Crossing the River

I’m not 100% but it’s entirely possible that the references to “crossing the river” in THE OPTIMISTS (OF NINE ELMS, 1973) take in Egyptian mythology about the journey to the land of the dead. At any rate, it’s a deliberately death-haunted film, with Peter Sellers in old-age makeup as an impoverished music hall entertainer befriended by a couple of scrappy kids.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons had been planning the film, based on his novel, for years — Buster Keaton was pencilled in originally. I found myself wondering how heartbreaking the film would have been with Stan Laurel — a near-impossibility, of course. Sellers is perhaps too theatrical to really move you. Here he’s walking around in a Loachian realist environment, in a Stuart Freeborn false nose and teeth (the teeth have a very subtle effect, the nose sticks out) and special hump-soled shoes to give him a rolling walk.

The film has some stupendous credits — George Martin scoring, Lionel Bart songwriting, though Sellers also plays some authentic old numbers his father taught him. His father also taught George Formby, and there’s a Formby standard in there — I bet nobody cleared the rights. G. Martin’s film scoring career was intermittent, but he seems to have plunged in wholeheartedly around this time, doing PULP and LIVE AND LET DIE close to it.

This was viewed in our weekly watch party. Regular participant Donald Wisely wisely said, “Really liked the shot early in the film of the helicopter hovering over the Thames. It looked a vision of the London that was coming, where it was all finance and property, but no actual productive industry. As a piece of understated social commentary, and possible prophetic vision of, the decline of Britain this film deserves to be better known.”

The kids are great, though their naturalism tends to point up Sellers’ schtickiness. But I guess he’s playing Old Sam as a man immersed in his old routines as a shield against bitter reality.

The film is about death, though Sam is still going at the end. Only the dog dies. But at one point we cut from Sellers standing in the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery — a true thing I never knew existed — to the Dorchester Hotel, where he would have a massive fatal heart attack, alone, seven years later.

I first became convinced that Simmons knew what he was doing when the kids are playing in Thameside landfill and the little boy disappears from view. As his sister looks about frantically, every POV shot features some piece of crumbled, crushed debris that looks, for an instant, as if it could be a small boy’s body. Terrifying.

Fiona’s re-reading The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis, so I picked it up and read the OPTIMISTS stuff, but of course I also turned to page seventeen. There, Lewis speculates on Sellers meeting his stand-in (or doppelganger) just before his fatal heart attack, and also mentions that Sellers had just visited Roger Moore on the set of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. He notes the eerie coincidence of the film’s director, Basil “room for one more inside”, Dearden perishing in a car crash at just the same stretch of motorway where Moore’s character is killed (maybe twice). He fails to note that Moore himself was a Sellers doppelganger, even though his actual doppelganging hadn’t happened yet: in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Moore, using the pseudonym Turk Thrust, plays a reincarnated, plastically-surgeoned Inspector Clouseau.

We might pass the future scene of our own deaths a thousand times without knowing it, or shake hands with our fatal double.

6 Responses to “Crossing the River”

  1. The last words of CSA General Stonewall Jackson a fanatical Baptist were, “let us cross over the river and rest under the trees. “. People still puzzle over whether he went meant the river Jordan or the river Potomac which the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed when they invaded the north during the Antietam campaign in September 1862.t

  2. “…too theatrical to real movie us” is the auto correct algorithm flirting with genius.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Never saw the film, but old enough to remember big newspaper ads showing Sellers is a big, inflated clown suit. I got the impression it was one of those low-rent “family” films that still turn up now and again, a sort of reverse porn where the entire selling point was how clean and inoffensive it was (at least to certain demographics).

  4. 1) Lovely reference, Bryce.
    2) Damn, I just corrected it. Not an autocorrect, just my tired brain.
    3) The movie is actually super grungy, with only Sellers standing between it and total social realist poverty-porn. The combination is bracing.

  5. Hasn’t this been on Talking Pictures fairly recently? Sounds much more interesting than I realised. I think I also assumed it was a kids film.

    Sellers’ career was really in the crapper at this time, wasn’t it? He seems not to have known what he should be doing and so just ended up doing Clouseau again, by some horrible inevitability. It seems almost like it’s his comeback that should have been called The Curse of the Pink Panther.

    Incidentally, as I remember it Roger Moore was Turk Thrust II. The original of course was Bryan Forbes in A Shot in the Dark. And somehow I know that despite never having seen Curse of the Pink Panther – or come to that, any Pink Panther film after Revenge. Which I’m pretty sure is the best policy.

  6. This movie follows shortly on the heels of Ghost in the Noonday Sun, which is the subject of Peter Medak’s recent documentary, The Ghost of Peter Sellers. Which is excellent.

    Through very careful prep and a lot of luck, Simmons seems to have mostly escaped the brunt of Sellers’ craziness. And the resulting film is one of the more interested late Sellers movies. I should watch Simmons’ Black Joy soon.

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