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Dirty Dozen, The Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

ImageEngland- 1944. Major Reisman (Marvin) a smart but insubordinate trouble-maker is forcefully given a difficult and politically uncomfortable mission by General Worden (Borgnine): take a group of military prisoners who are on death row or have long-term prison sentences and build them into a capable team. Once the group is together, they’ll be given a high-risk mission to go behind German lines and destroy a chateau that is frequented by German generals. Reisman is able to build the unstable group (with much flack from his superior officers) into a cohesive unit through his leadership skills and the offer of commuted sentences to the team. As the group heads off on their mission, a few loose cannons (particularly Telly Savalas as a wacko who thinks his violence toward women is dictated by God) threaten to ruin the entire enterprise.

Director Aldrich’s extremely popular war film boasts one of the most impressive big-name male casts in movie history. While some of the violence seems a bit tame today, the acting by Marvin and the supporting actors is terrific, entertaining stuff. Cassavetes was nominated for an Oscar, but Marvin’s performance is just as good and the rest of the leads do great and memorable character work. Aldrich’s attempts at broader, male-bonding-type humor among the dozen is a bit awkward at times (the Robert Ryan sequence seems forced), Marvin and Jaeckel are effective in a few amusing bits.

While sold as an action movie, the focus of “The Dirty Dozen” is almost entirely on dramatics with the battle saved for the finale. It’s a much more enjoyable film if you know that going into it. Much is made in the bonus materials of Aldrich’s uncompromising depiction of killing both women and the generals by pouring gasoline on the screaming group and destroying their underground bunker with grenades. While the inclusion of this is intense, it doesn’t go as far as its intention, and it really needs a few shots of the imprisoned group’s death throes to give the sequence its full disturbing impact. Instead, we see a series of B-roll shots of empty rooms blowing up, which is no where near as effective. What is surprising about the film is how little time and effort is made to clearly depict and develop half of the main characters. It might as well be called “The Dirty Six” for all the characterization and differentiation the supporting players have. A few of the secondary ‘dozen’ look too similar to each other, which doesn’t help.

There’s some confusion about the original aspect ratio for “The Dirty Dozen” and at least one previous home video release was presented at a wider aspect ratio, leading a substantial number of people to presume that this is a ‘Scope film. The large cast and subject matter certainly would seem a fitting candidate for a widescreen production, but Aldrich much preferred “matted” 1.85:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratios. During its original theatrical release, 70mm prints were made of “The Dirty Dozen” which presented the film at a slightly wider ratio (more akin to 2.00:1) but this wider image was essentially the 1.85 frame with larger mattes on the top and bottom. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the added resolution of HD DVD is particularly beneficial for this film. Robert Aldrich’s directing style tends to favor medium shots and close-ups and the crystal clear image transfer here makes the actors seem nearly three-dimensional. In close-ups, beard stubble, sweat, greasy clothes and crewcuts, are conveyed with such stable encoding and image clarity that you become more involved in the picture. There’s more to see in Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes’s both in their bright eyes and their expressions and as a result it affords a better window to appreciate the actors performances.

The imagery is so pristine that when any dupe shots in the original film elements (including opticals and dissolves) appear, they are instantly apparent, as the grain increases noticeably. This is not a flaw, but a tribute to the beauty of the HD transfer over standard definition DVD. One such issue is the scrolling names in the opening credits. They’re part of a glitchy optical that cause the frame and to warp as the name rolls past.

The 5.1 Surround track recreates the mix used for the 6-track 70mm prints. It’s a crisp and clean mix, and feels faithful to the original intentions, but does not utilize the surrounds too often. Action scenes benefit from the wider sound field, and the music is kicked up in intensity and presence, but it’s not a heavily directional or manipulative mix. Audio is rich and warmly presented and dialogue is as clear as it can be. Lee Marvin’s occasionally mumbled lines are occasionally difficult to discern, but it’s not a disc flaw.

The 1985 TV Movie sequel “Dirty Dozen: Next Mission” (there’s no ‘the’ in the on-screen title) is presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast ratio. It’s not in HD, but it upconverts nicely to 1080i on the player. The transfer looks a bit dated and grainy but it’s sharp and colorful. This ill-regarded cash-in takes place a few short months after the original and Major Reisman (Marvin) has gotten himself into trouble again. General Worden (Borgnine) once again presses him to redeem himself by training another ragtag band pulled from the military prison and leading them on another deadly mission. There’s not much inspiring here, and it plays as low-rent carbon copy of the original. Even the new dozen falls into the same types as in the original- there’s a black soldier, a crazy Cassavetes type etc. It’s really surprising that Marvin and Borgnine returned for such junk. Their presence and Richard Jaeckel’s gives this a false sense of legitimacy. Also on hand is Wolf Kahler- everyone’s favorite Nazi stock player (he played “Dietrich” in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) in the post- “Raiders…” world.

“Armed and Deadly: The Making of the Dirty Dozen” is a half hour featurette. It’s a terrific look at the making of the film, with terrific and revealing interviews with the main cast, film scholars and production personnel. It’s both insightful and worthwhile. The rest of the bonus feature package is interesting, comprehensive and worth delving into.

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