deal of clout. James Dean was another famed Studio product. This film was Ben Gazzara’s and George Peppard’s first film roles.

**While Simmons is most obviously a “momma’s boy,” in this highly homoerotic work, he is in no respects gay. Simmons is a “creep” or an “outsider” only because of his religiosity and his birth in the North, not because of his sexuality.

***Particularly of interest was McCullers’ play and later film adaptations of her novel The Member of the Wedding (the play 1951, the film in 1952), with its budding lesbian “outsider” hero who talks about observing young boys in the alley involved in homosexual acts. Almost most of her novels were published in the 1940s, she was still a popular writer throughout the 1950s. My mention of that work here will suffice, I hope, for not devoting a full essay on that work in My Queer Cinema. 

****I should note that “rosebudding,” in gay terms, is kissing, licking, or sucking the anus in anal prolapse, when the anus from continued penetration has slipped forward, poking out of the anal entry. Willingham is not here referring to Citizen Kane. More recently, it has been applied to such heterosexual acts as well.

Los Angeles, April 2, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).


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