Archive for Burt Kwouk

Posthumous Pink Panthers #3: S.O.P.P.*

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2015 by dcairns

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*Standard Operational Posthumous Peter.

And so to SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, the third and perhaps final installment in our series looking at Blake Edwards’ attempts to artificially resuscitate a franchise after the death of its star. After CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER this movie had to wait ten years to be born — it took that long for memories to fade. Hitching his wagon to the apparently rising star of Roberto Benigni, Edwards invents an illegitimate son for Inspector Clouseau, who is present here only as a photograph and a statue, which is a relief from the effigy-haunted CURSE. Herbert Lom, Graham Stark and Burt Kwouk are along for the ride, making this definitely officially a part of the series.

Mind you, Edwards’ compulsion to muck up his own continuity is still in evidence. My favourite example of this was way back in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER when we were all so young, and somebody proposes that Clouseau is the perfect man to recover the stolen diamond since he found it last time it was stolen — ignoring the fact that in the original PINK PANTHER, Clouseau was actually convicted of STEALING the diamond. Here, we have Claudia Cardinale (always welcome), as Clouseau Jnr’s mother — her presence “explaining” Benigni’s Italian accent, through which he attempts to bellow in a French accent, superimposed exactly like glazing on ham. But in the first PINK PANTHER, Cardinale played a middle-eastern Princess. And the character she’s playing here was originated by Elke Sommer in A SHOT IN THE DARK. If we had any minds left after TRAIL and CURSE, they would boggle.

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Now, there must be a plot, mustn’t there? Well, not after the previous two films — plot seems to have been ruled as redundant as the vermiform appendix. But, in fact, this film contains, if not a lucid narrative, at least — what? — footage… footage suggestive of narrative ends being dimly pursued. No diamond his been snatched this time, but a Princess of Lugash (the series’ vaguely Arabic Ruritania) is kidnapped by hard-working heavy Robert Davi. This scenario leads to a lot of what I have to term faint-hearted sexploitation, with poor Debrah Farentino continually punched, kicked, injected with dope, and dumped into a filthy oasis. Also, we get a belly-dancer threatened with having her nipple cut off. Forget the fact that none of this is remotely amusing, we have to ask, has Edwards ceded the reins to Jesus Franco? Actually, the cheap mock-Arab sets, and high-chroma lighting by Dick Bush (Ken Russell’s cameraman and a regular on these late PP films) do suggest the world of, say, 99 WOMEN (which Herbert Lom was IN, come to think of it).

Everything ultimately hinges on Benigni, doesn’t it? And what an unfunny spectacle he is. True, the material is mostly pitiful — Edwards has decided that the phrase “That felt good!” is a Clouseau catchphrase which everyone remembers and will laugh at whenever, apropos of nothing, a character says it — but Benigni murders any gag with a vestigial pulse. I haven’t seen LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL since it came out, but I thought he had talent then — bits of it made me laugh, especially the early stuff, and then the Holocaust stuff was exactly as awkward, dishonest and unsucessful as everyone had always assumed Jerry Lewis’ THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED would be. In Jim Jarmusch films, Benigni seemed not exactly hilarious, but a useful ingredient — someone whose mode of being/performing was so radically other than John Lurie and Tom Waits et al, that he made them seem even more like themselves.

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But here… oh my. It certainly doesn’t help that the editing lingers agonizingly on the worst sequences of yelling and fumbling, while jumping away anxiously whenever anything remotely promising develops. But Benigni’s forced enthusiasm, muddled schtick and high volume are instantly wearying. Enough of the scenes are shot in Edwards’ long-take style (there’s even a bit of mock-DePalma steadicam in a hospital) to allow us to appreciate the actor, if we are able, and despite the tiredness of the plaster cast leg slapstick routines, this material HAS been kind of funny in the past, so Benigni’s failure to raise more than the occasional smirk, while frequently inducing wincing, grimaces and Chief Inspector Dreyfus eye-twitching, must count against him.

As usual, the chief interest of the film is psychological — what does it say about its auteur? I distinctly recall a loyal Shadowplayer commenting that it shows the aging Edwards becoming more resigned to his most famous creation, making a kind of piece with the moustached albatross around his creaking neck. This is shown by the way in which Dreyfus/Lom/Edwards comes to accept Clouseau Jnr, despite his tendency to wind up bleeding (how hilarious! An old man’s head is gashed!) whenever Clouseau is around. And in fact Lom ends up marrying Cardinale, becoming, in essence, Clouseau’s father, which Edwards always was.

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The titles — the “high point” of the film, actually, depict Clouseau Jnr. tormenting the hapless Pink Panther, which is the first time it’s been played that way around. Since Edwards had Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt base the animated Panther on his own suave persona, the Panther is one of the various Edwards surrogates in the series. Here, we open in a recording studio where the film’s score is set to be recorded. We have Henry Mancini handing his baton to Bobby McFerrin for an a cappella rendition of the theme tune. As sixties-style pastel squares slide about on a movie screen, revealing the credits, a cartoon Panther and Benigni go to battle, getting slung into and out of the screen like Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK JNR. It’s all vaguely encouraging, especially as the post-ROGER RABBIT combo of live action and cel animation is reasonably well done. The lack of a typical pre-credits sequence may sound a faint alarm bell (maybe someone isn’t trying too hard?) but that and the film’s reassuringly short runtime might equally signal a New Narrative Efficiency. (In fact it seems to indicate Carelessly Deleted Scenes. The film Sellers wanted to make without Edwards was to be called GHOST OF THE PINK PANTHER. The credits for SON list a character as “Clouseau’s Ghost” but no such figure appears. Make of that what you will.)

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It is not to be so, of course, but the film’s attempts to cut poor Dreyfus some slack are kind of redemptive. A second Chief Inspector is concocted for Clouseau to mangle, sparing Lom some of the more undignified disasters (in a series swarming with doppelgangers, this is hardly noticed), and he’s handed a romantic interest (Mrs. Dreyfus, seen in TRAIL under a disfiguring facepack, and spoken of as early as A SHOT IN THE DARK, appears to be permanently out of the picture, perhaps retroactively erased by the vanishing ray from STRIKES BACK.) And so, swathed in bandages, twitching manically, and probably quite, quite insane, Dreyfus/Edwards hobbles off into the sunset. But we don’t actually see this happen — after a triumphal “That — felt — GEUID!” from Benigni, Edwards freezes on the gurning idiot face (looking more like one of Clouseau’s disguises), and a saw cuts through the image, neatly excising the offensive kisser. We cringe, expecting a jammy residue like Edith Scob’s in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, but instead we get a yawning abyss, through which the cartoon Clouseau Jnr. pokes his own ugly mug, as if posing at one of those seaside cut-out scenes. Benigni’s amputated features, a flat piece of chipboard, meanwhile fall and crush the Panther’s foot, and the enraged wildcat then leaps through the Benigni face-opening to pursue the cartoon incompetent off into the vanishing point, in a vast Outer Darkness which seems to represent many things — it’s the world of reality Behind the Screen, where Edwards will largely spend his declining years except for some stage and television work and an entertaining appearance at the Oscars to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award; it’s the emptiness inside Clouseau/Sellers, since (a) Sellers is dead and absent and (b) as Sellers said, “I have no personality. I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed,”; it’s The Future, into which Edwards imagines himself pursuing the phantasmal Panther for all Eternity; and it’s Death.

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Posthumous Pink Panthers #1: The Talking Cure?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2015 by dcairns

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It’s not exactly Richard Williams, is it?

The beginning of a mini-series looking at the PINK PANTHER movies made by Blake Edwards after the death of star Peter Sellers, one of the more remarkable and misbegotten cycles in cinema history. It’s almost as if Jean-Pierre Leaud had fallen under a bus and Truffaut had resolved to carry on the Antoine Doinel series with a glove puppet; or as if Akira Kurosawa had decided to make a third YOJIMBO film after his catastrophic bust-up with Mifune, and deployed a photographic enlargement on a stick as leading man. Edwards’ various solutions are inventive, in a tortuous sort of way, but what’s really interesting is the psychopathological underpinnings of these ventures — if one discounts the perennial lure of shekels, how, exactly, can we account for such ventures?

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First shot of Clouseau: a horribly unconvincing stand-in. The macabre tone is set.

The necrology begins with TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, which crept into empty theatres two years after Sellers’ death. I saw it with my big brother Sean at the Odeon, Clerk Street, I believe. We were almost the only ones there. The original series of films was the most profitable comedy series ever, but the public can, upon occasion, smell desperation the way dogs are said to smell fear. How do you make a PINK PANTHER film when Sellers is dead? Dismissing the idea of hiring Alan Arkin, who had played the role of Clouseau in 1968, Edwards announced that he had a stash of unseen Sellers outtakes which he was going launch upon us, cunningly edited into a wraparound story and with some highlights from earlier entries.

The vehicle that’s supposed to tie all this together is Joanna Lumley as a news reporter investigating Clouseau’s disappearance. But her “narrative” can only get underway once the movie has somehow packaged together all its leftover footage, which it does by way of a few phone calls from Herbert Lom to STRIKES AGAIN cast survivor Colin Blakely (who would shortly follow Sellers into eternity). This also drags in footage of the great Leonard Rossiter, who was wasted in STRIKES AGAIN and was about to perish prematurely in real life. It’s a death-haunted movie.

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It’s generally obvious why most of the deleted scenes were deleted in the first place — the main thought they inspire is “Oh, so REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES BACK could have been even longer?” They’re not exactly terrible, but not exactly very funny. And of course they don’t connect to any real story, being bits painlessly excised from two or three different stories, so they create the vivid impression of a movie in a holding pattern. When the trunk items are exhausted, Edwards moves on to a series of interviews, where Lumley gathers the thoughts of various Clouseau associates. This is a transparent device to justify copious flashbacks: Clouseau fights Cato; Clouseau exchanges exposition with David Niven and Capucine. And of course, the barely-alive David Niven we meet is dubbed by Rich Little, since the actor had lost his voice to the cancer that would shortly carry him off. The dubbing is quite well done — better than the strange, helium voice that’s been dubbed over a Sellers stand-in in long shots. And the sight of Niven grinning and tugging his ear, as he always seemed to do, is poignant.

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But what’s actually interesting is what’s said in the interviews. “When you’ve been doing something for twenty years, sometimes you miss it, even if it’s painful,” muses Burt Kwouk’s Cato, a ventrilogist act for Edwards himself. And Herbert Lom as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus is REALLY interesting, collapsing in hysterics while trying to give a tribute to his old colleague. It’s an Edwards self-portrait! Watch Edwards talking about Sellers, and you may see his eyelid tremble as he says stuff like, “Peter was a very complicated man. He believed he was in communication with his dead mother. Very complicated.” ANd you can see he’s trying to telepathically communicate to US: “By ‘complicated’ I mean ‘batshit crazy’, okay? But I’m not allowed to say so because of Hollywood’s Standard Operational Bullshit, which governs my every move, and because Sellers is dead and I’m alive, damnit.”

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Having churned through supporting players Lom, Kwouk, Robert Loggia and Graham Stark, Edwards then invents one more, Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father. In this way he can argue that the film contains original material with (a) Clouseau, I guess. And some of the material is… passable. At least it’s not totally filler, like the Loggia scenes — Edwards has a purpose in mind here, other than padding his running time — he actually wants to get some laughs. And, by more or less plagiarising the business with the old servant in “10”, he comes close. Though Mulligan is no Sellers, he does some decent physical stuff, using his lanky, limber frame to suggest extreme old age.

This interview frames flashbacks to original material showing Clouseau’s youth, so for once Edwards can cut loose and do some slapstick sequences without his dead actor being a problem. But replacing Sellers with a variety of kids and juveniles and stuntmen in no way makes up for the film’s missing centre, and the gags here are really pitiful. It’s looking like Sellers’ contribution to the series was bigger than just performing — when he was on form, he made this stuff funny.

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And then, eventually, it ends, with a shit joke about bird shit. A Sellers stand-in, indicating that Clouseau has survived the actor who played him, transforms into an animated Panther in Clouseau drag. Actor/Clouseau and creator/Panther have become one. And Edwards runs a montage of highlights from the series through the end titles, getting more laughs than any of the new footage seen thus far. I miss the way REVENGE ended with shots of Sellers and company corpsing at their own material, though. In the absence of any actual jokes, I think it would have been a bold move for Edwards to have played footage of his actors simply WAITING for their cues, looking puzzled, impatient, dyspeptic or sleepy. Or he could have filmed a script conference and included that, showing himself and fellow culprits Geoffrey Edwards (Executive Son) and Frank & Tom Waldman (Associate Brothers) frowning at sheets of paper.

Going To The Candidate’s Debate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2008 by dcairns

Watching THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (version original) with friends — Fiona had never seen it — and it was striking how, for a very good film (it IS a very good film) it’s full of very silly, awful things that would sink a lot of lesser movies. So in a way I feel I’m celebrating the flick’s real virtues by listing some of its more gaping dreadfulnesses.

1) Opening credits. A badly airbrushed THING — a bundled flag? Then it acquires a playing-card face. OK, that’s pertinent. Then it sort of STRETCHES in order to fit in more credits. How does it do that? WHAT IS IT?

David Amram’s music works quite well in the film, but when you hear it more or less by itself, as here, it kind of makes you want to slip quietly out of life and start decaying.

Korean? Right.

2) Henry Silva as a Korean. “Of Spanish-Sicilian descent?” someone must have said, “Close enough!” Or maybe they just wanted someone Sinatra could hang out with. I like Silva, he has the face of a clever shark, but he is nobody’s idea of oriental. And he has to do kung fu! They could have got Bruce Lee, surely. Not Korean, either, but you know, CLOSER. It is ASTONISHING that, in 1962, a filmmaker might voluntarily cast this way, especially in a small role where there would have been no real pressure to insert a big name star.

With one mighty chop! I think it’s the placement of the couch that makes this bit funny.

3) Kung fu. Sinatra is many things (he’s terrific in this) but he’s actually not the most graceful athlete. It’s particularly funny, the contrast between the feeble movements of the lumbering Caucasians onscreen, and the EFFECT they have, smashing through tabletops and doors with their mighty chops. It’s just mad. Several of Sinatra’s “moves” seem to have been borrowed from the classic “dirty fighting” scene in Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER, where, despite being some years older and having a bad back, Gary Cooper acquitted himself rather better in the action hero stakes than the bandy-legged crooner from Hoboken.

Send in the stunt men! If you watch the equence at regular speed, it is in no way obvious that it’s not Frank and Henry here. But it’s still funny.

The sequence is laughable partly because it seems to have served for the inspiration for all the wildly destructive martial arts combat in the later PINK PANTHER films, but only partly. Shouting “No, Cato, now is not the time!” at the screen doesn’t actually make the sequence funnier than it already is. It shares with Blake Edwards’ slapstick scenes the abrupt, unmotivated start, the massively elevated levels of destruction, and the unhealthy, unskilled posture and movement of the fighters (though Burt Kwouk and Henry Silva certainly have the edge on Peter Sellers and Frank Sinatra).

4) Janet Leigh. Now, I love Janet Leigh, but there is actually no reason for her to be in this picture save to assure us that the Frankie is heterosexual, in case we were for any reason worried. After all, shorn of love interest, he spends most of his time making puppy eyes at Laurence Harvey. Screenwriter George Axelrod (THE 7 YEAR ITCH) breaks out his best cutesy dialogue to try and give Janet something to SAY, at least, since she has nothing to do, and Sinatra suffers so effectively in these scenes that they kind of get away with it. Of course, a lot of women’s roles were created for this very reason, and still are, but usually they’re more thoroughly woven into the narrative, so that their presence actually achieves something else too.

5) Laurence Harvey going on about being “lovable”, a word he uses about 47 times in one speech. Overdone, maybe? However, L.H. is, if not exactly adorable, extremely effective and touching here. My old friend took a dislike to the Lithuanian Lothario after witnessing him urinate from the window of a moving car, but if wanton micturation were something that disqualified one from screen greatness, Lee Tracy and Robert Mitchum would both be disbarred from the Walk of Fame. As well as all those cockney actors who, by long tradition, use the dressing room sink rather than the toilet (Barbara Windsor, James Hayter and Jessie Matthews, I’m talking about you).

6) Not a flaw, but a definite TRAIT: Frankenheimer directs this with a great deal of invention but very little cohesion. While most of it uses wide-angle lens deep-focus photography in a way that draws upon CITIZEN KANE while looking ahead to Frankenheimer’s much more extreme SECONDS, the film uses just about every style yet invented. Mostly location-shot, the film has some bizarre process shots when Harvey and Sinatra are meant to be in Central Park, even though the wide shots show them actually there. Arriving at a political rally, we suddenly go handheld, in a pastiche of Pennebaker’s PRIMARY (see also THE BEST MAN and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY — this is obviously the default mode for filming political activity, pre-Zapruder). Ten minutes from the end, there are a couple of WIPES, for no readily explainable reason.

Winged victory.

The stylistic confusion could be said to apply to the film’s politics as well, except that I think both are intentional, and pretty clever. It’s obviously an anti-McCarthy fable, but at the same time the film confirms the Reds-under-the-beds paranoia by having its McCarthy character turn out to be a communist agent. Senator Jordan voices the film’s message, but when he’s assassinated the bullet passes through a carton of milk on its way to his heart, so he appears to bleed milk. Frankenheimer stated that this was a satirical swipe at the character’s milky liberalism.

But all that double-bluff and counter-espionage makes the movie smarter and more interesting than some piece of agit-prop.

Pretty much everything else seemed great, Angela Lansbury in particular. Let’s talk about HER sometime!

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