(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) The biggest surprise about The Pink Panther is that it turns out to be an ensemble bedroom romp with a limited role for Peter Sellers’s Inspecteur Clouzot—and, in fact, he gets played like a fool for the entire film, with a conclusion that doesn’t do the character much good. Sellers did such a striking job with the role that later instalments, starting with the follow-up A Shot in the Dark, would develop the Clouzot mythology in earnest. In the meantime, what we have here is a tangled mess of characters lusting for one another, with Clouzot unaware that his wife (the lovely Capucine) is carrying an affair with the master thief (the wonderful David Niven) that he’s chasing. Meanwhile, the gentleman thief is trying to seduce a princess (Claudia Carnivale!) who own the titular diamond, while his nephew is also trying to seduce Clouzot’s wife. It takes a diagram to figure it out, but fortunately the film is much easier to absorb as it gradually introduces its character as they converge on a European ski resort. Comedy director legend Blake Edwards slowly tightens the funny screws, culminating in a bedroom sequences in which characters hide under the bed and exit through windows while Clouzot remains blissfully unaware of how many pretenders his wife has within purring distance. It takes a while to get going and does end on a less jolly note, but the ski resort sequence of the film is a small success in creating a sexy comic atmosphere. Even out-of-nowhere moments, such as Fran Jeffries crooning an Italian song around a communal fireplace, are more charming than puzzling. Niven does stellar work here as an impeccable gentleman thief, but Sellers was simply spectacular enough that the series would therefore focus on him. So it goes—plans never unfold exactly as everyone thinks they will, especially in the Pink Panther universe.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) On paper, I’m sure Casino Royale was a great idea. In fact, the film does work better from a conceptual viewpoint than a practical one … which is a fancy way of saying that the film is a mess. From a cold viewing, the film makes no sense: it’s an attempt to satirize Bond, and it goes off in all directions at once, making failed jokes in multiple segments that barely relate to whatever plot we can identify. Some moments are funnier than others, and the high-spirited finale is pure comic chaos (in the good sense of the expression), but much of the film simply falls flat. Coherence is a major issue when entire scenes have their own idea of what humour is, and when the actors aren’t following the same plan. And what a list of actors! A young Woody Allen, a remarkably fun Orson Welles goofing off with magic tricks, First Bond Girl Ursula Andress playing (a) Bond, David Niven as “The original” Bond (before Connery ruined the name), Jean-Claude Belmondo for thirty seconds and a bunch of other cameos. Peter Sellers is occasionally fun, but he seems to be acting in another film entirely. The film’s production values are high enough that we’re left to contemplate a bizarre result, clearly made with considerable means but without a coherent plan. What to make of it? The key to understanding Casino Royale is to read about the film’s unbelievable production. It started with the intention of copycatting Connery’s Bond film series through the rights of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but was realigned to a satirical comedy once Connery made himself unavailable. Then, for some reason, the film became a creation from five different directors, with a sixth trying to patch the gaps between the sequences. Then Peter Sellers, who wanted to play a dramatic Bond, started sabotaging the production before leaving it entirely before his scenes were completely filmed. Given all of this, it’s a minor miracle if Casino Royale makes even the slightest sense. That doesn’t make it a good movie (although there are maybe twenty minutes of good comedy here, as long as you keep only the scenes with Sellers, Welles and Allen) but it certainly explains how we got there. There may have been messier productions and movies out there, but Casino Royale is a case of its own. (I saw the film as a young teenager, but the only moment I remembered from it was Allen’s line about learning how to tie women up in the boy scouts. Go figure. Or don’t, given that I was a boy scout.)
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Watching some films from bygone days is almost an anthropological experience. Not just for what’s shown on-screen, but what led to what’s shown on-screen. Around the World in Eighty Days is one such curio, not only portraying the world of 1872 as seen from 1956 (84-year difference), but also telling us much about 1956 Hollywood from today’s perspective (61-year difference). The basics of the film are simple enough, adapting Jules Verne’s globetrotting adventure tale into a lavish three-hour-long spectacle. But it’s the way it is put together that captivates as much as the narrative of the story. Famously filled with cameos, Around the World in Eighty Days regularly grinds to a halt as then-famous faces grin at the camera to remind us that they’re in the movie. Of course, sixty years later, it’s hard to identify most of them unless you’re a dedicated movie buff: what remains are nearly incomprehensible skits revolving around famous people without us knowing that they’re famous people. (The Fernandel and Frank Sinatra examples are particularly egregious, except that Sinatra is still somewhat recognizable.) David Niven is good but occasionally inscrutable as the main character, while Cantinflas (wildly popular then, almost unknown now) is a revelation as Passepartout. Around the World in Eighty Days remains strange and kind of charming in its own way. What’s not quite so funny is the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes that parade through the entire film. Nobody escapes unscathed, whether it’s the British (eccentric to a fault, and never willing to sacrifice tea in the middle of a crisis) or the Americans (frontier barbarians obsessed with electioneering) or any of the non-English-speaking nationalities. The Native-American segments are particularly tough to watch, but by no means the only uncomfortable moment in the movie. Still, the film moves with a decent amount of action, humour and scenery—while largely filmed on Hollywood studios, the production did spend a lot of effort to make sure that the details were correct, and did travel to foreign countries in order to capture establishing shots. The result is one-of-a-kind. I’d normally welcome a remake, except that a loose comedic remake was completed in 2004 and has since already sunk away from view so thoroughly that I still haven’t seen in on TV or any of the major streaming platforms after a year of searching. In the meantime, the original Around the World in Eighty Days remains available for anyone’s viewing pleasure, but if there’s a film that screams out for pop-up notes, it’s this one.