Times Staff Writer

The most important person in Robert Aldrich's electrifying 1956 film "Attack" (at the UCLA Melnitz tonight at 7:30 p.m. as part of an Aldrich retrospective) is never seen.

He is a small-town Southern judge. It's Europe, 1944, and his son (Eddie Albert) is an Army captain desperate to prove himself to his father in battle but so insecure that he's paralyzed into cowardice, thus endangering his men. Among them are the tough, brave Jack Palance and the level-headed, articulate William Smithers, who are all too aware their captain's inadequacies. Unfortunately, the colonel (Lee Marvin) over Albert is from the same town and after the war will need the judge's backing to launch a political career.

James Poe's adaptation of Norman Brooks' play, "Fragile Fox," could scarcely be more cinematic and has provided the blueprint for one of Aldrich's finest films, a work so dynamic and timeless as to seem a classic war picture.

Yet "Attack" is in essence a psychological drama that stands as a comment on power--the responsibilities of the those who possess it, the plight of those over whom it is wielded recklessly. But above all else it's crackling good entertainment, utterly absorbing and superbly crafted. The cast just couldn't be better: This is one of those instances when Palance had both material and direction strong enough to sustain his intensity, and Albert's hateful, pathetic coward is one of his finest portrayals. Marvin has the most complex role, playing a shrewd opportunist eventually confronted with his personal ambitions.

"Attack" will be preceded at 5:30 by Aldrich's "Apache" (1954), starring Burt Lancaster. Information: (213) 825-2581, 825-2953.

Lancaster also stars in "The Swimmer" (1968), 8 p.m. Saturday at the County Museum of Art's Bing Theater as part of its Lancaster series. If you have never seen this truly offbeat film, directed by Frank Perry from Eleanor Perry's adaptation of a John Cheever short story, you will be in for a surprise. It's an oddly lyrical, finally tragic fable about an advertising executive who decides, on an idyllic summer day, to swim all the pools across the county (unnamed, but one of those exceedingly affluent Manhattan commuter suburbs) on his way home. As Lancaster proceeds on his course, his friends and neighbors become increasingly hostile and we gradually realize that he's unhinged, his last two years apparently a total blank.

Some of his encounters are remarkable, especially one with his one-time mistress (Janice Rule, terrific) that is charged with her love/hate response, and another with Joan Rivers--yes, the Joan Rivers--as a woman at a party who doesn't feel attractive enough to take his overtures seriously. All evidence suggests that Lancaster's swimmer had been a self-absorbed, insensitive WASP heel; yet as he heads deeper into his maze, the more sympathy he evokes.

This ambitious film invites many interpretations (and probably just as many opinions as to how much should have been withheld and how much revealed about the swimmer). Yet who could not identify with him in his increasing sense of alienation and isolation in a world that seems more and more perplexing?

Playing with "The Swimmer" is "Go Tell the Spartans" (1978), one of the very best yet most unjustly neglected Vietnam War movies, and that has, of all things in a war picture, a comic sequence with Lancaster that deserves to become a classic. Information: (213) 857-6201.

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