There were a couple of instances during his storied career as director, producer and “brand” that Roger Corman might have moved beyond B-movies and taken his shot at being an A-picture filmmaker. “The Secret Invasion,” a 1964 WWII combat picture, was always planned as a B-movie. But with a “name” cast and United Artists distribution, it settled in that grey area between major studio productions and Corman’s “action cinema on the cheap” ethos.
It’s a post-“Guns of Navarone” pre “Dirty Dozen” convicts-as-commandos thriller built around just-past-his-peak Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney settling into supporting roles, Henry Silva on his way to iconic villainy, Italian star Raf Vallone just starting his long association with Hollywood and rapidly-fading TV “fad” Edd Byrnes.
Set in occupied Yugoslavia, inspired by a magazine article on Dubrovnik, Croatia that Corman read at the dentist’s office (Where else?), it is, hands down, the most scenic film Corman ever made.
Twenty years after the end of World War II and little had changed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. The Croatian War of Independence was decades in the future. Little had marred Dobrovnik’s old city and its citadel. Condos didn’t cover its rocky seaside hills and their tumbledown stone walls and stone houses.
The story was straight-up WWII pulp fiction. Convicts from Britain, the U.S. and the Mediterranean are assembled in 1943 Cairo for a mission to distract the Germans from the coming Allied assault on Italy. They’ll stir things up by convincing an Italian general who hates the Germans to lead his troops into an uprising with Yugoslav partisans.
Things get all Rogered up (i.e. “silly”) straight away, as this squad of experts called in by the Major (Granger) are a coldblooded assassin (Silva), an Italian thief and contraband smuggler (Vallone), an IRA demolitions man (Rooney, aye. Rooney.), a forger (Byrnes) and a master impersonator (William Campbell, probably best remembered for his TV spots on “Star Trek,” etc.).
Not a lot of commandoes, and overall a pretty goofy skill-set to fake-start a “new front” in the Balkans.
There are a couple of twists that still work and the combat sequences, which grow in scope as the Yugoslav Army is dressed up as scores of Germans and Italians, aren’t terrible.
The screenplay sets up the players as “types” and serves up a meaty line or two. One character doesn’t like the smell of digging from a tomb into the fortress where their Italian general/quarry has been imprisoned.
“Get used to it,” the morbid, pervy Durrell (Silva) hisses. “It’s the smell of eternity!“
But whatever tropes are trotted out for “the mission,” however it turns out, whoever earns the most beautiful death scene, the fun in many a Corman movie is in our grudging appreciation for how he managed all this on the (relative) cheap.
There’s no sense relying on “the vain one” (Campbell) to master impersonating Granger (for an escape attempt in the middle of their training) or their German captor. Just loop in the other actor’s voices when he “imitates” them.
Similarly, Rooney’s character’s “big scene,” taking on a pillbox machine gun nest by himself, has him singing, in an Irish brogue that comes and goes, about the “big surprise” he’s got for Gerry.
Watch his lips. He added the wee tune in post production. Funny, that’s the only scene from this I remember from watching “The Secret Invasion” on TV as a kid. I didn’t remember his co-stars or the title, just the Mick singing and tossing potato smashers (German grenades).
The best “big moments” belong to Silva and Vallone, stirring and surprising, even today. Corman spent most of his money on actors, and it really paid off here.
As far as cutting corners, a fog machine is a great help when you’re trying to stage a trawler-vs-German gunboat fight at night, and you can’t go to sea and there is no water filming tank to rent. It’s masterfully minimal.
Sound effects cover up the ordnance budget. A few smoky blanks per firefight, a lot of machine gun noise, a well placed squid or two for some of the victims and pyrotechnics on the walls and rocks, skilled editing and it’s “close enough for government work,” as the boys used to say.
That said, the film took on an Adriatic vacation pacing, probably in mid-production, something that spills over onto the screen. The stakes never seem that high, the urgency of the mission is basically an afterthought, everybody’s relaxed and kind of enjoying their working vacation, and it shows.
No, it’s not the beefier, longer all-star cast A-picture “The Dirty Dozen,” or even “The Devil’s Brigade,” which came years later. But it is a great reminder at why Corman remains an inspiration to indie filmmakers, generations removed from his years of mentoring Ron Howard and Coppola, Scorsese, Dante and James Cameron into the business of directing movies, and doing it without wasting one thin dime along the way.
Cast: Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney, Raf Vallone, William Campbell, Spela Rozin, Edd Byrnes and Henry Silva
Credits: Directed by Roger Corman, scripted by R. Wright Campbell. A United Artists release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 1:38