THE SECRET WAR OF HARRY FRIGG, 1968
Cast: Paul Newman, Sylva Koscina, Andrew Duggan, Buck Henry, Tom Bosley, Charles Grey, Norman Fell
When 5 allied generals are captured in Italy in WW II, it is a propaganda nightmare for the Allies. The generals are all 1 star and refuse to take orders from each other in order to plan an escape. Harry Frigg is a private who has escaped from the guard house dozens of times. He is promoted to Major General (2 stars) and ordered to get the generals out once he is captured. Harry is willing to escape, but then he meets the countess ...
Screen legend and man legend Paul Newman played a range of characters over his prolific and highly decorated career. His trademark blue eyes complimented his confident portrayal of “down-on-their-luck” good guys and bad guys, and audiences fell in love with his characters’ ability to show principal and strength while suffering through hardship or personal struggle. Either we knew Paul Newman’s character was going to get out of the mess, or we knew that he had convinced himself he was getting out of the mess. So many classic movies came out of this style of character displayed expertly by Newman. In some movies, we even got to see him showing flashes of comedy expertise. In fact, Newman in real life was quite a character himself. He often joked around and rarely took himself seriously. Wouldn’t it have been great to see Paul Newman play an idiot savant type character? Maybe a character that might be a little dumb, maybe talks funny, and stumbles his way through life care-free and casual no matter what the circumstance? What many people don’t realize, including long-time fans of Paul Newman, is that he did play this character! And he was hilarious.
The Secret War of Harry Frigg is a classic war comedy about a young private commissioned to save five generals from imprisonment. Why was he chosen for this task? Harry Frigg was an expert at escaping. Well escape “expert” might be a strong word, but let’s just say he ran away a lot and it annoyed the crap out of his superiors. Frigg reluctantly agrees to the task, purposely gets captured by the same people who are holding the generals, and then hilarity ensues. We soon discover that the man who captured the generals runs a posh, five-star luxury prisoner of war facility. The generals, although annoyed that they are not taking part in the war, seem oddly comfortable in their setting. Frigg also discovers a beautiful girl, and stumbles through a courtship that combines the classic Newman confidence with a dim-witted and self-conscious approach. In other words, he confidently pursues her, but doesn’t know how to do it. It’s really very funny.
In relation to Newman’s other movies, this one is one of the most accessible for all audiences from this time period. He tended to do a lot of films with complex characters and plots, and I think this is why some of the later generations don’t really know how brilliant he was because some of his movies don’t appeal to the masses as much these days. I think especially with young fans of movies. However, the Secret War of Harry Frigg is inherently funny and works well as a comedy today.
It’s shot like a classic comedy, but at points it feels like the editing is somewhat modern, with some quick cuts and short scenes. The director Jack Smight started out early in television, and you can see that method of storytelling shine through at many points throughout the movie. For that time period, it’s very fast paced and energetic, with multiple sort of mini-episodes and subplots throughout. Also like a TV show, it has running gags and consistent strong characters that we end up knowing quickly without much character formation. Smight also worked with Newman on the movie Harper which was done two years earlier in 1966. The writer who is responsible for the story and for co-writing the script won an Oscar in 1964 for Father Goose.
What’s most surprising about this movie is how little people know about it, considering it’s a comedy with a huge star. I suppose it’s not something that would have racked up tons of Oscar votes, but it was never meant to do that. It’s one of those great classic comedies that is what it is, and you will feel satisfied after watching it. It’s easy and funny, and watching Paul Newman’s full body performance as the dim-witted idiot savant Harry Frigg is worth checking out for all Newman fans and classic movie fans alike.
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