Archive for Herbert Lom

Chromophobia

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2020 by dcairns

Well, I figured Peter Sellers’ only film as director would be of SOME interest. The fact that, after the film flopped, he tried to destroy every copy, made it more intriguing. I’m not sure how he was able to do this — why would Twentieth Century Fox pass up the TV sales money, however little it might be? What about the royalties due the cast? Anyway, the BFI fortunately has preserved a print and made it available.

It’s a role, from Marcel Pagnol’s source play, that Louis Jouvet (in his debut), John Barrymore, Alexandre Arnaudy (don’t know who he is) and Fernandel had previously played on film. Only the geniuses seem to have succeeded in the part, and indeed Sellers, an undisputed genius, fails.

The performances are all good — the colour pallette is exceptional — Don Ashton (KWAI) designed it exquisitely and John Wilcox shot it — he was Freddie Francis’s operator and then shot a lot of FF’s films as director. Sellers’ camera direction is very plain — it befits a man who claimed to have no personality.

Sellers’ role is probably the problem — he has to play a nice, honest, innocent man, which worked for him in THE MILLIONAIRESS but there’s no Loren here to take up the slack. And, of course, THE MILLIONAIRESS was never really that exciting. Bosley Crowther for once in his life got it more or less right when he said that Sellers was boring in the role: he starts off OK, it’s intriguing to see him try this, he’s rather lovable, but as his problems mount, the film loses impetus, which is hard to understand. I may have to see the Jouvet again to find out what makes it so electrifying in the right hands.

The muted colour schemes probably don’t help, gorgeous though they are. Sellers had not yet, it seems, acquired his superstitious dread of green, which is allowed to creep in a couple of times, but mostly the film sticks with shades of brown, with a kind of strong tea hue being the richest shade on offer:

I like brown, when used with sensitivity. This is quite a lot of brown to consume at one sitting, admittedly. Sellers’ chromophobia may be his strongest stylistic quality as filmmaker.

A dialled-down central performance, a subdued colour scheme, a flat directorial style, a tricky play. And I wonder if Sellers’ cast and crew felt the transition from innocence to corruption take place in their director as the shoot went on?

It is nice to see Billie Whitelaw in a sex-bomb role, but Whitelaw is not Loren. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she realizes she can go to town with the little she has: she makes an arresting cartoon character. Also revelatory: John Neville, in the best bit of work I’ve seen from him in his younger days, Michael Gough, having a huge amount of fun. Leo McKern is fun and Herbert Lom always a joy. Nadja Tiller is, I guess, the only surviving cast member and she’s excellent. She deserves more attention from film lovers.

At home with the Loms

The play had a checkered history, and you can see why — Raymond Massey did it and it died like a dog, progressively as it went on (a prog dog). The alternative title, I LIKE MONEY, makes it naked: it’s the story of an idealist who becomes an amoral, mercenary swine, and likes it. Sellers always had a strong sympathy for the theme of THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN — “people will do anything for money.” This movie affirms that, and suggests that dishonesty brings wealth and therefore happiness, but Sellers, exerting his mise-en-scene a bit for the last moments before fade-out, does show himself in extreme long shot, alone, stretching his arms in a show of satisfaction that rings a little hollow… the castle is placed at the side (outside the TV safe zone, though), reminding us of the hero’s material wealth, but this is definitely the last shot of a tragedy.

Hollowness, as well as chromophobia, may be a signature element of the Sellers style.

MR. TOPAZE stars Gustave Flournoy; Nadia Rokovsky, Number 8; Henry Fengriffen; Klang; Miss Havisham; Alfred Pennyworth; Sister Thornhill; Violet Kray; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen; Religious Sandwich Man; and Nevil Shanks.

Bumbling Towards Bedlam

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2020 by dcairns

Let the madness begin.

Blake Edwards said that he used the PANTHER films to get films made, like 10, which were otherwise unbankable, and he reckoned Sellers did the same — so we probably have REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER to thank for the existence of BEING THERE. So cut it some slack, I say.

And I say that because of my distant memory that this film was LOATHED by the more respectable British critics. Edwards’ elegant mise-en-scene was not, apparently, noticed. The fact that it’s uproariously funny was denied. No, they focussed on the fact that it was milking gags established back in 1964 (true), and that it was all completely stupid (true). With a quick critical shuffle you can get from “stupid” to “witless” and from there to “unfunny” and I guess if you’ve watched the film in an echoing empty cinema with a few of your fellow embittered alcoholic hacks, you can sustain that view. Quite tricky to review comedy if you don’t see it with an audience or an open mind.

A strangely sombre opening scene on a bleak farm, with Mancini setting a tone of melancholic menace, It could be a Jean-Pierre Melville movie.Then, at a mob board meeting, the assassination of Clouseau is suggested, and we get some backstory — Clouseau, it seems, “has survived sixteen assassination attempts, including two by his own boss.” This seriously underestimates Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s coyote-like determination. He made more than two attempts in A SHOT IN THE DARK, and there have been two intervening films since then, in which he did not lay down on the job.

Edwards also uses this sequence to set up Dyan Cannon’s character, Simone, secretary and mistress to Duvier (Robert Webber, an Edwards favourite/surrogate), the French connection of whom you’ve all heard so much. Cannon is probably the best actress and most able comedian to have played opposite Sellers in the series, though she’s a giggler and that must have cost them DAYS of work.

It’s a real shame that her extreme cosmetic procedures have made it so hard to cast her, though I guess given the no-win situation faced by actresses over the age of, say, twenty-five, she’d probably still have an uphill battle to keep her career going. And looking like a lion is kind of cool. But remember what Bert Lahr said about there not being many parts for lions.

We note that Simone is fully cognizant of her boss’s murderous conspiracy and only turns against him when he tries to have her offed. This is no morality play.

Titles by Depatie-Freleng: therefore funny, but not as glamorous as Dick Williams’ work.But the funky version of the theme tune shows Mancini is still inventive and committed.Clouseau, who will also soon be committed, is (finally) introduced at the premises of Dr. (later Prof.) Auguste Balls, and it’s full-on insanity. Sellers’ interpretation of the Clouseau voice has been steadily getting more nasal, more strangulated, more Franglais, as the series proceeded, and now he is, to quote Dr. Pratt from THE WRONG BOX, “scarcely human.” The fact that he spends a chunk of the film’s first act wearing a smoke-blackened, sopping wet Toulouse-Lautrec disguise adds to the cartoon quality.But we’ve also got Balls, impersonated with great gusto by Graham Stark in the most full-on comic persona of the series. The answer to the question, which nobody besides Edwards and Sellers probably ever asked, “Where does Clouseau get his disguises?” I think the Balls establishment is first name-checked in STRIKES BACK, as the source of the inflatable hunchback outfit.

Balls has a henchman, appropriately, I guess, named Cunny. The level of drivelling idiocy in this screenplay is truly inspirational. Cunny is played by the late Danny Schiller, who doesn’t even have a photo on the IMDb, but I guess if you’re playing second banana to a second banana, you’re liable to get overlooked. (When the magnificent Harvey Korman takes over the role of Balls in CURSE, Schiller stays on as Cunny, but doesn’t come back in SON, alas, in which Stark is Balls again. The reason for all this swapping about is that Balls was originally to appear in STRIKES, played by Korman, but the scene got cut, to be thriftily recycled in the cobbled-together TRAIL. Presumably Korman was unavailable this time, and the role seemed like a good one for Stark, whose presence was by now required, maybe in hopes of pacifying the recalcitrant Sellers. Whew.

A student of mine tried to get Graham Stark in a short film in the early 2000s, but his wife nixed it. A shame: he was evidently still up for it, but didn’t make a film in the last fifteen years of his life. Still, he had his nude photography to occupy him, I guess.

Douglas Wilmer returns from A SHOT IN THE DARK but has been promoted from butler to Clouseau’s boss. He overacts a bit, though what constitutes overacting in this film is probably open for debate. Very large scale Cato fight, interrupted by a genuine kung fu assassin (well, a burly British stuntman in halfhearted yellowface). Fiona was delighted to see Cato given a lot to do in this one, and we get to appreciate Burt Kwouk’s, if you’ll excuse the expression, comedy chops. So, people crashing through floors, getting covered in paint, and so on.

“Inspector Clouseau’s residence” gets bigger and more opulent throughout the series, and moves into better neighbourhoods also. And apart from all the structural damage, it undergoes a few makeovers too, with L-A Down somehow turning the boudoir into a vast, glitterball shagging palace with colossal Murphy bed, and Cato converting the whole premises later in this one.A bit of plot contrivance — AGAIN, Edwards comes up with a trans/cross-dressing character, this time to steal Clouseau’s clothes so that he can be thought dead. Found in the park in women’s clothing, Clouseau is hauled off to the psych ward just as Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, natch) is getting out. And so, for the whole second act, it’s Ripley Underground: Dreyfus believes his tormentor is dead, but Clouseau keeps popping up to startle him. Dreyfus faints dead away each time, giving him no opportunity to determine if Clouseau is real or hallucinatory.Edwards may be more concerned with dreaming up ways of torturing Dreyfus (who is kind of his stand-in in the series, the man trapped against his will in a demented clouseauverse) than he is with finding meaningful action for Clouseau. Here, letting the poor man think his nemesis is gone forever, only to shatter that illusion, is about the cruellest thing left to inflict on him. (Let’s not dwell overmuch on the fact that the Dreyfus himself literally disintegrated before our eyes in the previous film, is definitely dead, DEAD.)

Clouseau appears to have been declared dead for a matter of mere hours, but Cato has had his flat completely redecorated (including, presumably, fixing the hole in the floor) and turned into a “Chinese nookie factory,” complete with Valerie Leon as a dominatrix. I note that Madame Wu, who runs the joint, is played by Elisabeth Welch (DEAD OF NIGHT), who was African-American-British, not Chinese.Clouseau’s racist lapses (referring, for instance, to Cato’s “fiendish yellow brain”) are a little cringey, even though we know the Inspector is a terrible employer, a law-and-order guy and so probably a man of the right, and he exerts a colonialist superiority over his manservant, all of which is unsympathetic and which the films mock him for. And Kwouk subtly indicates, here and there, that Cato’s somewhat aware when Clouseau is being an idiot. He’s very loyal though — so long as the boss is alive.I don’t know what sick mind conceived the idea that the badly-injured Cunny should serve as a chair for Dyan Cannon’s character. And I don’t know why he’s in his underwear. Sure, maybe all his clothes were destroyed by the beumb. But he works in a clothing emporium. It’s all very strange.Climax in Hong Kong with crap puns about Chinese names (“Lee Kee Boatyards”) and Sellers in a great fat suit with cotton wool in his cheeks, a would-be Brando parody that’s also about Clouseau’s inability to suggest anyone other than Clouseau. I mean, they have the world’s best mimic in a film where he has to adopt various personae (including Dreyfus and a salty Svedish seaman) but since he’s playing an idiot he has to do them all really badly. You start to sense why Sellers might have felt straitjacketed in the role.The hardworking props team (who online bemoan their inability to get Clouseau’s sea-dog shoulder-parrot to stand up straight) altered a Citroen 2CV and created Clouseau’s crimefighting mystery mobile, the Silver Hornet (a nod to the TV show from which Cato was culturally appropriated) which collapses like a clown car when started. And this gag, played for a second time, ends the film, although some dialogue between Sellers and Cannon, who really play off each other well, carries on into the end credits until the music drowns them out and then abruptly stops with around ten seconds still to go. One pictures Mancini, who has been trying his damnedest throughout, hurling down his baton and storming out. If everyone else is being a prima donna, why can’t he?

Edwards would make three — THREE — posthumous PANTHER films, all grappling with the ghost of his star. Chasing phantoms is exhausting, unrewarding work, as Clouseau could have told him, and wraiths make for tricky wrestling. In the end, his scurrilous relationship with his star remained, as he put it, “the enigma of my life.”For his part, Sellers was not finished with the Inspector either, as we’ll see. Yes, it is time to examine the steaming document known as ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER…

REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER stars Sidney Wang; The Phantom; Spectre 3; Alice Henderson; Juror 12; Peter the Dutchman; Dick Laurent; Carl Evello; Spectre #10; Pepi; Fender (ghost); Jean Courtney; Snorri the Miserable; Nayland Smith; Count Von Krolock; Queeg; Margaret / Tera; Female Madam Wang; Mrs. Alexander; Moishe; Harold Hump; Manuel; Duc de Poncenay; Reverend Timothy Farthing – Vicar; Mrs. Rusk; Professor Pacoli; Joseph Schenck; and Charles Bovin.

Helium Hunchback

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2020 by dcairns

STRIKES AGAIN is the PANTHER film I could never see as a kid — RETURN and REVENGE and SHOT IN THE DARK played on TV regularly, but not this one. No idea why.

When I did finally see it, I was underwhelmed. Again, not sure why. I do think the whole Octoberfest bit is lacking in good laughs and gags, and the mad mastercriminal plot is maybe not the right fit for the series? But on the other hand, they had done the heist film, the whodunnit, and the Hitchcockian wrong man story — so they needed a different branch of the crime genre, and the Fu Manchu angle was pretty low-hanging fruit…

Herbert Lom ascends to full Mabuseian supervillain status, and gets to play the organ maniacally, spoofing both his PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND characters. Along the way, the narrative allows us to take in a bit of country house mystery (“I expect you’re wondering…”) as Lom abducts a scientist and his daughter, a fairly straight riff on Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu activities for Harry Allan Towers. The plunge into outright fantasy might be a sign that the series has jumped the shark, as might be the fact that the title now refers to… nothing at all. The Pink Panther diamond is nowhere to be seen. (They could have had Lom using it to focus his death ray, I suppose. And the ray could have omitted a Phildickian PINK LIGHT…)Going by Blake Edwards’ diagnosis, that Sellers was tractable when he needed a hit, and impossible when he was coming off one, this shoot must have been hell, I suppose. If the libraries were open (lockdown) I could borrow Roger Lewis’s Sellers bio and find out.

Some excellent work from Burt Kwouk. Sellers tries on his Quasimodo cossie and Cato declaims, theatrically, “What have you done to Inspector Clouseau?” It’s obvious he knows this is his boss in a rubbish disguise, but he loves him so much he humours him. They have a sweet relationship, really.

Like Cato, my cat Momo has been trained to attack me at random intervals, to keep me on my toes. But he’s too lazy to make a go of it.

Richard Williams and associates provide the title sequence, so it’s much, MUCH more beautiful than it really needs to be. As with RETURN OF, the joke is to make the Panther Clouseau’s playful tormentor, and to reference famous movies. But the silvery backgrounds! The special lighting effects! The art deco type! And it features the Panther as Mrs. Edwards. And, speaking of love and marriage, Clouseau’s investigations lead him to a gay bar in this one, where Julie Andrews dubs a drag queen. Edwards seems to be furiously signaling something to us here, but if you ask him about it he’d just look innocent. Just about the only real stab at continuity in this series — Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus was confined to the booby hatch at the end of the previous film, and he’s just about to be released in this one. Then Clouseau shows up to wish him well, and everything goes wrong. We thus get to see a new dynamic between Dreyfus and Clouseau. Clouseau is genuinely solicitous of his deranged ex-boss, but still too cloddishly foolish to realise he ought to stay away. A lot of what goes wrong is random accidents, things that Clouseau can’t really be held responsible for (but Dreyfus doesn’t see it that way). The strange logic of the clouseauverse is that Clouseau’s accident-proneness is transmitted to Dreyfus, in a more painful manner, but only when Clouseau is around or when Dreyfus is obsessing over him.

I confess that as a little kid I was really freaked out by the mistreatment of Dreyfus — the thumb-chopping and nose-blowing went beyond what I was comfortable with in slapstick. But I loved the films so much I forced myself to toughen up (I was a crybaby). Clearly, Edwards is aiming for a live-action cartoon thing, where serious injuries just go away after. But I never liked bandages and plaster casts in comedy, either: they implied that the violence was real and had consequences, which made it unfunny. Everyone else would be laughing like it was TOM AND JERRY, and I’d be staring at the screen in horror like it was THE TENANT.The obligatory Cato fight, with Lom spying through a little periscope from downstairs, is really good — Edwards makes a rare foray into handheld cam, and for some reason this makes everything even funnier. Indefinably so. There’s probably less overt brutality in this movie than in SHOT or RETURN (Graham Stark’s fingers!), but an excruciating moment occurs when Lom, being a madman, climbs a tower of furniture and inserts a finger through the ceiling-floor hole he’s drilled, Clouseau steps on it, and Lom loses his balance so he’s hanging by the crushed digit. (Paul Schrader has theorised that writers obsess about damage to their hands because that’s what they write with, unless I suppose they’re Norman Mailer and they just dip their balls in an inkpot.)

Then, some masterful finger acting — Clouseau shifts off the finger, which remains pressed to the floor for a moment, then springs erect, stays there, in defiance of all gravity, like Wile E. Coyote just before he realises he’s over a canyon with nothing holding him up — you actually sense the fingertip opening its eyes wide in alarm — and then it slips from view. CRASH.

I wonder if Lom did his own finger acting? Carol Reed doubles Orson Welles’ fingers through the grate at the end of THE THIRD MAN, and I would think Blake Edwards might well have done the same here, since in a sense he IS Chief Inspector Dreyfus.As the Clouseauverse breaks out onto the world stage, there’s a joke about the American president, a Gerald Fordalike, being clumsy. Is this the right time to recount my friend Mark Bender’s close encounter with Ford on a ski course? “Hey, that’s Gerald Ford! On skis. Coming right at me. Say, he really IS coming right at me, isn’t he? He – OOF!”

The Bondian climax is biggish and I guess it allowed Edwards to focus on things other than his difficult star. Stunts, special effects, supporting cast. There are, by the way, a couple of very good hide-in-plain-sight stuntman substitutions in this film. 

Earlyish, Edwards performs a simple match cut as Clouseau turns to the parallel bars, allowing him to replace Sellers with a Fake Clouseau, keeping the voice droning nasally on, and allowing “CLouseau” to do something the physically unsound Sellers never could.Likewise, when the Inspector attempts to pole-vault into Dreyfus’ schloss, he backs into the bushes as Sellers, and charges out, in a single, unbroken shot, as an anonymous stunt double. The end of the pole remains constantly in view, so if you were in those bushes you’d have seen Sellers handing it to his clone.

Bold!I don’t know if Dreyfus’s climactic disintegration means they were really planning to end the series, or they thought they’d gone as far as they could with this particular character — obviously, having him return in the next film would require a breathtaking dismissal of basic plot continuity. Most likely they weren’t worrying about it, and just needed a strong finish to the Dreyfus-as-Mabuse/Blofeld/Fu Manchu scenario. And clearly just bringing him back without explanation in the follow-up film was the right way to go.It’s a shame the film crams Leonard Rossiter, Colin Blakeley and Dudley Sutton into the British sequence and then finds nothing to do with them. Rossiter is positioned as a substitute Chief Inspector Dreyfus, but it doesn’t go very far. It feels more like Edwards is padding the film with characters he can shoot on Sellers’ days off, giving everyone a rest from the inevitable madness. (Remember, Sellers was bored of this character a film and a half ago.) But it’s nice to see the familiar faces. Dud has just finished Fellini’s CASANOVA. As he told me, “He cut out all my lines, but I’m still in there.”Obligatory Graham Stark routine. A joyous excuse for a crap joke. I don’t know if the policy of surrounding Sellers with mates from the UK comedy scene actually made him behave better, but anything’s worth a try, and you shouldn’t need an excuse to hire Stark. (One chilling anecdote I recall from the Roger Lewis bio is Sellers phoning David Lodge up one evening after shooting, and asking if his behaviour had been really terrible that day. As a straight-talking friend, Lodge said Yes, it had. And from the receiver there sounded a cold, blood-curdling chuckle…)
Very, VERY sexy work from Lesley-Anne Down. Not much of a role, acting-wise, but sexy. Her story plays like a spoof of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, but was filmed first: she’s supposed to kill Clouseau, but his astonishing loveplay converts/enslaves her. Only it wasn’t Clouseau, because in the dark she’s mistakenly tumbled and uncredited Omar Sharif.

And a hilarious final sequence, the Clouseau striptease, which had Fiona genuinely can’t-breathe-hysterical, on the floor. “I’d FORGOTTEN!” she gasped. Clouseau, it turns out, can’t undress himself, which turns his sexy strip into a failed Houdini routine. Fantastic stuff like the necktie stuck round his cranium like his hippy hairband in ALICE B TOKLAS. Somehow my keen nudity-spotting eyes always missed the fact that L-AD’s bottom comes into view when the insanely huge Murphy bed folds up. That would have meant a lot to me when I was first seeing the film as a teenager. It still seems packed with significance. And the scene is the greatest example of Kwouk-blocking Edwards ever filmed.

At any rate, Cato’s martial arts intervention has saved L-AD from what would presumably have been a highly disappointing sexual experience. Still, though, I can’t help but see the end of the opening titles, when Edwards’ credit appears, as symbolic of the whole enterprise at this stage: the PANTHER movies were the most successful comedy series in screen history, and the writer-director and star pretty much hated each other, but both of them felt the need to carry on working together despite the strain of collaboration and the difficulty of continuing to reinvigorate the character. The image of the cartoon Clouseau, having ascended into cinema like SHERLOCK, JR, trapped, hands pressed against the other side of the silver screen, staring bleakly at us…THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN stars Fu Manchu; Captain Nemo; Georgina Worsley; Mr. Ming; Dr. Watson; Dr. Andrei Smyslov; Prof. Trousseau; Slartibartfast; Baron De Laubardemont: Dr. Ralph Halvorsen; Mrs. Emma Bulstrode; the Oompa Loompas; Catweazle; Dr. Auguste Balls; Hugh Abbott; Arab Swordsman; Charles Bovin; Sherif Ali (uncredited); and the voice of Mary Poppins.