Archive for Stuart Freeborn

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.

The seeds of crime bear bitter fruit

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE DOCK BRIEF AKA TRIAL AND ERROR is a legal comedy adapted from a play by John Mortimer (the Rumpole man) and starring Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough. We came for Sellers but stayed for Sir Dickie who, transfigured by ace makeup man Stuart Freeborn’s glue-on nose, plays a monkeylike Essex seed shop proprietor awaiting trial for the murder of his overly jocular wife (Beryl Reid, in flashback).

(I guessed, without having to check, that Freeborn must have assembled Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough’s nose for SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, the flaw in the plan being that SOAWA isn’t a comedy, and anyway Dickie’s naked nose would have been an ideal nose for that part, so one spends the film questioning the putty, surely not the effect intended.)

Sellers is doing the posh, patronising old duffer routine, and it’s nothing particularly challenging for him — shades of Grytpype-Thynne. But he bounces extremely well off Attenborough’s man without qualities, a dull fellow who can’t really process the fact of being on trial for murder, but is submissively keen to help this dignified gent if he possibly can. The two wonder in and out of flashbacks and fantasies, observing their earlier lives.

Sellers’ character has been a lawyer for forty years without ever obtaining a case, though, so their prospects of success seem slim.

The name of director James Hill rang only the dimmest of gongs, but he’s quite imaginative here — we pass from the prisoner’s cell to the court as seen in imagination in a single swift pan, as if the two rooms adjoined (I’ve praised this kind of invention before). When we see in flashback Attenborough finally cracking under the strain of his appalling wife, the camera rushes at her, jump-cuts back to the starting block, and has another go. Repeat several times as the woman cackles insanely. Reaction shot of Attenborough, with the camera literally trembling as if situated by an erupting volcano.

I looked Hill up — extraordinary career the man had. Well, curious, anyway. BORN FREE, A STUDY IN TERROR, CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY are three I’d seen. He’d just got free of the Children’s Film Foundation. Later, he alternated between animal flicks building on the success of his lion thing — AN ELEPHANT NAMED SLOWLY, THE BELSTONE FOX, BLACK BEAUTY — and utterly disparate genre fodder including a sex comedy (THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y. and a spy thriller (THE CORRUPT ONES). By 1975 he was back at the CFF. His last movie, a 1984 Channel 4 adaptation of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters (sic) seems to have vanished without trace. I’d like to see that one. Alec McCowan and Tracy Ullman? A must.

As good as Attenborough is, the film’s funniest element is David Lodge, hulking comic actor who was generally brought on to Sellers films to keep the difficult star happy. In this movie, he plays a humorous lodger brought into the household to keep the laughing wife happy. It’s Attenborough’s secret hope that she’ll run off with the fellow. Reid makes her “good-natured” character suitably nightmarish, but Lodge, a chuckling man-mountain, is infectious the moment the front door opens to reveal him. Maybe a malignly amused woman isn’t as funny as an innocently but horribly fatuous man. At any rate, he’s hilarious.

Actually, of the 102 films Lodge was in, only about 12 of them had Sellers as well, so Sellers and I were not his only admirers.