"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals."
This may yet be the year of the Mission movie. Both Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" and Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" will tell tales of disparate groups of fighting men sent into hostile territory with a single, extremely violent and dangerous purpose. They will hopefully be worthy additions to a sub-genre with a fine history. Some classic Sunday afternoon Dad movies - arguably most classic Sunday afternoon Dad movies - are Mission movies. You know the films I mean. The likes of "The Dirty Dozen" (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and "Where Eagles Dare" (Brian G Hutton, 1968) and "The Guns of Navarone" (J. Lee Thompson, 1961) spring instantly to mind. Simple, spectacular entertainments, invariably intensely male, preferably set during the Second World War, with all-star casts, plenty of action and attractive widescreen photography.
"Play Dirty" (Andre De Toth, 1968) is from the same era as the films mentioned above, and it too is a Mission movie. Only the execution makes it a radically different beast.
I've long known the name Andre De Toth. Faber's series of "Director on Director" books has included a clutch of legends and predictable critical favourites, ranging from Woody Allen and Scorsese to David Lynch and Kieslowski. And Andre De Toth, whose autobiography, "Fragments", Faber published in 1994. That name always stood out, for me. Faber also published biographies of Nick Ray and Don Siegel, but I know the work of both those men well, their inclusion was no big surprise. Before "Play Dirty", however, I'd never knowingly seen a De Toth film. I knew that he was one-eyed, as pictures of him always depict a bald man wearing a Nick Fury eyepatch, and that this handicap didn't prevent him from directing the first high profile 3D film, the 1953 version of "House of Wax", even though he lacked the ability to see the effects he created. I knew that Scorsese was a big fan, as was Tarantino, who dedicated "Reservoir Dogs" to him. Born in Hungary in 1912, De Toth studied law and wrote, directed and acted in plays before he was drawn to the Hungarian picture business. In 1942 he emigrated to America via a short period in London, and soon he was directing hard edged little noir programmers for the Hollywood studios and writing (largely without screen credit) Westerns and crime films for the likes of John Ford.
He never quite made it beyond that level of cinema. He specialised in B-movies in those familiar genres, and as such probably his two most celebrated films beyond "House of Wax" are "Crime Wave" (1954) and "Day of the Outlaw" (1957).
He possibly gained more fame for his marriage to Veronica Lake than for any of his films, despite having directed major stars like Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden. By the 1960s he was directing on US TV with episodes of "Maverick" and "The Westerner" notable on his CV. Prior to "Play Dirty" he made a couple of foreign-financed action epics starring Steve Reeves and Jack Palance. His career had become a jumbled mess.
"Play Dirty" fell into his lap. It had been developed by Rene Clement, but he dropped out late and De Toth was in the right place at the right time. His mercenary attitude and undoubted technical expertise are oddly suited to the films flip, cynical, almost dystopian attitude.
Rather than any of the Mission Movies listed above, the film "Play Dirty" bears most resemblance to is Nicholas Ray's cold, precise "Bitter Victory". De Toth was clearly affected by his long education in the Noir genre - this film is filled with duplicitous, misanthropic characters and dishonest acts. The usual moral clarity of the World War 2 Mission genre is almost entirely absent, an absence signalled by the fact that the opening and closing scenes depict British Soldiers posing as Germans. Here the Allies are ruthless, murderous and only semi-competent.
The plot follows Michael Caine's Douglas, a BP Executive seconded to the Army for a dangerous mission to blow up a fuel dump miles behind enemy lines. He is accompanied by a "Dirty Dozen"-esque squad of released prisoners commanded by Leech (Nigel Davenport), himself an ex-Prisoner who doesn't want, need or respect Douglas. Leech has been promised £2000 to get Douglas back alive, having lost several officers on previous missions. The mission entails the men dressing as an Italian Unit, and their first act is to massacre a band of Bedouin they come across at an oasis, which sets the tone for what is to follow. The trek across the desert takes up much of the film's running time, with the attack upon the fuel dump itself offering an ironic anti-climax at its end. This is followed by the actual climax and then an incredibly cynical and bitter final scene.
De Toth's experience is evident in the muscular economy of his style. He never wastes a shot, his action scenes are beautifully simple and possess a true impact and coherence most modern action scenes do not even begin to approach. Indeed, the sequence where the men attempt to winch their vehicles up a rocky hill is excrutiatingly tense and impeccably shot and edited. The violence has a savagery and edge to it rare in that era outside the work of Peckinpah and Leone. The sense of place is also brilliantly conveyed - the vast emptiness of the desert, a pitiless landscape echoing the men's doomed, futile mission, is captured in slow pans and zooms. Against this stark landscape, the human drama is suffocatingly intimate, as Leech and Douglas tear at each other with laceratingly clipped exchanges of mutual contempt and ignorance. Caine and Davenport are both outstanding, and their battle of wills dominates the film.
The other men are doomed from the start, but the slow way the film tortures them is part of its beauty - they are stymied and defeated at every turn. Everything goes wrong. Heroism is forbidden in De Toth's world, it seems. These are the kind of men who try to rape a German nurse they encounter, who loot corpses. Their Arab guides are depicted as a giggling homosexual couple, one sign of how unusual and un-Hollywood this film is. The title of the film is the code they all live by, constantly reverting to subterfuge and trickery to survive. The opening sequence, depicting Leech's return - the single survivor - from a previous mission, dressed as a German officer and blaring German music until he crosses into British territory at which point he switches radio stations sets out the characters and the films stall succinctly and without any dialogue. De Toth often stages such scenes of pure cinema. The assault on the fuel dump which turns into a shocking narrative twist is similarly wordless.
A very post-War, Noir view of the conflict runs throughout the narrative, and is underlined by the devastating ending. This is evident at every level - the Mission is viewed by the men's superiors as worthless, a decoy from the real thing. They are, in a sense, betrayed before they even embark upon their exhausting desert journey. Caine's Douglas seems unconcerned by the War when we first encounter him, lazing by the harbour, and later he is driven mainly by a desire to survive. Leech's survival instincts are established by that opening scene, and his ruthlessness and greed are restated throughout the film. And yet, despite these unsympathetic protagonists, despite the plot's cynicism and anger, the whole thing works just as well as a standard mission movie as it does in its capacity as an anti-War screed. You want these men to survive, to succeed. De Toth and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg (yes that Melvyn Bragg, presenter of the South Bank Show) invest the whole thing with such intensity that it packs an unusually powerful punch, which only serves to make the conclusion all the more shattering. It makes "The Dirty Dozen" (superficially quite a cynical film in its own right) seem like a super-patriotic piece of propaganda. And I mean that in a good way. It was a commercial failure, perhaps crowded out by too many similar films, its depth and quality going unrecognised, as is so often the case, until many years later.
As for De Toth, anything he directed I'll watch. "Day of the Outlaw" is the one I'm most interested in, since it sounds right up my street. This film makes sense of the references he enjoys alongside other B-movie giants like Fuller and Boetticher, and compliments don't come much higher than that from me.