(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 TV, July 2018) If you’re looking for an exemplary British black comedy, you could certainly do much worse than The Ladykillers, a deliciously dark story in which five professional criminals team up for a heist that covers every eventuality … except for their little old lady landlord. Their combined resourcefulness is no match for the bumbling ineptitude of their boarding house host, especially when they make her an unwitting part of their plan. While the heist initially goes well, things get more complicated when she discovers the plot and wants no part in it. The criminals then make one fatal mistake: they decide to kill her. But nothing will go as planned. You can guess who remains standing at the end. Katie Johnson stars as the little old lady to be killed, but the star here is Alec Guinness as a mastermind clearly outwitted, while Peter Sellers has an early role as one of the criminals. My memories of the 2004 Coen Brothers remake are far too dim to be useful, but the original British film is decent enough in its own right—perhaps predictable, but no less satisfying for it. It does help that the film was shot in colour even in mid-fifties UK, giving us a funhouse glimpse in the rather gray life of fifties London, stuck between WW2 and the Swingin’ sixties. This is now remembered as one of the best productions to come out of the original post-war Ealing Studios, as well as one of its last before the Studio was sold to the BBC in 1955. It remains a decently amusing film.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I ended up reluctantly watching Lolita (Kubrick completionism…) over a few days, those days being in the middle of a national debate in the United States about the suitability of an Alabama senatorial candidate with a long history of pursuing teenagers. This did nothing to help me see Lolita more favourably, given its premise in which a middle-aged college professor ends up pursuing a teenager. Even the film’s explicit black comedy didn’t help matters, nor the almost arbitrary plotting choices made during the film’s second half. While there’s something semi-amazing in how a film from 1962 was able to tackle such a charged subject matter, the result, seen from today, seems to skirt around the issue to the point of having little purpose. The cinematography, fortunately, is crisp, and Kubrick’s directing skills shows through. James Mason manages to be incredibly creepy in the lead role, while I’m not sure what Peter Sellers was trying to do in some scenes. The karmic retribution of the story feels unsatisfying, although there is something highly appropriate in ultimately seeing a flighty teenager casually dismiss the lovelorn older man. Still, I don’t feel any better from having seen Lolita—subject matter notwithstanding, the plot doesn’t flow naturally and even pointing back in the direction of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel as justification for the narrative hiccups isn’t much of an excuse when Kubrick reportedly changed so much in his adaptation. At least I can check Lolita from the list of movies I still had to see, and never look back.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) One of my least favourite archetypes is the Holy Fool, the innocent that seems protected from reality by authorial fiat. So it is that Being There is built around the notion that we can project higher qualities onto people who don’t really have them. It does so by presenting a child-minded man who, for decades, has never had to face reality. Well dressed, mild-mannered and competent in gardening, he is thrown in the real world following the death of his benefactor, and manages, through a series of convenient misadventures and falsely profound gardening homilies, to become a respected pundit and political confidante, all the way to being considered as a presidential candidate. (Considering the ongoing fallout of the 2016 presidential election, this is far less funny than it must have been at the time.) Considering my distaste for that kind of story, the first act of Being There is actively irritating. Things do improve afterward, as we start seeing other people’s reaction to the protagonist—that’s when the real world comes back to the movie, and the real comedy begins. But there are limits to the material, especially when it’s a one-note premise stretched so thin over more than two hours. Begin There overstays its welcome as it keeps making the same points. Still, as much as I don’t particularly like the film, there is much to admire in Peter Seller’s performance as the oracular idiot: It takes a lot of skill to act simple-minded while maintaining a credible veneer of respectability, and Sellers is usually able to hit that particular target. (I’m not too fond of Shirley MacClaine’s seduction scene, but the seventies were a special time.) (I’m also not that fond of the ending outtake.) (Although that last shot is growing on me.) I shudder to think of what a modern version of the movie would look like, especially with someone like Will Ferrell in the lead. While there are a few things of interest in Being There, the overall effect is more tedious than satisfying—but then again, I didn’t expect to like the film anyway.