The Strange One was one of only two feature films directed by Jack Garfien, an Auschwitz survivor who sadly passed away on December 30th last year, aged 89. Based upon the novel and play End as a Man (the title the film was released under in UK cinemas) by Calder Willingham, it tells the story of Jocko De Paris (a spellbinding Ben Gazzara in his movie debut), an insidiously manipulative Cadet Staff Sergeant at a fictional military college in the Southern United States whose repeated practices of ‘hazing’ brings about an ethical dilemma for some of his fellow students. The film’s homoerotic subtext defied both Hollywood conservatism and the infamous, prohibitive Hays Code of the time.
Garfien had originally staged a theatrical production of End as a Man at the Actors’ Studio where Gazzara originated the role of De Paris. Alongside him where Pat Hingle, Arthur Storch and Peter Mark Richman, all of whom went on to recreate their roles in the film. It was performed before such luminaries as Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and Tennessee Williams, who were effusive with their praise. The production was successful enough to become the first full Actors Studio production to open on off-Broadway when it debuted at Theater De Lys on September 15th, 1953. Seeing the potential in the story, Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel bought the film rights with a view to getting Kazan to direct and James Dean to star in the lead role of the bullying snake Jocko De Paris. However, fortune smiled upon Garfien when Kazan insisted that the untested young director was the only one capable of making the movie. Bolstered by this patronage, Garfien convinced Spiegel that The Strange One, as the production was now being called, should be a film that showcases the talent that was blooming in the Actors’ Studio at this point. As such, when the film was released in 1957, The Strange One became a calling card to Hollywood from debut stars such as Gazzara, who secured the leading role, and a thirty-year-old former US Marine called George Peppard who was cast as Robert Marquales, the cadet whose conscience puts an end to De Paris’ tyranny.
Released by Indicator to Blu-ray this week, The Strange One is a powerful movie that crackles with tension and under the radar significance and is blessed with poetic dialogue from Willingham. Using the authority of his own rank and the implicit tradition of allowing upperclassman such as himself to bully or ‘haze; new cadets, Jocko De Paris is cock of the walk at military academy, the veritable alpha ‘Jock’ that even his name implies, ruling by fear and his ability to convince others – notably his seniors – that he is an exemplary cadet through his innate charm and (though it is removed from the final cut of the film) his father’s significant sponsorship of the college.
He sets out one night to frame a young cadet, George Avery (Geoffrey Horne), for drunkenness, caring little that Avery is actually the son of a senior officer at the college, Major Avery (Larry Gates). Recruiting his roommate, Harold Koble (Pat Hingle) and fellow senior cadet Roger Gatt (James Olson) along with two freshman, Marquales (Peppard) and the jittery, perennial victim Simmons (Arthur Storch), he force-feeds Avery whiskey via a rubber tube until he is unconscious, and pushes him out into the quadrangle where he is found the following morning in disgrace.Following Avery’s expulsion, his father mounts an investigation into the incident but is met by a wall of silence as the Machiavellian De Paris has ensured that his accomplices give false evidence to conceal his role from the authorities. When De Paris subsequently sets out to humiliate Simmons by fixing him up on a date with his girlfriend Peonie (Julie Wilson), Marquales decides that is enough is enough. With the help of the regimental commander, Cadet Col. Laurie Corger (Peter Mark Richman), the cadets corner De Paris with a view to performing their own unorthodox court martial.
Reading the summary, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the plot of The Strange One is little more than a standard bullying melodrama. But in viewing the actual film, you cannot help but spot the gay coding that is implicit in Willingham’s text, Garfien’s direction and the overall playing of the cast. Remarkably, whilst there is only one outwardly homosexual character in the movie – Cadet Perrin ‘Cockroach’ McKee, played with an effeminately grotesque gusto to rival Truman Capote by Paul E. Richards – almost every character is suffused with overwhelming homoeroticism and none more so than Jocko De Paris himself. Indeed, I would argue that it is the relationship between De Paris and the cadet he nicknames ‘Cockroach’, that forms the most compelling evidence of his own sexuality. Just like Capote himself, Cockroach is a writer. He reveals in one scene with De Paris (a scene in which Gazzara handles a sword with great phallic significance) that he desires to be the Boswell to his Johnson, and has been writing a semi-autobiographical story in which Jocko is the hero, using the alias of ‘Night Boy’. The news that he may have committed details of his life to the page unnerves Jocko. Whilst Cockroach’s desire to record Jocko’s exploits signifies to the audience how much in awe and love he is with the senior cadet, it is in Jocko’s reaction that we see the threat; that the lowly Cockroach may also be the one who sees his true homosexual nature. More, it is implied that maybe at one point, Jocko and Cockroach have had sex with one another. ‘Night Boy’ indeed.
In his 2013 autobiography entitled, of course, Autobiography, Steven Patrick Morrissey expresses his admiration for The Strange One, describing the character of Jocko De Paris as “that rare thing; a confident sodomite”. It gives me great pleasure to say that the now disgraced former Smiths frontman is completely wrong on this score (just as he is wrong about his description of many shots from the film and, somewhat bizarrely for a film he professes to love, the actual ending of it) because De Paris’ noticeable confidence exists only in his bullying behaviour and not in his sexuality. For my money, De Paris is a deeply self-loathing individual, the origins of which lie in his inability to come to terms with his own sexual preference. To compensate for the shame he feels about being homosexual, De Paris attacks those that he feels are inferior to him, and specifically those that he identifies as being more outwardly gay than he could ever be. This then, is the reason he dismisses the puppy-like devoted McKee with the nickname ‘Cockroach’; signifying that, in his eyes, a homosexual is so beneath contempt as to no longer be considered human (though it’s telling that his abuse of ‘Cockroach’ McKee is of the infantilised ‘kiss-chase’ mentality; flicking wet towels at the back of his bare legs, throwing his hat across the quadrangle etc, again suggesting an intimacy has been shared at some point). It’s also why he sets out to taunt Simmons with his perversely humiliating matchmaking scheme, believing that the effete and timid cadet’s fear of women is one that actually stems from his being gay. Notably, whilst De Paris is unquestionably handsome, thus lending a homoerotic,sadomasochistic cruelty to his character and actions, Garfien casts ‘ugly’ actors to play the outwardly gay characters that his anti-hero targets; the heavy-browed, leeringly effeminate Richards and Storch who wears spectacles and false teeth so prominent that he could eat an apple through a tennis racket. This ugliness doesn’t just occur in the looks either, as in one scene his roommate Peppard admonishes him for not showering for six whole weeks.
The clue to the shame and self loathing that De Paris feels about his sexuality exists perhaps in a key line of dialogue Marquales has in the scene where he attempts to convince the others to band together to bring about an end to Jocko’s manipulation of them. In the scene, he rationalises that Jocko’s scheme to get Avery expelled and the Major discredited was never really personal; “he’s not after Major Avery and his son; he’s out to get everybody”. For Jocko De Paris, the whole world is to be blamed for the attraction he feels to members of the same sex and his only outlet is to destroy those around him with power games. The situation of a military college is of course the perfect hothouse for his poison to prosper, but it also one that further encourages his shame too. Faced with such a rigid masculine code and an abundance of lean, taut young men he is reminded daily of what he truly is, with no resort available other than to lash out or give in. Once you’ve established the subtext, it’s actually quite fun trying to decipher the meaning of a great many scenes. Yes, in that context it’s obvious that De Paris with his phallic accouterments of a long cigarette holder and regimental sword is gay, but what about other characters? Are we to read something in the tetchy attitude that even the ramrod ‘straight’ Corger (a fine example of placing your narrative’s hero in a near disposable supporting role) displays towards roomie Gatt when he returns to find the younger Marquales leaving? And what of the talk of “tackle positions” and “gag reflexes”?
To divert attention away from such a coded subtext, Garfien opened up the play with the introduction of a new character, Peonie, played by Broadway star June Wilson, also making her movie debut here. Wilson is pretty much the only woman in the film, and certainly the only one with any significant dialogue. But it’s simply a throwaway character invented to throw the administrators of the Hays Code off the scent. Jocko is shown to schmooze her, wine and dine her and spout romantic platitudes to her, but it’s further proof that he is resisting his true nature and Peonie is ultimately used as a pawn in a power game with Simmons that doesn’t see the light of day. It’s a remarkable feat that a film like The Strange One could get released in 1957, but it wasn’t a release that went wholly unscathed. The Hays Code did indeed pick up on the homoeroticism and it was censored in part for such overtones. However, what conservative Hollywood found the most intolerable about Garfien’s movie was its ‘Un-American stance’ citing that The Strange One was a film that possessed “excessive brutality and suggestive sequences that tend to arouse disrespect for lawful authority”. This would not have come as a surprise to Garfien, whose relationship with his producer Spiegel deteriorated so significantly during filming that he exercised his directorial right to remove Spiegel from the set. As Garfien tells it, the final straw was in his decision to represent within the film the horror that he, as an Auschwitz survivor, felt at racial segregation in the supposed ‘Land of the Free’. One crucial scene of The Strange One features African-American supporting artistes, a decision that Spiegel believed would cost them valuable box office in the Southern states. Told to cut them from the scene, Garfien stood firm and objected. In interviews that comprise the extra features on this Indicator Blu-ray release, both Garfien and Gazzara testify that Spiegel wanted the director fired and that he made overtures towards the leading man to back him up. Gazzara declined and Garfien got to complete his movie but it was released with very little fanfare or publicity and Garfien lost his contract with Columbia arguably as a result of his defiance of Spiegel’s wishes. With his own independent production company, Prometheus Productions, he directed his second feature Something Wild, starring his then-wife Carroll Baker as a rape victim, in 1961. It was to be his only other directorial credit in the movies.
“Military culture is something else.” Garfien says in an interview shortly before his death that forms part of the extras here. “They want to find blame always, and put the blame on somebody else, and never take responsibility themselves…the character of De Paris was trying to get others to take the responsibility of what he did” Consider those words. Whilst he never performed any military service, Donald Trump did attend the New York Military Academy. Perhaps it was here that he learned never to take responsibility for anything and to always point the finger of blame at others? Perhaps, in the bullying antics and desire to appear superior to all others, he sees something of Jocko De Paris in himself? I know that I do. Two peas from the same pod.