Paul Newman can’t play stupid. Harry Frigg is, for the first thirty to forty minutes of the movie, stupid. Even after he’s not stupid anymore–Sylva Koscina, quite believably, inspires him to improve himself–Newman’s stuck with the dumb, New Jersey from a Planters Peanut commercial accent. It doesn’t bother much in the scenes with Koscina, since the pair have great chemistry (though hearing Newman talk about going to college and having the Depression take the opportunity away is goofy sounding).
The Secret War of Harry Frigg is a war farce. Newman’s trying to rescue a quintet of generals from an Italian resort, where the guards are friends, et cetera, et cetera. He’s also pretending to be a general himself, so there’s plenty of opportunity for humor. Except the film’s not very funny, because Newman’s too good an actor for such a slight script. And his scenes with Koscina suggest a straightforward take on their relationship would be much more rewarding.
The problem–trying to do a screwball comedy in 1968 in Panavision and Technicolor–is no surprise. Even though Smight doesn’t screw up as much as usual (because Frigg doesn’t have the script for him to hijack), it’s obvious the film needed a far better director. Smight gets the absurdist comedy well-enough–like if it were a mistaken identity comedy with Abbott and Costello–but he doesn’t get the nuances of setting a comedy in World War II with the Nazis about to torture people… though the scene with Newman spitting, repeatedly, on a Hitler portrait is amusing.
The supporting cast is fine, with Charles Gray giving the best performance of the generals and Vito Scotti is good as the hotel manager turned warden… but there’s really so little going on and the movie’s incredibly long. It’s over halfway through–right after Newman gets a history–and the rest is just waiting for the reels to run out. Even the ending, which would be incredibly hard to screw up, gets screwed up.
It could have been a lot better with a fixed up script, but it wouldn’t have taken much to be just a little bit better and a little bit would have gone a long way here.
Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, based on a story by Tarloff; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by J. Terry Williams; music by Carlo Rustichelli; produced by Hal E. Chester; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Paul Newman (Pvt. Harry Frigg), Sylva Koscina (Countess Francesca De Montefiore), Andrew Duggan (Gen. Newton Armstrong), Tom Bosley (Gen. Roscoe Pennypacker), John Williams (Gen. Francis Mayhew), Charles Gray (Gen. Adrian Cox-Roberts), Vito Scotti (Col. Enrico Ferrucci), Jacques Roux (Gen. Andre Rochambeau), Werner Peters (Maj. von Steignitz), James Gregory (Gen. Homer Prentiss), Fabrizio Mioni (Lt. Rossano), Johnny Haymer (Sgt. Pozzallo) and Norman Fell (Capt. Stanley).