Archive for Peter Sellers

Yes.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2017 by dcairns

New video essay written by me and edited by Stephen Horne. Part of our series for Criterion, Anatomy of a Gag (previous installments on Tati and Etaix).

This one is on Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE, new to the Collection. Hope you enjoy!

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The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

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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