There was a time there where espionage had a kind of adventurer’s charm to it. A game for rogues and criminals. They were resourceful and took information when they could and used every gambit they knew to save their own skin. There’s Nathaniel Hale, of course, who did it all for duty and patriotism. Others did it for more clinkable reasons. Then things got all organized and politicians got involved and all the romance is gone.
Play Dirty (1969), directed by André De Toth, is about semi-clandestine activity in North Africa during World War II. Col. Masters (Nigel Green) is a classicist who thinks desert warfare has remained the same since ancient times. He sends his crew of misfits, led by Capt. Leech (Nigel Davenport), to do things of an unidentified nature with some bound-to-die officer HQ has stuck him with. Because, after all, nobody trusts spies, even when they’re on your side.
Well, this time the spies have ID’d a fuel depot and they want to blow it up. HQ likes this and sends along Capt. Douglas (Michael Caine) who was dragooned into the Army from BP with the understanding they’d never leave port. “What uniform are you wearing?” Indeed. From then on, it’s a slow, painful journey through the desert to find and destroy the depot while Douglas learns a little bit about survival in this crazy world.
This movie is inevitably compared to The Dirty Dozen (1967), but I’m inclined to compare it with another Robert Aldrich movie, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Both were excellent, but Play Dirty adds an element of extreme cynicism and super anti-hero personalities to the scene. The Dirty Dozen is charming with its montage shape-up scenes and rough-but-loveable characters (other than Maggott, of course). Play Dirty‘s ragtag team are all sadistic criminals–they’re like Maggott without the moralizing–introduced like the team from Mission: Impossible.
What’s great about this movie is that it’s almost exclusively devoted to the show-don’t-tell ethos of storytelling. I like that a lot. It raises this movie’s rather stark morality to something thoughtful. Otherwise, it would have seemed like contrived with its small range of personalities involved. Instead, we get to project (unconsciously) motivations rather than having the writer have to build them up literally.
That’s the benefit of show-don’t-tell, the imagination of the audience is far more dynamic than most writers could ever be. Though, thinking on it, there’s probably a caveat to this. The “great” films with limited dialogue are usually critical rather than commercial hits. That may mean that the strong imaginations provide the dynamic themselves while everyone else just finds it flimsy or incomprehensible.
The performances are interesting in this movie. It’s an adventure story, so it isn’t really allowing much range. But Caine and Davenport carry the film with ease. They’re unobtrusive and allow the story to go forward. I’m probably underselling Caine here, as you can see in the picture, he’s playing probably the most grown-up character I’ve seen him play.
The supporting members of the cast are mediocre to inept. That’s fine because they are almost never called upon to speak. Their main jobs tend to be running from place to place or performing odd jobs. They do them like they’re actually working, so that’s quite good.
The story itself could probably have been improved either with different destinations or a little more groundwork laid to make their destinations comprehensible. By the time the dilemma arises, it doesn’t really matter. Either you care whether they live or die or you don’t. I did, so I would have followed them anywhere.
This movie is not an action movie, but adventure (ish). It doesn’t much go in for chatting. Really, it’s about survival. To survive, you “watch, listen, and say nothing.” This is no romp.
It’s on Netflix, check it out. Buy it if you’re building your Michael Caine or WWII collection.