BR: Play Dirty (1969)

January 8, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  October 17, 2017

Genre:  War / WWII / Action

Synopsis: Wholly unaware they’re being set up for a fall, a team of scoundrels are led by a cynical engineer to blow up a Nazi oil reserve in North Africa.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




A key reason why Andre De  Toth’s last film as director remained an obscurity on home video may be the film’s stark cynical tone and ultimately nihilistic finale which must have had UA executives wondering how to theatrically market a movie in 1969 where the punchline is essentially ‘Life is Shit.’

De Toth’s career in Hollywood consisted of stark film noirs (Pitfall, Crime Wave), westerns, and one of the best 3D films around, the Vincent Price classic House of Wax (1953), but after a hugely prolific period during the 1950s, the writer-director-producer moved into TV, perhaps because of the financial security that lay in directing episodes of Maverick and The Westerner (1960), and Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip (1959-1960).

TV also offered former aging contract filmmakers a safety net as prime studio assignments dried up, and a younger generation of filmmakers trained in the chaos of live TV were making inroads to feature films. Then again, De Toth may have simply wanted a break, and during the 1960s he directed just 5 films, with Play Dirty feeling like a giant middle finger aimed at Hollywood, proving a veteran could deliver a similar degree of nihilism, violence, intense action, and slam audiences with an uncompromising ending akin to Arthut Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

De Toth’s film isn’t bloody, but there’s an unending sense of collision in which no single character is safe from a path towards an ignominious end, and right from the beginning it’s clear former British Petroleum engineer / drafted officer Capt. Douglas (Michael Caine) has a slim chance of escaping a plan where everyone is as disposable as a bullet.

Like Caine, the top-level British cast played against type: Nigel Davenport is the dryly cynical Leech who barrels across the desert in the film’s stellar Main Titles sequence,  delivering a dead officer to the assistant (Brannigan’s Daniel Pilon) of chief ‘dirty player’ Brigadier Blore, a small role Harry Andrews seemed to enjoy playing as a savvy, credit-hungry manipulator who wants the mission of pathetic military strategist Col. Masters to fail flat on its arse.

In his later roles Nigel Green is better known for playing electrified loons (The Ruling Class) and haggard cynics (The Kremlin Letter), but as Masters he’s a heavier-set deskman, obsessed with following the classic strategies of legendary desert warriors than modern warfare. Each of his attempts to get crucial info on Nazi munitions and supply depots have ended in dead British officers, but the latest cadaver might have been worth it, coming with stills of an isolated fuel depot which the Allies could use for their own desert invasion.

Masters is also earnest, naïve, and a stupid dreamer, which makes him the perfect patsy: should his last fulfilled request granted by Blore succeed, everyone wins; and with failure, Blore can finally have this thorn booted from his command. Capt. Douglas is the ultimate fall guy, wholly unaware his mission with Leech and a team of murderers and thieves is supposed to fail.

If the story of a WWII military raid on Nazis by a band of rogues sounds familiar, you could brand Play Dirty as a riff on The Dirty Dozen (1967) set in the beautiful, cruel, sterile environs of the desert. De Toth (and perhaps chief scenarist Melvyn Bragg) may have designed their film with a familiar premise, but they dispense with dialogue once the characters have been traced in early scenes, and the extent of everyone’s selfishness and immoral leanings become very clear: we know Douglas is a good man, but surrounded by scoundrels, he knows he won’t survive unless he turns a blind eye and engages in some revolting act. The question is how much of Douglas’ soul is corroded by the time they reach their target, and whether anyone will show some honor rather than if the Nazi base is successfully blown to bits. It’s ostensibly every shit for himself, and although Leech chooses how far Douglas is humiliated, he must bring him back alive to Blore to enjoy a performance bonus – perhaps the crowning cynical cherry in a dirty tale of ruthless deeds.

Bragg’s prose is dryly funny, and there is some amusement in seeing a starchy Douglas outwitted by crooks, but De Toth seemed intent on telling the bulk of the film as a silent movie, relying on visuals and rich sound design instead of dialogue and score. (Michel Legrand’s music is really just title material, and some period songs re-rendered through 1969 sensibilities.)

More impressive are the details that De Toth uses to craft magnificent montages, of which the highlight is a crazy attempt by Douglas to wrangle his doubting mates into lashing together emptied Jeeps and dragging them one by one up a steep mountain – a sequence that thematically evokes the ego and bullheadedness of Fitzcarraldo’s titular rubber magnate (Klaus Kinski) as he has men drag a steamship up a mountain to save time; and the rival teams of former crooks & killers lured by cash to ferry nitroglycerin through deadly jungle environs in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1978). (Then again, you could also argue De Toth may have been inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s own detail-heavy Wages of Fear.)

It’s a magnificent sequence that must have influenced Friedkin just a wee bit – the obsessive cuts of cables, winches, rocks, tires, sweaty faces and simmering jealousy among the men is too coincidental. When Leech realizes the little fucker’s engineered plan is working, he forces an act of sabotage that’s as tense as Friedkin’s slowly rendered montage of a truck being guided across a torrential river while bridge timbers snap under the tires. There are many reasons Play Dirty is a small masterpiece, but the Jeep hauling is among its crown jewels.

The film is both the work of a veteran craftsman and a young filmmaker at heart, keenly aware of the power of sight and sound over dialogue, and their power above overly complex plotting and a need to remind audiences of plot progression. As Leech and Douglas and their sweaty bastards head to blow up Nazi gasoline reserves, Blore relies on ill-fated scouts to relay the demolition team’s progress, or lack of it. A follow-up team is soon massacred, Bedouins are mowed down and left to rot in the desert sun, and a nurse is more or less raped and treated like a rag doll. No one behaves with dignity.

The tone bleeding from this otherwise exquisitely shot film is perhaps perfectly in tune for an era when Presidents and presidential candidates were assassinated, colonial powers were reluctantly and messily ceding countries back to the indigenous peoples, and military coups were establishing new regimes of despots and dictators; the film didn’t foretell the miseries in the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa, but it’s aged into an unexpected statement on military and bureaucratic figures lacking any morals.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a stunning transfer that flatters the exotic Spanish locations doubling for the Middle East, and Ted Scaife’s exquisite cinematography; he did shoot Dirty Dozen (1967), but also filmed Khartoum (1966), handled second unit on The African Queen (1951), and drew those bleak colours of Kremlin Letter (1970).

There may not have been enough in Legrand’s sparse score for a LP release, but the disc’s mono M&E mix offers a sampling of his material. Missing is a needed commentary track on De Toth’s genius for action nuances, but Julie Kirgo’s essay provides some info on the movie’s genesis and its cast.

Caine may have achieved stardom playing a likeable cad in Alfie (1966), but in accepting the trio of Harry Palmer films for James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, the actor was slowly navigating towards darker material, with Douglas presaging Caine for the more brutal, revenge-fuel killer in Get Carter (1971).

Kirgo writes the production originally had René Clément (And Then There Were NoneIs Paris Burning?)  as director, and Richard Harris (Major Dundee) cast as Leech. Brought in by Saltzman, De Toth gave the film its dour tone, ‘rubbing audiences’ noses’ in the mess and selfishness of war. Kirgo also notes how the Brits are as scummy as the Nazis in De Toth’s narrative, and the only true love among any characters is shared by a pair of Arab thieves who maintain deep affection for each other, and more dryly, when robbing massacred soldiers of their watches.

As for De Toth, between 1960-1969 he directed Man on a String (1960), and co-directed three European productions: Morgan the Pirate (1960), The Mongols (1961), and Gold for the Caesars (1963). His final credits include producer of the similarly nihilistic El Condor (1970), and uncredited second unit work on Superman (1978). De Toth also reportedly did uncredited second unit work on Lawrence of Arabia, which may have made him the perfect director for Play Dirty’s sand-drenched, sun baked locations.

Prior to his work as a documentarian, Melvyn Bragg also scripted Karel Reisz’s Isadora (1968) and Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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