Archive for Elke Sommer

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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Pretenda of Zenda

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2014 by dcairns

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Albert Whitlock!

I saw the comedy PRISONER OF ZENDA as a kid, having enjoyed Peter Sellers in many things, and found it curiously lifeless, almost totally lacking jokes, and didn’t think of it again for years. Only when I got interested in Richard Quine did the film seem worth revisiting. Quine killed himself after making it. Could it really be that bad?* Well, the guy had some hard things in his life, and it would be unfair to blame the strain of working with Sellers, or Clement & La Frenais’ script, at least not entirely. Those prolific TV writers always did better at sitcoms than they did on the big screen, though OTLEY is mildly amusing. The absence of comic bite here may be more to do with productorial (or actorly) interference that with any lack of inspiration on their part, who knows? I don’t have Roger Lewis’s splenetic Sellers bio to hand to check what he says about it, but the way the cast is peppered with previous leading ladies from PINK PANTHER films (Elke Sommer AND Catherine Schell?) and Sellers’ lovely young bride Lynn Frederick, suggests that he was very much running the show.

There’s a fundamental flaw in this kind of thing — by which I mean the comedy in which an ordinary, decent man of the people is thrust into a position of great authority — see also DAVE and THE POPE MUST DIE. While it has an agreeable whiff of wish-fulfillment, it offers no real chance of laughs. The OTHER parody of Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian romance, ROYAL FLASH, released just four years previously, solves this issue admirably: a nice chap suddenly granted power offers no entertainment (unless he’s immediately corrupted) — a rotter granted undeserved license can be pretty good fun. Lionel Jeffries appears as a sidekick/stooge in both films, adding to the deja vu.

This movie looks lush, but just as as I remembered, it’s curiously devoid of gags. The slapstick is poorly conceived and atrociously executed, though having three roles played by an actor who couldn’t do his own stunts must have been a hindrance. There are shots where PS has to be doubled twice (quadrupled?).

Sellers briefly plays the soon-to-be deceased King, plunging from a balloon by the end of the opening credits, in standard old duffer mode. As the effete Prince, he knows some kind of lisp is de rigeur, so in a fit of largesse he confers upon Rudolf V every lisp known to phonetics. Where he intrigues is as Syd Frewin, cockney cab driver and inadvertent doppelganger.

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A Londoner and a mimic of genius, Sellers has no trouble bringing the outward character of Frewin to life, particularly in terms of accent. It’s pure Michael Caine, and, one is tempted to say, not a Michael Caine impersonation but a Michael Caine performance. Whether because the writers couldn’t think of any jokes (unlikely) or because Sellers rejected them all (quite possible: his starry misbehaviour took perverse forms), Frewin has almost no comedy to work with. So Sellers simply plays him as heroic: the lumpenproletariat leading man, body language of a stoic, stolid, squat waddler, but an embodiment of honesty, courage (never even thinking to be afraid or doubtful) and unassuming nobility. The obvious irony is that Rudolf V is a pratt, but his impersonator has all the qualities of a true king, though socially he’s from the gutter (the script throws out a broad hint that Frewin is actually an illegitimate brother to Rudolf, but does nothing with this).

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None of this helps make the film a successful comedy, and Quine is more concerned, it seems, with opulent interiors and the odd swooping crane shot than with conjuring laughs out of this soggy confection. But something about the honest of Syd Frewin remains oddly touching. The way he holds himself. A staunch, baggy dolt with a good heart.

*The true suicide risk Quine movie is OH DAD, POOR DAD, MOMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD, a studio-butchered abomination that might cause self-slaughter among the audience, let alone the crew.

Sapped

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by dcairns

“Who you fucking?” This is apparently how actor Richard Johnson (83) greets friends he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a pertinent question in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), in which RJ plays “Bulldog” Drummond, partially re-imagined for the James Bond era. Or, since the screenwriter in question is by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, we might say de-imagined. Despite his Bondifying, this manly protag is weirdly abstinent sexually, and some of his bedroom antics are treated with a weird attempt at “plausible deniability” as if the censor still cared how many ladies the hero laid.

As part of the refit, “Bulldog” is now a jet-setting businessman, or insurance man, or something, which doesn’t seem to amp up his glamour any to me. Also, nobody calls him “Bulldog” — almost as if they were ashamed to be making a “Bulldog” Drummond movie. They needn’t be — it’s a character with a long, dishonourable tradition. The highlight of poor BD’s screen career is probably the fact that THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film that kickstarted Hitchcock’s espionage cycle in Britain in the ‘thirties, started life as an idea for a BD movie. Anyhow, having rejected “Bulldog” as too laughable for the ‘sixties, Sangster is stuck with a hero whose first name is Hugh.

Rather than being accompanied by a near-deformed upper-class imbecile called Reggie, the new, disimproved Hugh is saddled with an American nephew called *can’t remember and can’t be bothered looking it up*. This blatant sop to out friends across the water is surely flawed by the fact that Nephew is an entirely useless character who gets captured and tortured a lot.

Ah yes, torture. The stories by “Sapper” apparently can be quite brutal (and racist) at times, and this is seized upon by Sangster, whose bread and butter was horror movies, after all. This results in some tonal lurching, as our hero threatens to break a thug’s legs by crushing them against a wall with his car (the guy gets off with badly barked shins), and Nephewman gets singed with lit cheroot and lighter by the sexy bad gals. Such nastiness sits awkwardly with the film’s flip, silly plotting and fun gimmicks like a giant remote-control chess-board.

Also, Johnson is a disaster as a sub-Bondian hero — he makes a tweedy professor seem sexy in THE HAUNTING by way of unexpectedness, but typecast as a staunch protag he’s as useless as Anthony Steele, and that’s saying something. Of course, the writing doesn’t help — while Bond movies always feature one or two scenes of pure exposition enlivened by gags and sparring with M & Q, Sangster fills the whole first half of the film with endless waffle, board meetings and chats with informants, which lack any dramatic tension. That stuff gets supplied by the in-between scenes where Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina wiggle about in revealing costumes killing everybody they meet.

In the first five minutes, Elke has killed an oil magnate with a novelty exploding cigar (it fires a bullet through his head, actually), blown up his private jet while parachuting into the ocean, and joined Sylva to speargun some poor guy to death while wearing startling bikinis. Later on, they’ll use curare to paralyse Leonard Rossiter before rolling him out the window of his penthouse shagging palace. All good clean fun, and helped by the film’s best writing (Koscina is always borrowing Sommer’s stuff, leading to lighthearted squabbling). Elke has little in the way of comic flair (beneath that curvaceous exterior throbs a talent of hinged plywood) by Sylva is pretty hilarious, giving her sadism a touch of knowing innocence that’s very Takashi Miike.

Director Ralph Thomas of the Thomas filmmaking clan (brother Gerald produced the CARRY ON series, son Jeremy has produced Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually makes a fair fist of things, aided by Malcolm Lockyer’s John Barry impression on the soundtrack (title song by the Walker Brothers) — on this evidence, Thomas could have directed a James Bond movie at least as well as, say, Guy Hamilton. He has Nigel Green as the evil mastermind, which helps. But ultimately, the static, boring script sinks most of it, especially the low-grade quips. I envisage Sangster’s script being full of footnotes, pretty much whenever Drummond opens his mouth — “Insert wisecrack here.” But somebody forgot to do so, and thus we get devastating parting shots like “Hey, don’t forget your panties.”

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