The Strange One kind of sums up the film in more ways than one. It is indeed a strange one, because it feels so much like a Tennessee Williams adaptation, but isn’t. It was based the novel End as a Man by Calder Willingham, who would later adapt the film but in between also adapted it for the stage. Willingham would go on to work on the screenplays for Paths of Glory, One-Eyed Jacks, The Graduate, his most well-known solo outing was as a screenwriter for Little Big Man.
The book End as a Man was extremely controversial at the time, and the Vice Squad of New York filed obscenity charges against its publisher, Vanguard Press. The story of both the book and the film is about the dehumanizing effects of hazing in a southern military academy, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick up on the homoerotic subtext. There is even a gay character in the film, which was unheard of in 1957. Ben Gazzara appears in his debut role as the sadist Cadet Sgt. Jocko De Paris, who uses his family connections and his seniority in the school to wreak havoc and manipulate everybody below him.
Gazzara’s performance is what really makes the film. It’s a pretty explosive cinematic debut: he had done the role on the stage before, so he knew it like the back of his hand. It would be two more years till Gazzara acted on screen again, however, with his iconic role in Anatomy of a Murder. It was pretty obvious early on that he was never going to do glossy Hollywood productions, so Gazzara decided to work with John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich, and appeared in various independent productions throughout his long and varied career. Apparently James Dean was desperate to plays Jocko De Paris—Gazzara talks about it in the archival interview on the disc, and says, “I thought he was my friend, Bad boy!”
It would be an interesting film to re-adapt, because you wouldn’t have the Hays Code to deal with. But then again, sometimes it’s more interesting to have limitations to what can be shown, so the audience has to connect the dots in their heads. The Strange One was sold as the first film made by people from the Actors Studio, where most of the cast and the film’s director, Jack Garfein, came from. Garfein would only direct one other film, the late noir Something Wild with Ralph Meeker and ex-wife Carroll Baker. Garfein only passed very recently, on the 30th of December of last year. He was an uncompromising director and Auschwitz survivor who seems to have been at peace in the theatre, preferring that to dealing with the bureaucracy of Hollywood studio heads. He tells some stories in the interview on the disc.
Besides the aforementioned interviews with Garfein and Gazzara, there is a new commentary track with critic Nick Pinkerton, an image gallery and the original theatrical trailer. The booklet includes a new essay by Brad Stevens, Ben Gazzara on The Strange One, an archival interview with Jack Garfein, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.