Released in 1967, Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen came along at just the right terms for movie audiences with its cynical tone and generally pessimistic look at society and any sort of hierarchy and power. The story of 12 convicts chosen to take part in a suicide mission just before D-Day was unlike anything audiences had seen. To Aldrich's credit, he made the premise unique and damn entertaining. Really though, the idea of convicts turned commandos had been used countless times before.
Take 1964's The Secret Invasion from the master of schlock, low-budget B-movies, director Roger Corman. The cult director made a career of doing a lot with very little in terms of money in the budget as well as producing some 300-plus movies. But when given the chance, Corman showed what he was able to do with even a mid-sized budget like in 1964's The Secret Invasion, a WWII story that uses the same basic premise as Dirty Dozen. Don't be confused though, 'Invasion' is still a B-movie without any notion of being anything else. On the highly positive side, it's a prime example of how good a B-movie can be when everything goes right.
Stationed in Cairo in 1943, British Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger) has assembled a dubious crew to help him on a dangerous mission in the Balkans. From prisons and penitentiaries all around the world, Mace has assembled a crew of criminals -- all experts in one way or another -- to join him. Just days away from the Allied invasion of Italy, Mace and his team will sneak into the Balkans and help an Italian general (Enzo Fiermonte) escape from a heavily guarded German prison. With the general's help, Mace hopes to turn the Italian forces against the Germans, making the Allied invasion even a little bit smoother. First though, the major has to worry about keeping his team of crooks in line, many of them willing to shoot him and escape the first chance they get.
Now with a B-movie -- even a really good one like this -- you can't expect a bunch of A-listers starring. Instead, you get something better. Actors you know and have seen countless times but usually in supporting roles. Some were past their prime and others still on the rise. Corman hits a home run with the casting of his dirty half-dozen including Raf Vallone as Rocca, a mafioso and expert planner of strategy, Mickey Rooney as Scanlon, an IRA explosives expert, Edd Byrnes as Fell, the master forger, Henry Silva as Durell, the hired assassin, and William Campbell as Saval, a master of disguise and deception. These were all solid character actors given a shot at starring roles, and the ensemble doesn't disappoint.
With any 'men on a mission' movie, there's a certain dark element that makes them intriguing. By the end, you know most if not all won't make it so early on make your choices. 'Invasion' certainly has some fun with this notion as to who survives and how. The cast is clearly having some fun with these cardboard cutouts for roles. Vallone as the reliable second in command speaks in that heavily accented English and certainly makes a positive impression, as does Silva as the dead-eyed killer. But by far, the most surprising and enjoyable part is for Rooney as the half-mad Irishman and explosives expert. Playing completely against type -- as he would do again two years later in B-movie Ambush Bay -- Rooney absolutely steals the movie.
As much as I like a good, old-fashioned long movie (even The Dirty Dozen was 150 minutes long), a quick-paced B-movie can be just as enjoyable. With his 95-minute movie here, Corman keeps the story going at all times with some snappy dialogue or a quick action set-piece. The story flies by and never really slows down. It's never long before the half-dozen find themselves in some sticky new situation they have to get out of. Along the way, they dodge either, work with some partisans, and then finally must fight their way out of the German fortress. Sounds easy, don't it?
Taking advantage of a bigger budget, Corman filmed in Yugoslavia and Croatia, giving the whole movie a unique, realistic feel to the proceedings. The on-location shooting is great, but Corman saves the best for last. Chased by hundreds of German soldiers, Mace's crew must escape up a seaside hill with the Germans close on their heels. He clearly spent some money on this battle sequence with an epic feel. Lots of extras working as German soldiers, explosions and shootouts galore, and some surprises as to who survives and who doesn't. It's a great action sequence, and Corman almost lulls you to sleep early with so little action. He certainly makes up for it in his finale.
I stumbled across this war flick at IMDB a few years back and am I ever glad I did. It's exciting right from the start -- opening scenes included below -- and never really slows down. Cool choices in casting, gorgeous locations, and a wham bang action finish. Maybe it doesn't have the high hopes a movie like The Dirty Dozen did, but from master director/producer Corman, this is about as good as a B-movie can be!
The Secret Invasion <---opening (1964): *** 1/2 /****