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Attack – 1956

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The cowardly Captain obscured by chiaroscuro in "Attack"

Attack directed by Robert Aldrich.

This week’s Film Noir is intended as a demonstration of the style’s ability to transform a film from any genre, even an absurdly optimistic WWII movie, into an Expressionistic thesis on man’s inhumanity to man. The plot concerns a small platoon of men at the front line near the end of WWII. They’re lead by a nancy-boy officer, Captain Coons, who regularly makes bad decisions that get good men killed. Coons is only in command because an up and coming Lieutenant Colonel (played with extra sleaze by Lee Marvin) wants his political support after the war. Jack Palance plays a noble soldier who can’t stand seeing his buddies die; he and the captain have an escalating battle of wills that culminates in a murder, a cover up, and some of the grimmest War movie storytelling this side of Full Metal Jacket.

Last week I was watching The Day The Earth Stood Still and I was struck by the intensity of it’s Noir vision. I’ve never really heard of that film being described as Noir, and I’ve certainly never heard the word Noir invoked in connection with Attack, but that’s truly a shame. Both of those films are as Noir as they come. In his 1971 essay on Film Noir Paul Schrader made an extremely good argument that Noir is not a genre with particular plot devices but a style with particular flourishes and motifs. I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point; only a handful of Noirs have a Private Eye; not every one has a femme fatale, caper, or even a murder (although that is the single most common element). Noirs are characterized by their cinematography (canted angles, chiaroscuro) and their worldview (corruption of the world, betrayal winning out over trust, humanity’s inhumanity to man). So this brings us back to Attack, a WWII Noir from the great Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). As far as plot goes this one does have a murder and a brutally tormented protagonist who meets an cruel and unfair end, but it’s a war movie, so no femme fatales here.

Attack is the best WWII movie this cynic has ever seen. Filmed on no-budget, it uses EXTREME lighting to invoke paranoia, shooting through everything it can (just like ol’ Joseph “Wagon Wheel” Lewis) to keep the frame interesting; it has perverse angles that give you everything from God’s eye to a rat’s eye view. Joseph Biroc did the cinematography, and I really want to see more of his work. Unfortunately the music was mostly non descript. It was composed by Frank De Voll, a man who would work with Aldrich repeatedly, but in both Attack and The Big Knife (an earlier Film Noir by Aldrich) he just goes through the motions.

Attack has a tremendous script that milk’s every aspect of postwar melancholy. There’s masculinity in crisis (in the Captain), there’s a great fear of the world that winning has created (in the shape of the Lieutenant Colonel), and there’s useless prosperity (the bourbon, the artillery). Aldrich was actually shocked that the Army would give no support for the production, but I’m not. This is one of the most searing critiques of both the American military structure and the entire American way of life that I’ve ever seen. Just think, this is ONE YEAR after The Big Heat, now audiences are seeing a movie with Lee Marvin as a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army? The implication is clear, don’t worry about the “attack”…worry about the stab in the back.

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