Play Dirty

Nigel Davenport and Michael Caine in Play Dirty (dir. André De Toth, 1968).

Nigel Green.

Mohsen Ben Abdallah and Mohamed Kouka: "All they ask is kif and each other."

Another tough little movie from De Toth--maybe his toughest ever. Superficially, it's a Dirty Dozen knock-off, but really it's a brilliant deconstruction of the colorful-gang-of-wartime-scoundrels genre, with its stock theme of camaraderie under fire. As in Aldrich's film, a troop composed mainly of criminals is sent on a secret mission against the Nazis. The one non-reprobate is Michael Caine, an officer who's drafted from his safe duties as a port inspector to lead the group in question across the Egyptian desert to find Rommel's fuel depot and blow it up. Sent along with him to make sure he gets back alive is Nigel Davenport, an arrogant, cynical mercenary.

What you gradually realize as the film goes on is that none of these guys are ever going to bond. All the plot mechanisms are in place for it, but they just spin and whir to no effect as though the script were mocking itself. Nor does Caine ever come down off his high horse and examine the hypocrisy of his anachronistic British investment in decorum. The closest he comes is, in a pinch, to adopt the same disregard for the sanctity of human life as the rest of his outfit ("You're learning," says Davenport when Caine blows away some German ambulance attendants--and that's the closest thing we see to bonding). As for the supporting cast, you think at first they're going to be "colorful"; no, they're just soulless thugs. The two most likeable of the bunch are Hassan and Assine, a couple of gay Arabs. When three of the other men try to rape the German nurse who treated Hassan's injuries, Hassan gallantly shoots one of them in the ass from his stretcher. But even this small moment of decency is subject to an ironic recontextualization as events unfold.

Nigel Green plays the colonel who sends all these guys on their quest, and he is perhaps the movie's most complex, merciless joke. His endearingly dotty eccentricities (wearing sandals, planning attacks by consulting ancient battle maps) eventually give way to a revelation of his true character that is devastating in its offhandedness. In this way he is a microcosm of the film as a whole.

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