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Whenever a book or a play or a motion picture which deals with a personality at all out of the ordinary comes along, some sociology-happy critic inevitably calls it a case study. Such has been the fate of The Strange One-- and nothing could be more inaccurate. Although its central character is clearly a sadist, this film is not a piece of pseudo-science; it is just a motion picture, and a very good one.
But it is easy to understand the relief it would give a reviewer to be able to pin some sort of label on the film. The director, Jack Garfein, and the scriptwriter, Calder Willingham--who reworked his own 1947 novel and his 1953 Broadway play, both called End As a Man-- appear infuriatingly unwilling to commit themselves about what they are doing. All that can be said with complete confidence is that, in a style which captures much of the spontaneity of a really first-rate documentary, they present a story which centers on the career of one Jocko De Paris, a cadet in a Southern military school. Apparently urged on by sadistic impulses in his own makeup, De Paris with the unwitting help of four other cadets engineers an elaborate plot against a fifth undergraduate of the school. The plan involves beating him into unconsciousness, funnelling a bottle of whiskey down his throat, and depositing him in the courtyard, where he is eventually found and expelled for drunkenness. It also results in the demoralization of the college, and finally puts an end to De Paris' own career.
Garfein and Willingham present only the bare facts of the story and refuse to construct any sort of frame of reference which would help in interpreting it. While a pure thriller in many ways, the film cries out for interpretation. This necessity, however, does not in any way detract from the quality of the picture, but in fact adds an extra dimension to its interest. If I may still be permitted to voice a bit of sociological jargon of my own, the story of De Paris seems at bottom to represent the conflict between a very tightly organized society and one of its member who is clearly and deliberately unacceptable.
Whatever may be its "meaning," The Strange One is unquestionably something of a technical achievement. Garfein's direction is brilliant. With an acute sense of timing, he carefully constructs each scene to extract the greatest possible amount of tension from it; and although this is his first motion picture, his camera work, which makes extensive use of probing close-up shots, is that of an expert. Equally accomplished is the acting of Ben Gazzara, who in his first film makes De Paris into an intense and haunting, if not exactly lovable, figure.
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