Cuisine of the Crime

I hadn’t seen WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE for decades and Fiona had never seen it. And I only just realized that Peter Stone had a big hand in the script — he’s also a key figure in the writing of CHARADE, ARABESQUE, MIRAGE, FATHER GOOSE, SWEET CHARITY… which are all quite sprightly examples of the dying days of the golden years of Hollywood. And this one tries hard to evoke the feel of classic romantic comedy thrillers, while sharing some DNA with the novelty murder cycle begun by THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES.

Someone IS killing the great chefs of Europe, in their own kitchens and using their own favourite methods. Meanwhile dessert chef Jacqueline Bisset (last on the menu) and her ex-husband, fast food entrepreneur George Segal, are squabbling and wooing in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Cary Grant & Ros Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Jackie B proves a very able performer in this genre, and Segal of course is a very fine light comedian but perhaps makes his already seedy character a bit too brash and unlikable and lupine. The only moment where he begins to gather some sympathy is a fine bit of writing where he seems about to be humiliated on UK TV after trying, in a quite well-meaning way, to save his ex’s life. But this happens at the very end of the film, so it’s a little too late.

The Hollywood trick of casting actors who are NOT like the character they’re playing — think Joel McCrea as a pretentious film director in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS — might have been handy here. But for a brash and sleazy businessman, who do you cast in the seventies who’s NOT a bit sleazy?

Robert Morley hams with relish, but one of the film’s real treats is the casting of top European acting talent in rare English-speaking roles: Jean-Pierre Cassell, Philippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort and walking special effect Daniel Emilfork. Fascinating to watch them in a second language: Cassell’s suavity transmutes into an engaging goofiness, Rochefort hams it up enormously and is a joy, and Noiret is really extraordinary, holding the eye and producing an effect of massive comedic overemphasis while actually underplaying like crazy. His tiniest ocular glint is like an explosion.

The mystery is well-played, delivering a genuine surprise out of a very limited (and ever-shrinking) field of suspects, and plays reasonably fair, though when you think about it, given the identity and motive of the killer, it does seem highly unlikely that they’d choose the novelty homicide MO we’ve all been enjoying. But Jackie gets to sleep with the most attractive Frenchman and doesn’t get punished for it, even though the plot positions her as potential final victim. (Neither the PHIBES films nor THEATRE OF BLOOD think of making the most sympathetic character the last person in jeopardy — though maybe we’re *intended* to care about Joseph Cotten and Ian Hendry?)

If the film, as directed by Ted Kotcheff, doesn’t quite come off, maybe it’s because it’s set in and made in the late seventies, with a brownish colour palette and all-location shooting in cavernous rooms. It somehow never has the lighter-than-air soufflé feel the story demands. We’re in London and Paris and Venice, and it always seems overcast and a bit dreich. Not Cary Grant weather at all. Although, if you have Cary Grant, ALL weather is Cary Grant weather. If you have George Segal instead, better hope for sunshine.

WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE? (AKA TOO MANY CHEFS) stars Miss Goodthighs, Quiller, King Louis XVI, King Louis XIII, Cardinal Mazarin, Le colonel Louis Marie Alphonse Toulouse, another different Cardinal Mazarin, Dr. Branom, De Nomolos, Krank, Ralph Earnest Gorse, Sgt. Wilson and Wallace.

13 Responses to “Cuisine of the Crime”

  1. bennettbruceandrew Says:

    Peter Stone also scripted Joseph Sargent’s “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” which is darn near a perfect movie to me.

  2. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I remember seeing this movie on TV in my teens and thinking Jacqueline Bisset must be the skinniest chef in captivity. She doesn’t look like she even eats desserts, never mind spends her life making them!

    But I would be ever so curious to see this again.

  3. I love the original Pelham which proves that Stone could work in a purely contemporary mode with no nostalgic old-school elements at all. I love the Langian links between scenes, with director Joseph Sargent also used in Colossus: The Forbin Project.

    Jackie does have some actual body fat, but it’s all very carefully distributed.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    I’ve not seen this, so I won’t comment on it, but something tells me that one doesn’t look to the director of WAKE IN FRIGHT for comic style. Though WAKE IN FRIGHT can be pretty funny, come to think of it.

  5. He’s better at maintaining the tone than you’d think. Henry Mancini is a great help. I feel like the look of the film is fighting the cast’s best efforts, though.

  6. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I once read an interview with La Jackie in which she admitted she (GASP!) does actually weigh more now than she did in her twenties. That is due apparently to the dilemma that confronts all ageing beauties – namely, ‘face or figure?’ She says that if you keep the same weight, your face becomes haggard in later years. But if you gain a wee bit, your face remains photogenic and camera-ready.

    Naturally I take all of this very seriously indeed. My own personal approach to the ‘face or figure?’ debate has been to let both go to hell in a handcart and circumvent the problem entirely.

  7. Ditto.

    Though I’m now trying, in my vague way, to reduce. Which may suddenly make me look 100, I know…

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Darling, you may never pull off that wet T-shirt look again. Ever!

  9. I am VERY fond of this film. First saw it in Tokyo in 1979 in a café that screened films while you ate or drank, which seemed like a very Japanese thing at the time. I like the way the tone veers between boisterously comic to genuinely sinister – the first murder, especially, is really quite creepy. (Come to think of it, isn’t there a cat in there too? Obviously a contender for Cats on Film 2.) And there’s a scene in which Segal barges into a vegetarian restaurant and starts talking loudly about meat – I’m pretty sure that restaurant was the real-life pancake house My Old Dutch on High Holborn, just around the corner from my college.

  10. It’s a very likable movie, I just wish it worked a tiny bit better. Something somewhere is off. Even though I like all those actors a lot and the mystery is well handled.

  11. I agree there’s something off. But also suspect it’s that very same off-ness that makes it endure after all these years; that indefinable feeling there’s something that neither you nor the film is quite getting to grips with. Like a little bit of mechanism sticking out that prevents it from sliding smoothly into the hole of perfection and vanishing there.

  12. That could be.

    Peter Stone deserves a monograph, anyway.

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