Who knew Ben Gazzara was such a gorgeous stud? Or George Peppard? Or even Pat Hingle? The three actors play cadets at a Southern Military Academy in 1957’s controversial drama, The Strange One, which makes its DVD debutnext week in its original, uncensored version.
Gazzara plays Jocko de Paris (a porn name if there ever was one — not to mention the Tom of Finland-esque portrait of him that graces the credits), a sociopath with a talent for manipulation. When the film opens, Jocko and his roommate (Hingle) barge into the room of two freshman cadets (Peppard and dumb hayseed James Olson) and haze them in a sadistic game that ends with a homoerotic spanking with a broom. The other cadets are actually Jocko’s pawns in a plot to get a hated rival (the commanding officer on campus) kicked out of the school. Jocko gets off on the fact that he uses his charisma to get others to do his dirty work, incorrectly imagining that no one knows about his scheming.
Unfortunately for Jocko, his amoral charm catches the attentions of a young cadet (Paul E. Richards), nicknamed “Cockroach”, who is considered “creative” (50’s code for queer, apparently). Jocko seems enamored of the young man’s attentions, stroking his sword while the young man recites a poetic novel based on Jocko, whose lead the smitten author named “Nightboy”. Their scenes crackle with such homoerotic electricity (for 1957 at least) the scenes were cut and only recently restored. Like Eve Harrington underestimated Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, so, too, does Jocko misjudge his Cockroach’s power over him. Thus begins the sadistic bully’s comeuppance, and it is fun to watch. That is due in no small part to the pleasure of gazing at the beautiful Peppard, as the lone student brave enough to stand up to the charming Jocko de Paris.
Originally a workshop at the Actors Studio, The Strange One was based on the novel and play End as a Man by Calder Willingham, author of The Graduate. Gazzara gives a superb performance (in his first film) as the kind of self-centered sadist who never imagines he can fail. Peppard was years from making Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and he shows a charisma similar to Paul Newman in his early prime. The story has a bit of the jerky plotting of an exploitation flick, but overall, the actors’ training comes through with flying colors.
The Strange One is a fascinating look at a mid-50’s military school, as well as fulfilling a little wish fulfillment for classic 50’s beefcake.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.