Calling 1957’s The Strange One homoerotic is an understatement. Part of its homoeroticism is attributable to its setting in a Southern military college; any gathering place for young, virile men with hyperactive libidos and no socially acceptable outlet for their raging hormones is going to be rife with same-sex flirting and charged glances. Strange ups the ante by making its villain (Ben Gazzara) a sadist who derives entirely too much pleasure from watching his fellow cadets get spanked or viciously beaten. The cast, largely culled from the talent pool of the legendary Actors Studio, uses body language and smoldering looks to convey the love that in 1957 dared not speak its name. They make particularly expressive use of swords that function as glistening metallic phalluses, to be lovingly caressed and polished with tender care.
In a powerhouse debut, Gazzara stars as a Machiavellian schemer at a tradition-bound military academy. He delights in using his weak-willed fellow cadets as pawns to be used and sacrificed for his own diabolical ends, and he takes particular glee in abusing gullible freshmen. But when he manipulates naïve cadets into helping him get a rival expelled, his bullied charges rebel under the reluctant leadership of working-class freshman George Peppard.
Gazzara’s Actors Studio colleague James Dean reportedly fought for the Strange One lead, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in Gazzara’s role. In the brief interview that serves as the DVD’s only special feature, Gazzara discusses giving his bully the grace of a cat and a disconcerting unflappability. Gazzara underplays the title role to perfection; his voice seldom rises above a sinister purr, punctuated by poisonous sarcasm and black humor. His military-school monster treats everyone around him as if they belonged to a species much further down the evolutionary scale. Beyond introducing a female character to undercut the raging homoeroticism, director and Actors Studio alum Jack Garfein does little to open up the stagebound world of Calder Willingham’s play. Yet the film’s long takes, bare sets, and talky scenes end up working in its favor, imbuing Willingham’s darkly comic little drama with pummeling intensity and sweaty claustrophobia.
Key features: Beyond the Gazzara interview, nothing.