The Universal Vault series of made-on-demand DVDs has released "The Secret War of Harry Frigg", a long overlooked and largely forgotten 1968 WWII comedy starring Paul Newman. The film''s release was sandwiched in Newman's career during a particularly productive time following the releases of "Cool Hand Luke" (which gained him an Oscar nomination), the critically acclaimed western "Hombre", his directorial debut with "Rachel, Rachel" (4 Oscar nominations) and his mega-hit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". "Frigg" is a completely lightweight affair done on the cheap with California locations substituting for Italy. The film casts Newman in his trademark role as an anti-Establishment wiseguy. When we first see him, he's a lowly private serving in Italy at the height of the Allied invasion. Frigg is a malcontent whose rebellious nature results in him spending most of his time in the brig. He's gained a reputation as an escape artist but never succeeds in staying free for very long. Frigg is summoned to meet General Homer Prentiss (James Gregory), who offers him an audacious deal. Seems that five Allied generals were captured by Italian troops in a Turkish bath. The Allies can't afford them to be interrogated for long and Prentiss wants Frigg to parachute behind enemy lines posing as a general in the hopes that he, too, will be captured. The scheme is to have Frigg imprisoned with the other generals and then develop an escape plan for all of them. Frigg agrees after working out some perks he will get from carrying out the high-risk plot. Upon landing in Italy, he is summarily captured as planned. He is taken to a lavish country villa where the other generals are being held. Frigg is pleasantly surprised to find that the Italian officer who serves as a warden, Col. Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), is a likeable, charming man who treats his prisoners as honored guests and lavishes them with amenities. Still, the real generals impose upon Frigg, who they think is their superior officer, to orchestrate an escape plan. However, Frigg becomes accustomed to Ferrucci's constant supply of gourmet food, fine wine and expensive cigars. He is even more enamored when he meets the owner of the villa, a beautiful countess named Francesca (Sylva Koscina). Frigg discovers a secret passageway that leads outside the compound but which also conveniently goes into Francesca's bedroom. Before long, he's also enjoying plenty of sexual perks. By the time Frigg is motivated to actually plan an escape, it's too late. An German officer (Werner Peters) arrives at the villa to announce that Italy has just surrendered and that German troops will now occupy positions formally held by Italian troops. He summarily takes charge of the prisoners and also arrests the hapless Ferrucci, who ironically had just been promoted to the rank of general. The group is taken from luxurious surroundings to a harsh prison camp where they are monitored constantly and deterred from escape by an electrified fence and a mine field. Nevertheless, Frigg is unfazed and sets about planning his most ambitious escape.
In an attempt to boost boxoffice receipts, the studio orchestrated a disingenuous alternate ad campaign that presented the film as an action adventure war movie.
"The Secret War of Harry Frigg" was directed by Jack Smight, a competent if workman-like director whose best film was the 1966 crime flick "Harper" which starred Paul Newman in one of his signature roles. Alas, their reunion doesn't present the same kind of payoff the first movie did. Aside from a weak screenplay, much of the blame for the film's failure to work lies with Newman himself. Instead of playing Frigg as a sophisticated con man, Newman portrays him as a blue collar simpleton from New Jersey whose only talents are conning the military brass and seducing women. The role of a virtual idiot does not suit Newman well. He was able to play a rough-around-the-edges protagonist as boxer Rocky Graziano in the 1956 film "Somebody Up There Likes Me" because the character wasn't cartoonish. By 1968, however, Newman was an iconic screen presence and it was simply impossible to accept him as a lovable moron. The first half of the movie is pretty tepid but the second chapter improves significantly when Frigg and his companions are imprisoned by the Germans. With Newman giving a rare dud performance, the supporting cast carries the show and fortunately it includes some first rate second bananas: Charles Gray, John Williams, Tom Bosley and Andrew Duggan among them. The scene stealers are Vito Scotti and Werner Peters, both of whom deliver deft comedic performances. Sylva Koscina, one of the most charming Italian imports to Hollywood during this period, is largely used as window dressing and her character's reunion with Frigg at the film's finale seems as forced as it is absurd. "Frigg" is not without its modest pleasures but it never reaches the genuine laughter level found in the average episode of the similarly-themed "Hogan's Heroes". The Universal DVD does not contain any bonus extras.
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