Archive for Ripley Underground

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.

Watch Your Stepfather

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2019 by dcairns

Finally got around to THE STEPFATHER (1987), scripted by my beloved Donald E. Westlake. Although I had to make do with a rather crummy 4:3 DVD with a smeary image which made the film look even cheaper than it was.

That cheapness doesn’t have any negative impact on the visuals, but the synth score is intermittently a bother. Since the whole film aims for a HALLOWEEN look (suburban autumn — it’s an unavoidable connection), a score that was unapologetically electro could work, but this is one of those synth tracks that keeps trying to remind us of PSYCHO. Synth strings = ugh. I’ve been guilty of using them myself, I admit. Never again. All real violin in my last one.

Seems like this was a career high for a lot of those involved, people who by rights should have gone on to even better things: director Joseph Rubin is more than efficient, he conjures all the necessary suspense and moves the camera smartly and gracefully. I haven’t seen his later films, which look kind of… commercial? I should give them a try. Where to start? (And why didn’t he immediately make more films with Westlake? Maybe he tried.)

Oh, I have to admit, the interiors are a little… smoky. Well, it’s the eighties. But it’s PARTICULARLY noticable here that this lighting effect has no naturalistic reason to exist. Deduct points.

Westlake knew he had to do this film when the story was pitched to him and the central serial killer turned out to be doing something that Westlake’s own father did: leaving his job but not telling his family, going in “to work” every day but in reality looking for new employment. With Westlake Sr. the explanation was more innocent: he was laid off during the depression and was too ashamed to tell his wife. The Stepfather is just getting ready to move on to a new town and start a new family, as soon as he’s gotten rid of the old one, which isn’t working out for him…

Jill Schoelen is a great final girl, convincing as a teenager despite being around 24. Westlake writes shamelessly corny teenage stuff that feels REAL and is beautifully played. Then there’s the dependable Shelley Hack, so good in KING OF COMEDY. And Terry O’Quinn is just perfect as the psycho stepdad, taking some very well-crafted creepy stuff right to the edge. A lot of his choices — banality of evil cornpone — are risky, and wouldn’t work with another actor, but are just right for him. And while finding too much sympathy for this character would be plain wrong, you get the clear sense that this is not a happy man. His murders are part of his own disintegrating personality. “Waaiit a minute.. who am I here?” is a chilling moment.

All the actors are good, and the ones who have a B-movie blandness or else a lack of charisma are in fact perfect for their assigned roles. The movie has both an Arbogast AND an O’Halloran, characters who might be expected to show up and sort things out, but are instead taken out of the picture by the wily psycho.

Westlake’s skill at piling problems together to make suspenseful crises is much in evidence, and he knows his genre and can stretch it — on a couple of occasions, predictability is shortcircuited by outbursts of excessive violence, which is a wholly genre-appropriate way to keep things moveing and edgy. The small roles are well written (Westlake loved old movies and could channel their ability to sketch a memorable characterisation in moments) and both logic and good sense get their due. It’s a crying shame he didn’t write more movies that got made, and that so many of the adaptations are guff.

Guess it’s time I rewatched THE GRIFTERS, which allows us to see his response to Jim Thompson. His response to Patricia Highsmith, RIPLEY UNDERGROUND (a weird book with great scenes but ridiculous plotting) got rewritten, but I’m still curious to see it. Then there’s the enjoyable COPS AND ROBBERS (directed by the underrated Aram Avakian) and then there’s HOT STUFF and WHY ME? about which I have my doubts, but what the hell. I recently watched HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO so I can’t really turn my nose up at them in advance.

And LE COMMISSAIRE MENE L’ENQUETE appears to be completely unavailable, with or without subtitles. Stars Dany Carrel. Be still, my beating heart. Well, LE COUPERET is the best film adaptation of Westlake, so one can say that he had some good luck in France (though it’s questionable if MADE IN USA even counts as a Westlake adaptation…)

Guidance from the experts?