Archive for Roger Lewis

Page Seventeen II: The Second Story

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2021 by dcairns

As usual, seven passages from seven page seventeens. I’ve recently enjoyed the rather mysterious short stories of Walter De La Mare. It was particularly fun to read Missing, a story narrated in a tea shop in a heatwave, while being in a cafe in a heat wave. So when I picked up WDLM’s novel of possession/reincarnation The Return from the St Columba’s Bookstore, I turned eagerly to page seventeen to see if it would offer me a suitable extract.

To my surprise I found a previous reader had bookmarked the spot with a scrap of paper. One the paper were the haunting words S.W. BRITISH CHAIN FREQUENCY GROUP 1B. Printed in green ink that closely matched the green hue of the Pan Books paperback itself. On the inside front cover the book was stamped WARDROOM LIBRARY H.M.S. SEAHAWK, and since S.W. can stand for shortwave, it seemed possible that this little piece of paper dated from the book’s use as light reading at sea.

On page seventeen I encountered a character called Sheila, which is my mother’s name. Here’s the passage I’ve selected, along with six more from six different volumes.

Lawford shut his mouth. “I suppose so–a fit,” he said presently. “My heart went a little queer, and I sat down and fell into a kind of doze–a stupor, I suppose. I don’t remember anything more. And then I woke; like this.”

I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder–I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid–a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingles with her own biscuity odour, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a howling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note–and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove–the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

Mr. Hutton was aware that he had not behaved with proper patience; but he could not help it. Very early in his manhood he had discovered that not only did he not feel sympathy for the poor, the weak, the diseased, and deformed; he actually hated them. Once, as an undergraduate, he had spent three days at a mission in the East End. He had returned, filled with a profound and ineradicable disgust. Instead of pitying, he loathed the unfortunate. It was not, he knew, a very comely emotion, and he had been ashamed of it at first. In the end he had decided that it was temperamental, inevitable, and had felt no further qualms. Emily had been healthy and beautiful when he married her. He had loved her then. But now – was it his fault that she was like this?

To kill or not to kill an insect is a decision which faces several characters. It is morally all the more indicative as the act involves no retaliatory consequence, because it is a matter of impulse rather than reflection, wile from conventional viewpoints it has no moral significance. Thus the insect motif sometimes suggests a reverence for life. But this reverence is amused and sardonic, and has its markedly un-Schweitzerian aspects. The sudden death of an insect can also imply that a man can died a abruptly, and as unimportantly.

In the folklore of the doppelganger (German for double-goer; defined by the OED as “wraith of a living person”) to meet your duplicate is a premonition of death. Sellers, who had visited Roger Moore on the set of The Man Who Haunted Himself, must have felt as if he’d toppled headlong into a similarly horrific plot. As The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, on Sellers’ orders, was being re-re-re-written throughout the night, by teams of hacks, belletrists, ex-playwrights, and just about anybody who could stay awake and hold a pen, this was exactly an element which was worked in at the last moment (though it was lost again when the film was edited after Sellers’ passing). As Sellers intended it (and he through the leaves of the script other people had concocted to the ground, in order to improvise it), the rejuvenated Fu, and Taylor as Nayland, were to walk off into the sunset together, the opposites reconciled, the doubles united. ‘You are the only worthy adversary I ever had, Nayland. They were the good old days. We can recapture them and start all over again.’

‘I admit I can’t make him out,’ resumed Barker, abstractedly; ‘he never opens his mouth without saying something so indescribably half-witted that to call him a fool seems the very feeblest attempt at characterisation. But there’s another thing about him that’s quite funny. Do you know that he has the one collection of Japanese lacquer in Europe? Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medieval French and that sort of thing. Have you ever been in his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst. And he moves about in all that and talks like – like a turnip.’

Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned to the canvas, and saw by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o’clock–the threshold of a new day–and I had therefore slept a few hours. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate neighbourhood.

Postscript: Fiona is now reading The Return, and in conversation with friend and Shadowplayer David Melville Wingrove she has learned that it was HE who originally donated it to the charity shop where I found it…

The Return by Walter De La Mare; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Gioconda Smile, from Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley; Luis Bunuel by Raymond Durgnat; The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis; The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton; The Willows, from Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.

Crossing the River

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2021 by dcairns

I’m not 100% but it’s entirely possible that the references to “crossing the river” in THE OPTIMISTS (OF NINE ELMS, 1973) take in Egyptian mythology about the journey to the land of the dead. At any rate, it’s a deliberately death-haunted film, with Peter Sellers in old-age makeup as an impoverished music hall entertainer befriended by a couple of scrappy kids.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons had been planning the film, based on his novel, for years — Buster Keaton was pencilled in originally. I found myself wondering how heartbreaking the film would have been with Stan Laurel — a near-impossibility, of course. Sellers is perhaps too theatrical to really move you. Here he’s walking around in a Loachian realist environment, in a Stuart Freeborn false nose and teeth (the teeth have a very subtle effect, the nose sticks out) and special hump-soled shoes to give him a rolling walk.

The film has some stupendous credits — George Martin scoring, Lionel Bart songwriting, though Sellers also plays some authentic old numbers his father taught him. His father also taught George Formby, and there’s a Formby standard in there — I bet nobody cleared the rights. G. Martin’s film scoring career was intermittent, but he seems to have plunged in wholeheartedly around this time, doing PULP and LIVE AND LET DIE close to it.

This was viewed in our weekly watch party. Regular participant Donald Wisely wisely said, “Really liked the shot early in the film of the helicopter hovering over the Thames. It looked a vision of the London that was coming, where it was all finance and property, but no actual productive industry. As a piece of understated social commentary, and possible prophetic vision of, the decline of Britain this film deserves to be better known.”

The kids are great, though their naturalism tends to point up Sellers’ schtickiness. But I guess he’s playing Old Sam as a man immersed in his old routines as a shield against bitter reality.

The film is about death, though Sam is still going at the end. Only the dog dies. But at one point we cut from Sellers standing in the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery — a true thing I never knew existed — to the Dorchester Hotel, where he would have a massive fatal heart attack, alone, seven years later.

I first became convinced that Simmons knew what he was doing when the kids are playing in Thameside landfill and the little boy disappears from view. As his sister looks about frantically, every POV shot features some piece of crumbled, crushed debris that looks, for an instant, as if it could be a small boy’s body. Terrifying.

Fiona’s re-reading The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis, so I picked it up and read the OPTIMISTS stuff, but of course I also turned to page seventeen. There, Lewis speculates on Sellers meeting his stand-in (or doppelganger) just before his fatal heart attack, and also mentions that Sellers had just visited Roger Moore on the set of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. He notes the eerie coincidence of the film’s director, Basil “room for one more inside”, Dearden perishing in a car crash at just the same stretch of motorway where Moore’s character is killed (maybe twice). He fails to note that Moore himself was a Sellers doppelganger, even though his actual doppelganging hadn’t happened yet: in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Moore, using the pseudonym Turk Thrust, plays a reincarnated, plastically-surgeoned Inspector Clouseau.

We might pass the future scene of our own deaths a thousand times without knowing it, or shake hands with our fatal double.

Picking Up Clouseau

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2020 by dcairns

Having seized on the fact that there was more value to be gotten out of the character of Inspector Clouseau, Blake Edwards went in to A SHOT IN THE DARK with his eyes at least somewhat open — he’d had a hint of how crazy Peter Sellers could get, but he hadn’t yet had to direct him during a full-on delusional tantrum (I’m not aware if psychoanalysis or psychology or psychiatry have invented a term describing exactly what it is Sellers had, or was — perhaps we had best think of it as Peter Sellers Syndrome, and content ourselves with delineating its symptoms as best we can).

This film really births the Clouseauverse — if we’re going to focus on this idiot, then he needs a life, surroundings, people in that life. A boss, obviously. And how does this boss feel about Clouseau? The brilliant answer is to make Chief Inspector Dreyfus not only fully aware of his subordinate’s incompetence, and personally offended by it, one of those apoplectic police chiefs that American cop shows would become full of, but also someone who is so tortured by the mere idea of Clouseau — “How can I relax in world which has Clouseau in it?” — that he’s driven to madness. As Lom’s eyes close in distress, we cut to Clouseau an instant before his eyes widen with a look of messianic intensity. Alone in a vehicle he can believe in his fantasy of brilliance. Anywhere else, he has a front to keep up because he knows damn well he’s a clown.

Clouseau’s name seems to be a combination of Jacques Cousteau — famous Frenchman — and H.G. Clouzot — French crime exponent — and “clues” and “oh” — detection and disaster. Dreyfus’ name, on the other hand, calls to mind a famous case of unjust persecution, which is about right.

It’s absurd that Blake Edwards didn’t direct under his birth name, on the other hand. The name William Blake Crump is like a strip cartoon that builds up an image of spiritual poetry and ends with crashing to the ground in a tangle of bruised limbs.

We start with a sequence comprised mainly of two very elegant roving crane shots, telling a story which is mysterious — a bedroom farce viewed from the outside. With a tragic chanson that kind of quashes any humour. But that’s OK, we don’t need the film to be funny until Clouseau.Animated titles — with a different theme tune — I really love this bit of Mancini and I don’t know why it wasn’t used again. The cartoons are cruder this time, but in a lovely stylised way. Without a Panther to persecute the Clouseau cut-out, Depatie-Freleng resort to having the cartoon universe turn on him, with doors and lights and fizzing bombs from nowhere persecuting the poor guy, kind of like the hostile film Keaton gets stuck in in SHERLOCK JR (which will be a reference in future title sequences).

But we do get a nice gag about Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus being an adulterer. And he has a little desk guillotine for his cigars, that’s… sweet? Fiona became excited. “Of course he’s got a guillotine! That was Herbert Lom’s dream project!” And indeed, Lom wrote one book, Dr. Guillotine, about the inventor of the humane execution device that ended up being used to decapitate on an industrial scale. “Hoist by your own petard,” as Claudia Cardinale’s Princess would say. The idea of inventing something that proves to be a catastrophe for you seems pertinent to William Blake Crump and Richard Henry Sellers, too.

I have actually already written about this one, so you can check out my earlier appraisal here. It covers Lom’s account of his casting and the first shot of Sellers. But how quickly can Clouseau make an idiot of himself?

In his second shot in the film. He gets out of his car and immediately falls in the fountain. He doesn’t hang about. Each of THE PINK PANTHER films, of which this is one despite the lack of P words in the title, takes a different sub-genre of crime film/fiction — so this is a country house murder mystery, RETURN will be a Hitchcockian wrong man chase film, STRIKES BACK is a Fu Manchu/Bond master-criminal caper, and REVENGE is Eurothriller meets Mafia. I can’t remember anything about ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER, the film Sellers planned just before his death, having wrested the character away from Edwards, but I’ve tracked down the script of this unmade monsterpiece, which I fantasise as akin to Norma Desmond’s SALOME, and if I can work up the courage I may read it and report back.

I’m not sure the post-Sellers films continue to neatly explore the byways of crime fiction — I think maybe they just fart about in the Clouseauverse.As a basis for the piece, Edwards and William Peter Blatty of THE EXORCIST fame, selected Harry Kurnitz’s adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play L’Idiot. In which the Clouseau-equivalent character was an examining magistrate played by William Shatner. Using only the bare bones of the story, Blatty and Edwards amused themselves with a convoluted series of murders all of which tend to implicate leading lady Elke Sommer, but which turn out to be (spoiler) the work of separate culprits with separate motives, a wrinkle even Agatha Christie never attempted.

The Mirisch Corporation had been developing the Kurntitz/Achard play for Anatole Litvak (yay!) to direct, but could never get a script they felt was filmable. Edwards accepted the job of fixing it in a hurry if he could have carte blanche, and he and Blatty grafted Clouseau into the piece on the boat over to England where filming was to take place (with a few second unit shots in Paris). So the idea of Clouseau having a boss who despises him comes from the play + the idea of putting Clouseau into it. And the boss in the play was Walter Matthau. I’d love to have seen Shatner as an idiot being yelled at by Matthau.Instead we get Sellers and Lom, who Edwards reportedly told (Lom’s version) “I’ve seen you in all these terribly serious films. I think you’re very funny.”

Another guy who should have used his real name, Herbert Charles Angelos Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. I mean, if I were going to change anything it would be the Herbert. Dreyfus inherits the Charles bit, which was going spare.

Anyway, Edwards directs this one with panache — as an actor, he’d worked with “Ford, Wyler, Preminger – and learned a lot from them.” So his long, elegant sequence shots, so admired by the French, are much in evidence. Preminger, another widescreen specialist, seems like an apt model. And, as Vincent Price tartly observed, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” Edwards also has Christopher Challis, who shot a bunch of films for Powell & Pressburger, coming along at just the wrong time (THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL and OH…ROSALINDA!!), and had more recently done some super-stylish work with Stanley Donen. You only really sense it’s Challis when we get to the round of themed nightclubs with specialty dancers…

Oh, and there’s Cato. Since Madame Clouseau has departed the picture, and to refer to her at all would just raise awkward questions about story continuity which the series would continue to ignore, brazenly, Clouseau should have someone else in his life. Bruce Lee had caused a sensation in The Green Hornet TV show (a reference lost on me as a kid). Burt Kwouk, a tireless supporting player in British films — he was a henchman in GOLDFINGER the same year — makes his first appearance here and it doesn’t matter at all that we probably all know the joke by now. The brevity and relative lack of spectacle in these early fight scenes isn’t a problem. As the joke of Cato attacking at inopportune moments, often “romantic” ones — what Fiona calls Kwouk-blocking — became more and more familiar, the films were forced to pump excess production values into it, but the joke is still pleasing enough to stand on its own. With Cato, Clouseau is pretty unsympathetic, and we also feel for the long-suffering Hercule Lajoy (Sellers chum Graham Stark) — anyone who’s ever suffered under an idiot boss can admire his infuriating placidity. Dreyfus is interesting because he’s the heavy, but he’s also absolutely right about Clouseau, a truly lethal buffoon. But then, in the scenes with Elke, Clouseau gets to be sweet. His puppyish fawning over Capucine in the previous film was already touching. Here, the joke of him being so hopelessly smitten with his leading lady that he literally can’t see her obvious guilt, is neatly topped by the joke of her being innocent. The universe somehow conspires to protect the holy fool, whereas he who sees the truth gets it in the neck. Elke Sommer represents a kind of decline from the elegant femmes of the first film — a bourgeoise fantasy of Yves St Laurent frocks and ski chalets with built-in musical numbers is replaced by a marginally grittier Parisian setting, and the leading lady is now of the modern, booby school of sixties cinema. The role is also a bit of a cipher, since the character is intentionally unknowable for virtually the whole film. Elke does very well with what she’s given. The anxiety-dream naked-in-public car scene actually allows her to do some real acting, which movies didn’t often do.“And introducing Turk Thrust.” The nudist camp scene (a huge and hugely unconvincing interior set) gives us this pseudonymous Bryan Forbes, with a butch queen joke name later taken up by Roger Moore for his guest spot in CURSE, and also the medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, essaying a bizarre garbled accent that veers between Wales and the West Indies.

Clouseau has begun to disguise himself, perhaps inspired by the very funny costume party stuff in the first film, and this would later lead to Edwards wondering where the disguises came from, and so Auguste Balls would eventually be born…For now, we have some distinguished actors quite underused — George Sanders is mainly a sounding board for Clouseau’s mistakes, with more than one “reaction shot” showing no reaction whatsoever. Douglas Wilmer, a celebrated TV Sherlock Holmes, butles about snootily. Apparently the hilarity on set was so disruptive, Sanders proposed a fine of £1 for each actor who corpsed, raising £250 by the time a usable take was achieved. Stark and David Lodge, who can’t do a French accent alas, were Sellers’ mates and were frequently brought on to his films in the hopes they’d keep him happy and stop him acting up. Some hope. The Roger Lewis bio has Sellers calling up Lodge after a particularly vicious day and asking, “Was I really awful today?” Before his friend could answer with some mild scolding words, an evil chuckle sounded from the receiver.

The movie does over-rely on running gags, but I finally figured out why — Clouseau is incapable of learning from his mistakes, so he keeps trying the same thing, and he’s also too inept to make progress as an investigator, so the only way to advance the mystery is to keep piling up corpses. This seeming inadequacy of the character as an active protagonist will continue to trouble the series, with various solutions being attempted.In Sam Wasson’s Edwards study, Splurch in the Kisser, the director recalled, “Things were fine for the first half of filming, but then the shit hit the fan. Sellers became a monster. He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen, and unprofessional. He wouldn’t show up for work and began looking for anyone and everyone to blame.”

Edwards called this relationship the enigma of his life. And that mystery, as much as the money and clout to be made from the franchise, may account for his obsessive worrying at the character and the relationship.Despite the genre-hopping, the next three films in the series do not show the invention of this one — having created Clouseau, Dreyfus and Cato, Edwards didn’t see any need to come up with many new elements. There might be some bad guys, and some leading ladies, but with Lom and Kwouk, there was a limited amount of room for new stuff, with only Balls and his hunchbacked assistant, Cunny, expanding the Clouseauverse in any lasting way. A format has been established.

A SHOT IN THE DARK stars Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake; Lisa Reiner; Addison DeWitt; Captain Nemo; Miss Scott; Professor Auguste Balls; Mrs. Leverlilly; Mr. Ling; Prof. Trousseau; Father Spiletto; Mr. Meek; Sherlock Holmes; Jimmy Winslow; and the Fiddler on the Roof.