Paul Newman is a Charming Escapee in Bloodless War Comedy



The Secret War of Harry Frigg is a breezy comedy that rests entirely on the shoulders of Paul Newman’s effortless charms. His charm’s shoulders are more than capable of handling the load. It’s a pleasant and diverting way to spend a couple of hours, and the supporting cast is full of great character actors given fun parts to play.

Newman plays the eponymous Harry Frigg, a private serving in the army during World War II, and serving his ninth month of a 60-day sentence in the brig. Frigg, it turns out, is a master escape artist (though it seems he’s not so good at staying escaped). When a group of one-star generals are captured by the Italian army, Frigg is recruited to help bust them out. To get Frigg into the prison where the generals are being held, he’s given an instant promotion to Major General (two stars!), and Frigg soon discovers he could get used to the idea of being the one giving orders instead of taking them.

The problem Frigg discovers when he’s captured and brought to the prison, is that the prison isn’t a prison at all, but a palatial villa owned by a beautiful Italian Countess (Sylva Koscina). What’s more, the colonel who runs the prison is the former manager of a four-star hotel, and he applies his ideals of service and hospitality to his current “guests,” treating them to gourmet dinners, and selections of the Bordeaux found in the Countess’s wine cellar. When Frigg gets a taste of the good life, and then discovers a growing romance with the Countess, his appetite for escape vanishes.

Harry Frigg tends to sag in its middle, after Frigg settles into his life at the palazzo. His relationship with Francesca, and her attempts to school him on the social graces so that he can play his role better is nice, but there isn’t any tension and there aren’t any real stakes. The end of the second act ups the ante considerably as new antagonists are introduced and the third act is charged with renewed energy. 

As a wartime comedy, Harry Frigg is a little too toothless to be a full-on satire like Dr. Strangelove or Catch-22. It has some fun with the notion of how rank can confer an aura of intelligence and sophistication on those who possess it, regardless of their true abilities, but it’s not really interested in being mean about it. The cadre of generals Frigg is sent to rescue are hapless when it comes to making a decision amongst themselves, but they’re all basically good guys, and are willing to put the work in when Frigg’s plans require them too. 

But Frigg gets a lot of comedy mileage out of its story without needing to draw any blood. Newman is, of course, charming as Frigg as he goes from stoop-shouldered, frustrated private to blustering general. James Gregory (The Manchurian Candidate), as the officer who conceives of the rescue attempt, is delighted when hearing that Frigg has escaped another army jail, proving Frigg’s suitability for the task assigned to him. Vito Scotti is the Italian Colonel, who might just get a promotion for running the prison camp with the fewest escapes. Norman Fell appears and Buck Henry even has a small role as an officer tasked (unsuccessfully) with imprisoning Frigg.

Harry Frigg reunites Newman with his Harper director, Jack Smight (Airport ’75, Damnation Alley). Smight started his directing career in television, before moving to feature films with I’d Rather be Rich in 1964. Universal was looking for someone who could shoot the movie quickly and cheaply- a director experienced in television would be ideal. Smight fit the bill perfectly, and although he was lukewarm on the script, he took the job as it was his chance to make the jump into the big time. I’d Rather be Rich was a modest success, and it led to more jobs for Smight, including a multi-picture deal with Warner’s, of which Harper was one. Harper ended up being a huge hit.

The Secret War of Harry Frigg was a success, though not on the level of Harper was. Still, it was well-received. The movie is light and breezy, and Newman and Koscina are an attractive pair. I’m not sure I’ll remember having watched it a month from now, but I enjoyed the time I spent with it.

Kino-Lorber’s blu-ray release of Harry Frigg comes packaged with a feature-length commentary track by film historians Daniel Kremer and Nat Segaloff. It also has the usual collection of theatrical trailers.