Underrated by critics and ignored by audiences upon its initial release in 1969, Play Dirty, directed by Andre de Toth, has slowly but surely acquired an appreciative fan base over the years thanks to high profile advocates of the film like Martin Scorsese who included it on a long list of guilty pleasures for the May-June 1998 issue of Film Comment. Unfortunately, this World War II drama starring Michael Caine had the misfortune to follow in the wake of Robert Aldrich’s box-office hit, The Dirty Dozen (1967), to which it was often unfairly compared. But, outside of a similar assemble-the-team concept which sends a group of criminals on a suicide mission, the film has very little in common with Aldrich’s blockbuster and there is absolutely no reason to feel any guilt over liking it either.
For the record, here is Scorsese’s entry on Play Dirty: “In the opening sequence, Michael Caine is driving a dead body on a jeep, and there’s Italian march music on the soundtrack. Right away you know you’re in for something unique. Play Dirty isn’t a sadistic film, but it’s mean. The characters have no redeeming social value, which I love. In one sequence, they pretend to be Italian soldiers to fool some Arabs; one of the Arabs spots something on them, so they take their guns and shoot all the Arabs. They don’t think, they just act. They have a job to do, and they’re going to do it. The nihilism, the pragmatism — it’s frightening.”
This was enough to hook me even though Scorsese’s memory of the film turns out to be faulty. In the opening sequence, it is Nigel Davenport, not Michael Caine, who is at the wheel of the jeep and the music we hear is the German ballad “Lili Marlene,” which is being broadcast over a radio. Davenport switches over to another station playing “You Are My Sunshine” before the credit sequence ends. But Scorsese’s appraisal of the film as frightening in its nihilism is dead-on even if the rest of his guilty pleasures list includes Jules Dassin’s noir Night and the City (1950), George Steven’s Texas epic Giant (1956), Lewis Allen’s supernatural thriller The Uninvited (1944) and many others which seem baffling examples of movies you’d be embarrassed to admit you enjoyed.
Play Dirty gets down to business immediately with Col. Masters (Nigel Green) being given one last chance by Brig. Blore (Harry Andrews) to succeed in a secret mission to blow up a German fuel dump at a North African port. Masters has handpicked his seven man commando team, headed by Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport), from an array of prisoners and convicts with distinct skills that are paramount for this covert operation but is forced by Blore to put a British officer in charge. “British officers don’t understand my methods, sir,” he protests but Masters eventually recruits a young, relatively inexperienced officer, Capt. Douglas (Michael Caine), to lead the team.
Douglas’s presence generates contempt and resentment among the men and his inexperience almost jeopardizes the mission more than once on their journey but is averted by Leech’s quicksilver cunning each time. A grudging respect, if not complete trust, eventually forms between Douglas and his unit and by the time, they reach their objective, Douglas has become as hardened and ruthless as the rest. There are no real heroes to cheer and any societal notions of morality are absent in the godforsaken, sun-baked desert setting. Yet despite the film’s bleak trajectory, there is something bracing and invigorating about Play Dirty’s relentlessly cynical view of military leadership and the nasty business of war and the final fadeout carries a bitterly ironic sting in its tail.
The Dirty Dozen is similarly cynical and unsentimental in its story arc of a suicide mission but the tone is entirely different. In Aldrich’s all-star Hollywood blockbuster, the character development was done in broad strokes with operatic flourishes, resulting in scene-chewing performances by Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland and others as psychotic misfits; the violence was extreme for its day and veered into gratuitous sadism and misogyny in its treatment of the German women trapped in the chateau in the explosive climax. In comparison, Play Dirty is almost minimalistic with terse, hard-boiled dialogue that is used sparingly but effectively, occasionally offering uncoded insights into a character’s psyche. Often de Toth captures the essence of the story in purely visual terms with natural sound for punctuation.
A long, suspenseful scene in which Douglas steps on a hidden mine and has to remain perfectly still while the bomb defuser works frantically to deactivate it before it explodes generates the kind of nail-biting tension that distinguished such doom-ladden dramas as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953). So does a masterful sequence where Douglas charges his team with transporting three jeeps over a steep, jagged ridge using a jerry-rigged pulley system that is certain to break at some point. Other visually striking set pieces include a raid on a Nazi compound (that turns out to be a decoy) during a blinding sand storm and the final assault at night on the German munitions dump. But more obvious than the formulaic necessity of delivering plenty of action for a war themed film is de Toth’s focus on the sheer physicality of the mission with the men subjected to the punishing heat and grime, the hostile terrain, possible death at any moment and the gradual dehumanization that comes with the territory.
The performances in Play Dirty are uniformly excellent with memorable minor roles by Harry Andrews as the pompous, glory-grabbing brigadier and Nigel Green as the mission strategist obsessed with ancient military history. But the most engrossing aspects of the film are the portrayals by Michael Caine as Douglas, an out-of-his-league, novice officer, and Davenport as Leech, a ruthless mercenary who has been promised a bonus of $2,000 pounds if he can bring Douglas back alive. The possibility that Leech might opt to forfeit the reward just for the satisfaction of seeing Douglas killed invests the film with genuine tension that rarely lets up and often results in unexpected twists and turns. Caine plays Douglas with a cool, deadpan detachment but he is often upstaged by Davenport’s charismatic sociopath, a former Irish merchant marine who was previously imprisoned for sinking his own ship for the insurance money (the entire crew drowned).
The presentation of the rest of criminal commandos is curiously low key in comparison to Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen and may be a reason why Play Dirty was less engaging for some viewers. The rag tag international assemblage (most of them unfamiliar faces to American audiences) includes a Tunisian demolition man, Sadok (Aly Ben Ayed), an arms smuggler named Kostos (Takis Emmanuel), communications specialist Boudesh (Scott Miller), transport and supply expert Kalarides (Enrique Ávila) and Hassah (Mohsen Ben Abdallah) and Assine (Mohamed Kouka), two Arab mercenaries who make no attempt to hide their gay relationship. Their openly affectionate behavior with each other (they are often shown holding hands) doesn’t even provoke the rancor of the other men who’ve seen it all but the couple is certainly not benign; their predatory behavior and greed is witnessed repeatedly as they loot corpses and the sites of massacres for bounty. And the other men are clearly no better as revealed in brief background profiles provided by Col. Masters to Douglas over drinks. Even Douglas stoops to their level when he takes part in the killing of two unarmed German medics.
In one of the more surprising plot developments, the eight man squad spare the life of a German nurse (Vivian Pickles) taken hostage in an ambush and force her to care for Hassah after he is severely wounded by an exploding mine. The presence of a woman in their midst proves to be too much for Kalarides, Boudesh and Kostos and they attempt a gang rape. But this horrific situation ends in the manner of a comedic blackout skit thanks to the intervention of an unexpected savior. Pickles, who will always be remembered for her role as the self-satisfied socialite mother of Bud Cort in the cult comedy Harold and Maude, is a formidable physical presence in her brief scenes here as the only female the group encounters.
Despite my high regard for Play Dirty, the film was not a pleasurable experience for either Andre de Toth or Michael Caine, both of whom share their mostly negative impressions respectively in De Toth on De Toth (edited by Anthony Slide) and Michael Caine’s autobiography, What’s it All About?. Reputedly, the story by George Marton (which was adapted for the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg with additions by Lotte Colin) was inspired by the exploits of Popski’s Private Army, a unit of the British Special Forces, and other similar combat forces such as the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS (Special Air Service) in the Western desert of Africa during WWII. In fact, Col. Masters’ character (played by Nigel Green) was supposedly based on the real Vladimir ‘Popski’ Peniakoff.
Initially, the film, produced by Harry Saltzman (Dr. No, Goldfinger, The Ipcress File), was to be directed by Rene Clément (Forbidden Games, Purple Noon) but he clashed with his producer and eventually walked off the picture after two years of haggling over production details. “Neither of them was sure what the picture was about,” de Toth recalls. “Clément wanted to shoot whatever ‘his’ picture was about in Morocco or Algeria…Harry, a headline-man and Zionist, wanted to shoot ‘his’ picture in Israel. Harry refused to scout North Africa, Clément refused to go to Israel.”
After Clément’s departure, de Toth, who had been brought aboard the project by Saltzman as executive producer, was asked to take over the directorial reins and help shape the screenplay (uncredited). Almeria, Spain became the new filming location for Play Dirty but after four days of shooting, the temperamental Richard Harris (in the role of Cyril Leech) walked off the set and was replaced by Nigel Davenport.
By his own account, Caine found the filming in Almeria to be an ordeal due to the oppressive heat, isolation and less than adequate accommodations. But he began the picture with high hopes, noting, “The script was reasonable and it had a good plot: a group of Israeli commandos are sent out in the desert war to blow up the German fuel dumps, but the British Army have got there first and they want the fuel for themselves….On the surface it is a good action story, based on fact, with a moral to it and some controversy. So what could possibly go wrong? The short answer is – everything. Play Dirty is a prime example of how you can start out with a good story and the very best of intentions and yet get gradually worn down into mediocrity…There was a much-vaulted re-write of the script, which in my opinion was not as good as the original, but we used it anyway. The powers that be always use the last script in film-making no matter how bad it is because they have to justify the additional expense to their financiers and dare not admit they have made a mistake. Rene Clément was replaced by Andre de Toth with whom I had worked briefly when young in A Foxhole in Cairo. Andre came on to the picture so late that even he had no time to do his best work.”
Considering the chaotic circumstances, de Toth managed to remain faithful to his vision for the film which is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. “I wanted to rub our noses in the mess we have created and how we shy away from our responsibility to clean it up,” he stated. “I showed what I wanted, the naked truth, the truth of life and war.” He had no allusions he was making a box-office hit and addressed that, saying “The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining motion picture. A movie on the wide and well paved avenue to the box office. How could it compare to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment. Had I wanted to entertain with Play Dirty, the demi-gods would’ve been right to tear me limb from limb.”
Unfortunately, de Toth did not have the right to the final cut of the film and some of his directorial touches were comprised or changed in the final editing process. For example, he recalls that “Michel Legrand wrote a wonderful score for the scene where the ambushed soldiers are being buried and above them the vultures are circling. The happy voice of a children’s choir. The harsh contrast to the macabre scene disturbed them so much that after I delivered what I thought was the finished picture, the children’s voices were taken out the day before the release-prints were ordered. Nothing I could do.”
Regardless of de Toth’s and Caine’s criticism of Play Dirty, I consider it a diamond in the rough, a genuine sleeper that deserves a cult and is slowly gaining one. The film has aired occasionally on Turner Classic Movies but it has also been released on DVD over the years in varying degrees of quality. MGM released a no-frills edition in 2007, Lowndes Productions Limited released a poor quality DVD in 2010, and it turned up as part of a triple feature DVD package from Image Entertainment in 2011 with The Dogs of War and The Purple Plain. The good news is that a Blu-Ray PAL release from UK 101 Films is expected on July 14th, 2014 (you will need an all-region DVD/Blu-Ray player to view it). This might encourage some enterprising US distributor to license a domestic Blu-Ray release of it in the near future.