The Secret War of Harry Frigg [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (13th April 2021).
The Film

When the Axis forces take Tunisia, five Allied forces Brigadier Generals Americans Armstrong (Seven Days in May's Andrew Duggan) and Pennypacker (Happy Days' Tom Bosley), Britons Mayhew (Sabrina's John Williams) and Cox-Roberts (Diamonds Are Forever's Charles Gray), and French Rochambeau (The List of Adrian Messenger's Jacques Roux) are caught literally with their pants down in a bathhouse and taken reluctantly taken prisoner by the Italians who show them hospitality by holding them in the commandeered Northern Italian villa of Montefiores, hosted by former Ritz Carlton manager Colonel Ferrucci (The Godfather's Vito Scotti) and the young, widowed Countess Francesca di Montefiore (Lisa and the Devil's Sylva Koscina) who is living temporarily in the gatehouse. As soon as they arrive, the five generals set about plotting their escape, but their plans devolve into arguments and no one can get a majority vote. Their months of relatively luxurious captivity (seen as goldbricking by the American army) are causing an embarrassment for the Brass among the enlisted men. Against the advice of Captain Stanely (Three's Company's Norman Fell), General Prentiss (The Manchurian Candidate's James Gregory) comes up with the idea of promoting shiftless private Harry Frigg (The Hustler's Paul Newman) who has spent most of his military career in the stockade for various acts of insolence and multiple escape attempts all the way up to Major General to allow his capture and detainment in Italy with the five generals to initiate their escape (the reward being the clearing of his record and subsequent demotion to Master Sergeant). Although thoroughly out of his element, Harry has an easier time fooling the Ferrucci and the captive generals to varying degrees than he does Francseca, a commoner who married an aristocrat and knows something about living with an unearned title. Infatuated with Francesca and enjoying the luxuries of the villa and having five generals jumping to his orders, Harry delays the escape beyond discovering a secret passage which leads outside of the front gates, and escaping will be a tougher challenge when Nazi Major von Steignitz (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Werner Peters) spirits them away to a heavily-guarded holding center and has no intentions of following the Geneva Convention.

Neither The Great Escape or Hogan's Heroes, The Secret War of Harry Frigg is quite a bizarre Paul Newman vehicle for Universal in between his Oscar-nominated turn in Cool Hand Luke for Warner and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Fox. A miscast Newman not only seems too smart to blunder into the situations of his character as such, what little we know of him from the exposition and his introductory scenes does not really ring true but he also seems as out of his element as the character in the light comic tone in contrast to the supporting cast (which also includes The Graduate's Buck Henry and episodic television character actors Horst Ebersberg, Johnny Haymer, and Fabrizio Mioni). The romantic relationship is obligatory, and the much of Harry's character development is addressed through dialogue rather than scenes (including Francesca's charge that he wants the title without the responsibility). Once they have been taken by the Germans, the tone shifts towards the sinister briefly, but the escape does generate some excitement. One would not be surprised if this project penned by writing partners Peter Stone (Charade) and Frank Tarloff (Father Goose) and directed by a jobbing Jack Smight (The Illustrated Man) had been making the rounds with other considerations before Newman.

Video

Released theatrically by Universal and on VHS in the early eighties by MCA, The Secret War of Harry Frigg was long in coming to the digital format with Universal's Vault Series DVD-R in 2011. The film made is Blu-ray bow in France in 2017, and it along with Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray are likely derived from the same HD master struck for the DVD edition. Universal's usage of the 2-perf Techniscope process in the sixties did result in pictures that often looked poorer than both their Panavision equivalents or even European Techniscope productions with the cinematography of the great Russell Metty (Spartacus) only truly imaginative in the gel-lit secret passage sequences - and this film is no exception with occasional pop in saturated colors including Koscina's costumes while bright exteriors have a muted look and the night exteriors fare best in medium shots and close-ups (including some studio inserts).

Audio

The sole audio track is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix which gets the job done, sounding clean enough to differentiate the crispness of the live sound with a couple post-synched bits (offscreen and from behind), and the music score by Carlo Rustichelli (Blood and Black Lace) supportive but unspectacular (and an odd choice since the Italian-set film was shot entirely in California). Optional English SDH subtitles are included.

Extras

Besides the film's theatrical trailer (1:10) and trailers for five other releases, the disc includes a new audio commentary by film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film historian/biographer Nat Segaloff who cite the film as a transitional film in Newman's career towards more diverse and daring projects, the difficulty of marketing the film with multiple titles (it was initially announced as "Meanwhile, Far From the Front"), Smight's directoial career, and how the ribald-sounding title might have been the reason for the erroneous R-rating on the VHS box. They also discuss the film in the context of the late sixties and the counterculture attitude towards the war and war pictures.

Overall

The Secret War of Harry Frigg is an odd Paul Newman vehicle that could only have come at a transitional point in his career.

 


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