Except for an ingenious escape attempt and Paul Newman spoofing his Cool Hand Luke persona, this World War Two POW number falls into the “sounded like a good idea at the time” category. Harry Frigg (Newman), the American army’s most notorious escapee (though from British military prisons), is promoted from buck private to two-star general and parachuted into northern Italy to organize a breakout of five one-star generals.
The premise that the war effort is hampered by embarrassment at the generals being captured seems far-fetched as is the notion that the quintet are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to doing anything that sounds like proper army stuff. Adding another offbeat element is that they are being held in effectively a deluxe POW camp, an ancient castle run by Colonel Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), a former Ritz hotel manager with a lapdog attitude to the rich and powerful.
Almost immediately Frigg discovers an escape route through a secret door but is disinclined to go any further since it leads into the boudoir of the countess (Sylva Koscina). New Jersey inhabitant Frigg feels out of the place with the high-falutin’ generals and proceeds to get himself a cultural education. Meanwhile, the countess, obtaining her position through marriage rather than birth, trying to bolster his confidence naturally triggers his romantic impulses.
The humor is of the gentlest kind – Frigg taking advantage of his superiority, Italians speaking tortured English – and not much in the way of bellylaffs either. Director Jack Smight, who collaborated so well with Newman in Harper (1966) and manages to achieve a tricky balance in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), loses his way here, not least structurally, as the movie pingpongs between the generals, the commandant and Frigg and, thematically, issues of power. Crucially, he fails to rein in Newman.
The generals, squabbling among themselves for power, would be caricatures except that their characters are rounded out by the players, the pick being Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) as Cox-Roberts and Tom Bosley (Divorce American Style, 1967) as Pennypacker. The other generals are played by Andrew Duggan (Seven Days in May, 1964), John Williams (Harlow, 1965) and Jacques Roux (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963). Representing the American top brass in England are James Gregory ( a repeat role in the Matt Helm series) and Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).
After her excellent turn as a mischievous and vengeful villain in Deadlier than the Male (1967), Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina comes down to earth with a less rewarding role as charming leading lady with a sly sense of humor rather than the femme fatale of A Lovely Way to Die (1968). Werner Peters (The Corrupt Ones, 1968) makes a late appearance as a Nazi and you might spot screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate) in a bit part.
The screenplay by Peter Stone (Arabesque, 1966) and Oscar-winner Frank Tarloff (Father Goose, 1968) is an odd mixture of occasional sharp dialogue and labored story. The set-up takes too long and you keep on wondering when it is going to get to the pay-off.
No doubt looking for some light relief after a quartet of heavier dramatic roles – Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), Hombre (1967) and Harper (1967) – Newman acts like he has escaped the straitjacket of a considered performance and instead indulges in mugging and hamming it up, his body freeing up a barrage of mannerisms previously held in check.