Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm All Right, Jack (1959) — For the benefit of Mr. Kite

Decades before America invented the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan), the Brits provided us with the Boulting Brothers, John and Roy. And one of their very best films gave us one of Peter Sellers' very best performances.

Back in the post on Hoffman, I mentioned that I didn't want that particular movie to be the one that capped my recent off-the-cuff Peter Sellers film blogorama. I said that I wanted to end on an up note with a title that, unlike Hoffman, I actually enjoy. To do that I reached back before any of those other films to 1959's I'm All Right, Jack.

Although largely forgotten today, especially in the U.S., it delivers Sellers' first great big-screen role, after his smaller parts in films such as the The Ladykillers. Here's the feature performance that made him a star, one that shows us an early indicator of his later masterstrokes in Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and Being There. And yes, it's a film I enjoy immensely.

So did quite a few other viewers back in the day. According to a fascinating historical backgrounder podcast transcribed at
The film opened in London in late August 1959 and was a huge success - in 17 weeks more than two million people flocked to see it in British cinemas. Apparently, when [Conservative Prime Minister] Harold Macmillan went to Balmoral in early September to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election, the Queen arranged a special projection of the film for them to watch in the evening....
Today we can appreciate I'm All Right, Jack as a landmark satire firmly tent-pegged into its time and place — Britain in the 1950s, when festering classism and industrial stagnation were so endemic in postwar England that movies attacking the resulting paralysis became something of a subgenre. This soot-black farce is the best of that breed, a witty yet acidic dagger thrown at both Labor and Management, two opposing factions each rotten with "fuck you, buddy" self-interest.

While there's no getting around the film's particular datedness (its musical scoring for one), here 52 years later there's quite a bit of renewed currency in this pointed little period piece. After all, there's still plenty of material to be found in spoofing a me-first society where everyone's out for his own advantage and sod the greater good. As we're exposed to more recent current events — Wisconsin governor Walker's tactics against that state's public sector unions, Wall Street's systemic assholery, the U.S. banking and mortgage and insurance industries, plus as many etceteras as you'd care to add — we can but nod and sigh and remember whatever it is they say about "the more things change."

That's a '58 Heinkel 153, by the way.
You can argue that I'm All Right, Jack leans more toward a union-bashing stance. It does draw more humor from the packs of boorish shirkers who consider playing cards among the shipping crates a full day's work. But that's too simple a read for the film's all-embracing irreverence. Everyone here is lousy with tactics and cynicism rooted in a sense of "All for one, as long as it's me" entitled exploitation.

The trade unionists are indolent toughs besotted by their militant leader's pat sloganeering to do as little work for as much pay and privileges as possible. Meanwhile, the industry bosses are an inbred, elitist gentlemen's club with no concerns toward production efficiency or the good of the commonwealth as long as their personal bank accounts are filled. But when the power players at the top try to sucker the workers below them, they end up tripping over their own greed and conniving.

Seen through a lens of modern-day Left-Right polemics, I'm All Right, Jack plays up each side's exaggerated caricatures of the other. The unionists receive the more cartoonish treatment by far, while the bosses' machinations come off more readily believable even as the oily bounders figuratively twirl their capitalist mustaches.

Both paranoid, do-nothing factions maintain a comfortable status quo until a clueless patsy mucks up the works by being, horrors!, productive and cost-effective.

I'm All Right, Jack presents Labor and Management not merely as the absurd extremes of a calcified industrial caste system. Rather, the two blocs are so different they might as well be two separate species of the genus homo held over from the Pleistocene. In the end what makes them put down their clubs and meet at the watering hole is something as fundamental to modern man as food and females were to our caveman forebears — that universal solvent: fat wads of cold, hard cash.

Earnest but clueless upper-class naif Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) has just graduated from Oxford. Like P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster from a generation earlier, Stanley was "brought up as a gentleman" and therefore hasn't had to work a day in his life. His understanding of the world outside the radius of the London gentry is as narrow as the stripes on his Oxford tie.

Yet unlike Bertie, Stanley's side of the family is broke (he lives with his wealthy Aunt Dolly, another Wodehousian trope played by Ealing veteran Margaret Rutherford), and he's determined to make a place for himself in the world. So he sets out to go "into business" as if doing so were as simple as stepping into the Drones Club.

Naturally he aims to start in a management position. But Stanley fails at his attempts to get in at a detergent factory ("You'd better go, Mr. Windrush; you are not the detergent type") and the Num Yum candy manufacturer (a robotic assembly line purgatory that reminds me of Chaplin's Modern Times, although Chaplin's character didn't vomit into a vat of sweets).

Things look up when Stanley's uncle, Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price, Kind Hearts and Coronets), offers him a blue-collar job at his armaments factory, Missiles Ltd. Although Aunt Dolly tries to talk Stanley out of "throwing in his lot with the working classes," the eager twit leaps at the opportunity to earn his way up the working man's ladder.

But it's a set-up. This gormless innocent is the patsy in a lucrative Arab arms contract scheme manipulated by his uncle and another factory entrepreneur, Sidney de Vere Cox (dapper Richard Attenborough), to line their silken pockets. All they need is a workers' strike caused by giving a forklift to this suit-and-tie stooge. (The cause-and-effect chain behind the "high finance" ruse is a bit serpentine; the screenplay makes it all gleaming clockwork.)

The conspiracy works — too well.

Stanley upsets everyone's entrenched and delicate balance by being wantonly efficient. He proves, without trying to or even being aware that he's doing it, that a dopey unskilled employee with no experience can outperform the union workers by doubling or tripling his productivity in half the time.

So of course Stanley gets pummeled at the center of a clash between the personnel manager, Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas), and the union shop steward, Fred Kite (Sellers).

Pompous and sanctimonious, Kite is a Cockney Marxist martinet who speaks in the rote dialectics of a streetcorner pamphleteer ("We cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal; that is victimization!") yet holds upmarket intelligentsia pretensions. ("Ah, Russia. All them corn fields and ballet in the evening.") 

One things lead to another until Stanley's presence spurs Kite to stage a company-wide strike, unknowingly playing into Tracepurcel and Cox's hands.

Seeing Stanley as a potential fellow traveler, Kite invites the young man to lodge in his home. There Stanley meets Kite's curvy daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser), who, Kite says, also works at the factory, "spindle polishing." (The script treats us to a number of such wink wink, nudge nudge nuggets.)

Cynthia and her mum both take a shine to the well-mannered, "intellectual" gentleman. Cynthia in particular, who "just wants a bit of fun," becomes smitten with their oblivious boarder. One of my favorite moments tells us everything we need to know about Cynthia's predominant concerns:
[Tracepurcel is giving a motivational speech at a works canteen meeting]
Cynthia (chewing gum, bored expression): What's 'e on about, Stan?
Stanley (gung-ho): Commercial intercourse with foreigners.
[Her eyes light up and she chews faster]
Because Stanley is too dim to be corruptible by either his uncle's fraudulent colleagues or Kite's shiftless proles, he can't see himself as being on either one side or the other; he just wants to get back to work. So that's what he does, crossing the strike line.

Galvanized by the press, which tosses its own petrol to the fire, events go kablooey when Cox's factory workers go on strike in sympathy with the Missiles Ltd. workers, thereby kneecapping Cox and Tracepurcel's arms contract scheme. Other work stoppages spread until the whole nation grinds to a halt. Once Kite kicks Stanley out of his house for (as Kite sees it) collaborating with enemy Management, even Kite's wife (Irene Handl) and daughter pack up and move out in civil protest.

Stanley becomes a cause célèbre, an "example to the nation" of that stout-hearted English work ethic that vanished soon after the war. Mobs gather to support his seeming steadfastness and fortitude against the strike. Alongside picket signs held up by the Housewives League and the Empire Loyalists, buxom girls wear shirts with "Elvis" crossed out and "Stan" scrawled in its place. "Three cheers to Mr. Churchill and Stanley Windrush!" All the while, he just can't figure out what the fuss and bother and fan mail is all about.

Meanwhile, over bottles of port, Kite and Major Hitchcock find their common cause and collude to bring conditions back to their dysfunctional equilibrium, with Stanley as the fall guy.

Stanley finally arrives at his moment of clarity when, while waiting to go on a national TV current-events talk program, good old "Coxie" attempts to bribe him with a "cut" of the salvaged arms-deal windfall — on the condition that Stanley play ball and stay quiet about it.

While he's live on TV with Kite and the other perps, as the television cameras zoom in, Stanley finally understands that all along he has been lied to, manipulated, treated as a dupe, and had his good will abused by authority figures he trusted. So he decides that he's mad as hell and not taking it anymore. He exposes both sides' corruption and malfeasance, then tells them, essentially, to sod bloody well off. He rages on-air against—
"...all the phony patriotic claptrap of the employers, all the bilge I've heard talk about workers rights until my head's reeling with the stink of it all. Trouble is everybody's got so used to the smell they no longer notice it.... Everywhere you look it's 'Blow you, Jack, I'm all right.'"
Here in 2011, how many of us can't identify with him in this moment? That, for me, is the key to the movie's ongoing appeal. Suddenly I'm All Right, Jack reveals a third faction, one represented by Stanley: all the rest of us, anyone who has felt screwed over by society's more callous movers and shakers, its self-serving games-players. And you don't have to be an absolute cynic to sigh with recognition when you see that it's Stanley, the only certified innocent in the bunch, who ends up punished by the very judicial system established to protect the world's Stanleys from the world's Thracepurcels, Coxes, and Kites, all of whom walk away scot-free.

Within one of the most terrific British ensemble casts ever gathered before a lens, Sellers outshines them all as Kite.

The actors around him play their characters (marvelously) with broad and explicit strokes. Now watch Sellers: his pinched restraint, his bottled-up manner that strikes a subtler, more subdued tone and tempo that's such a brilliant contrast to those around him. In crafting his dour short-back-and-sides performance, he makes choices that sculpt the role of a petty proletarian dictator (complete with Hitler mustache) into a sympathetic family man whose tiny, tidy world unravels at the workplace and at home.

"Brother Kite" emerges so affectionately, so dimensionally from this lampoon peopled by types, Sellers won a British Academy Award for best actor, beating Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Peter Finch. He was now an international star. (The film also took, not surprisingly, the BAFTA for best screenplay.)

Sellers was 34 in 1959, though he makes Kite look older, more world-weary here than his characters in films that followed throughout the next decade.

Sellers was one of our great shapeshifters. We get a hint of that here in a brief pre-credits scene. While the throngs of London outside his chambers celebrate the end of World War II, Sellers' elderly "Sir John" is on stage just long enough to represent "what seemed to be an ordered and stable society" that will soon give way to the title song's "I couldn't care less" ethos. As Sir John rises with arthritic slowness from his easy chair and toddles toward the exit, the narrator gently intones: "There he goes, on his way ... out." We never see him again. (TCM clip.) Moments later, after the credits, the narrator tells us that now it's Stanley's forthcoming tale — that is, his unwitting immersion in institutional exploitation and disunity — that is "the story of a nation." That old Dunkirk spirit? Goodbye to all that, it seems.

Ian Carmichael (appointed an OBE in 2003) made a career out of playing the silly-ass Englishman type in Boulting comedies. It's only right that he later played Bertie Wooster, opposite Dennis Price's Jeeves, on television in the BBC's World of Wooster (1965–1967).

Miles Malleson, naked, is as usual pitch-perfect as Stanley's father, seen at the film's beginning and again at the end, in a framing sequence set at a nudist resort. The setting is not only an idyllic oasis utterly divorced from the rancor and anxieties of modern life, it also appears to have a 5-to-1 female-to-male ratio. ("She's not a natural blonde, of course," quips dear old dad about one of the friendly volleyball enthusiasts on the other side of the hedge.)

John Le Mesurier is memorable as the undercover efficiency expert Major Hitchcock hires to spy on his loafing workers. His facial tic alone tells us volumes about the toll his job has taken on the poor fellow.

I'm All Right, Jack is a sequel to the Boultings' 1956 army comedy, Private's Progress, with Carmichael, Dennis, Attenborough, Terry-Thomas, and Malleson reprising their roles from that film. I'm All Right, Jack stands on its own and self-contained, with the only noticeable reference to the previous film being the moment when Major Hitchcock at last remembers Stanley as the ass who caused him so much grief in their army days.

Because it's firmly embedded in its time and place and social milieu, modern non-U.K. viewers may be a bit disadvantaged when it comes to the period British slang ("What a shower!") or the depictions of 1950s welfare state politics and English class distinctions from attitudes to accents. Deeper time-capsule discomfiture may come from the repeated references to "the blacks" and "the coloreds" is contexts that make it clear there are even lower rungs on the social ladder.

But like The Man in the White Suit, which bites into similar themes, the film's teeth are still sharp, its humor — silly, droll, or vulgar — is ageless, and the way Sellers inhabits Kite is twelve kinds of magnificent.

Music: John Adams / Kronos Quartet, John's Book of Alleged Dances
Near at hand: The brochure for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current season

Friday, February 25, 2011

IFC's 50 Greatest Opening Title Sequences of All Time

Posted at

I've always loved a well crafted set of opening titles, the kind that make such sequences little works of art all to themselves. Several of my favorites made IFC's list. I'm happy-surprised to see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a favorite movie at our house, and Seconds in the ranking; a bit puzzled by the high placement of the Austin Powers sequence (yeah, it's funny and clever, but above all those others, really?); and pleased to make a few new discoveries (Bunny Lake is Missing, JCVD).

Extra bonus points for the knowledgeable, insightful annotations associated with each title, credited to Matt Singer, Michelle Orange, Stephen Saito, Nick Schager, and R. Emmet Sweeney:

50. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
49. "Fahrenheit 451"
48. "Exit Through the Gift Shop"
47. "Do the Right Thing"
46. "Run Lola Run"
45. "Magnum Force"
44. "Charade"
43. "The Naked Kiss"
42. "The Kingdom"
41. "Snatch"
40. "The Shining"
39. "Blast of Silence"
38. "Go"
37. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"
36. "Dawn of the Dead"
35. "Reservoir Dogs"
34. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"
33. "Once Upon a Time in the West"
32. "Life of Brian"
31. "To Kill a Mockingbird"
30. "The Wild Bunch"
29. "Delicatessen"
28. "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"
27. "Taxi Driver"
26. "The Player"
25. "The Man With the Golden Arm"
24. "Bullitt"
23. "Kiss Me Deadly"
22. "The Graduate"
21. "Seconds"
20. "The Conversation"
19. "Alien"
18. "Shaft"
17. "Mean Streets"
16. "Lord of War"
15. "Psycho"
14. "Catch Me If You Can"
13. "Bunny Lake is Missing"
12. "The Warriors"
11. "JCVD"
10. "Saturday Night Fever"
9. "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly"
8. "Watchmen"
7. "Raging Bull"
6. "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!"
5. "Goldfinger"
4. "Touch of Evil"
3. "Se7en"
2. "A Hard Day's Night"
1. "Vertigo"

Want more?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ah, that Hollywood magic

Sandi Toksvig (with Sigourney Weaver) re-enacts a scene from Alien. From BBC One's The Graham Norton Show.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir

As a nod to the current film preservation fundraising event, For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, this seems like a good vid to bring back to the front of the line.

Video by RubyTuesday717
Song: "Angel" by Massive Attack

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hoffman (1970) — What fits in the middle

Until today my plan had been for Hoffman to be the fifth and final entry in this past week's impromptu Peter Sellers flavor assortment. But because this movie leaves me with a taste in my mouth as if I've been huffing a clogged shower drain, I'd rather not end on such a dour title. So instead I'll post one more after this to end on an up note. (And here it is.)

One of my few implicit protocols in this blog has been to focus chiefly on movies that I like. Why spend time scribbling about movies I don't enjoy (that is, unless I'm getting paid for it)? The few times I've gone against that guideline have been with films that I might not enjoy much, but that still contain items of interest. The previous Sellers post, The Magic Christian, is a case in point. (See also The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, In Like Flint, and 2002's The Time Machine.)

As for Hoffman, I feel obliged to add it even though it's among the more unpleasant movies I've ever watched, and not even having Sellers at its center changes that fact.

Indeed, Sellers is so unnervingly convincing in the role of Benjamin Hoffman — in a movie that attempts to warm our hearts via a predatory, deflower-the-virgin, kidnapping/bondage power fantasy — that his performance contributes to the way Hoffman rubs me the wrong way like an unwelcome tongue.

Plus, Hoffman is a genuine oddity: it's one of Sellers' rare forays into straight drama, and a particularly hard-to-find title from his long career. And no wonder: on the heels of The Magic Christian, Hoffman is one of a cluster of bombs that sank Sellers' bankability until the sublime Being There in '79. The troubled, depressive actor begged to have Hoffman withdrawn and spoke publicly of how poor it was. He even tried to buy the negative and destroy it. He was successful, mostly. This low-key, peculiar curiosity received almost zero distribution, not reaching even a New York art house until 1982.

So here's one that's of automatic interest to those of us who find Sellers compellingly watchable even in his more ridiculous movies. Stoking that interest is something Roger Lewis, in his biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, notes about Sellers' presence in the film:
Contempt; fastidiousness; anger; humiliation; sullying and being sullied: the moods and nuances in the work make it less of a film than a confessional, as Sellers knew. "It's the first time that I've been called on to play what they—the producer, the director, the author—call myself."
By playing a haunted, lonely, dangerously double-natured cad, he may have played himself too closely for anyone's comfort, even his own.

Sellers is Benjamin Hoffman, a pale, unremarkable, middle-aged widower obsessed with his young, miniskirted typist, Miss Smith (Sinéad Cusack). A non-entity at the office, he can no longer suppress a leering, lecherous darker self. By blackmailing Miss Smith with evidence against her felonious fiancé, he forces her to spend a week alone with him in his spacious flat and bed.

His ostensibly sinister intentions are made clear to the chaste Miss Smith through smug aphorisms dripping with smarmy, misogynist urbanity: "Please make yourself look as though you want to be fertilized." ~ "You must never become a person, Miss Smith. That would be intolerable.'' ~ "Miss Smith, it's not only homosexuals who don't like women. Hardly anybody likes them." ~ "All over the world, simple pleasures of the flesh are being ruined by women screaming to be understood." ~ "I want to eat you. I want to consume you." ~ "Eat or be eaten." ~ "Women are always hungry for something. Fallopian tubes with teeth." (Hoffman takes food/sex metaphors to bold new levels of ho-hum.)

The talky screenplay is transparent and obvious throughout, offering neither itself nor Sellers much opportunity for nuance or subtly veiled revelations. Instead it delivers itself as a series of well-hewn but nonetheless lumpish Memorable Quotes. Such as when Hoffman bespeaks the duality between a man's outer shell and the demons quivering underneath driving his vampiric mind games. "For the first time in my life, the prisoner within me has escaped," he says. And in a restaurant over escargot: "There are two people in all of us — the child in the snapshot and the monster the child grows into."

For what it's worth, the film's one moment of brightness occurs during that same meal: "I remember the day my father introduced me to snails," Hoffman tells the girl. "'Hello, snails, how are you?', I said.'' (Escargot, of course, is purported to be an aphrodisiac. Snails, on the other hand, live within their tiny shells, exude slime, and ravage pretty growing things — much like Hoffman himself. I'm not convinced the screenwriter saw this comparison as a negative.)

Hoffman employs the threat of sex as a tool for manipulation the way a medieval jailer might wave a branding iron in his victim's face. He declares, with Sellers' remarkable silky purr, that "I do have full use, Miss Smith. Any man suffering massive sexual frustration would be out of his mind if, getting the girl of his dreams, he didn't put her to full use." He tells his frightened prisoner, "You are here to be two arms, two legs, a head, and what fits in the middle." What a charmer.

And yet Hoffman never touches her. Aha! He's not really a rapist, we discover. He's just a pathetic sociopath who rationalizes his actions by his loneliness and insecurity and some universal sense of male right and rite. So, hey, it's all okay then! What girl could resist?

Because escape (to the extent that she tries) proves to be impossible, she is forced to occupy his flat with him, drowning in his pathos as surely as if he were holding her head underwater in the bathtub.

Thus follows one of the more unpalatable character turns I've ever been asked to swallow in a straight drama: As Miss Smith gradually sees that the pitiable little man is more child than monster, she falls in love with him. (That her fiancé Tom is revealed to be a louse unworthy of one ounce of her attention or affection ameliorates the dynamic not at all. If this screenplay had been written by a woman, any kneejerk accusations of misandry would not go unvindicated.)

Worse, in the "uplifting" climax we witness her smiling submission to his terms of domestic bondage in a new house for them both, surrendering her own self-will and, by my lights, any currency of self-worth or interest as a character. I'm not talking about casual Dom/Sub scene-playing here, which is an altogether different thing. Rather, Hoffman posits that it's justifiable, even heartening, for a woman to be beaten down and reduced to a mere possession, a grown man's dress-up doll, and be happy for the privilege. Miss Smith's emotional transformation, which we're presumably expected to mirror, comes across more as a Stockholm Syndrome breakdown than a tender opening of her eyes and heart.

We're asked to stretch the definition of "romance" to fit a shape that's not just ugly and misogynistic, but one that drains any amount of respect we (at least I) might have for Miss Smith. "Love" in this case becomes just another word for willing victimhood. Now let's add the subtext that Hoffman the perpetrator is excused for his behavior and earns his rightful prize in the natural gamesmanship between men and women.

There's that unwelcome tongue against my skin again. Bleah.

It's an odd and discomforting movie occupied by two odd and discomforting characters. And yet I can't fault either the production or the performances, both of which are better than the blithely creepy screenplay deserved.

Sellers is somberly fascinating in a role that may have revealed the real man — without the masks of a funny voice or comic characterization or facial appliances — more successfully than the roles that made him famous. He makes Benjamin Hoffman a domineering, psychologically warped abuser not through grand gestures or swooping-cape theatrics, but through stillness and solemnity and a restrained quietude, which makes the portrayal all the more effective.

For her part, Cusack is such a blue-eyed Irish wonder that it's a shame she devoted her talents more to the Royal Shakespeare Company than to a screen career.

Alvin Rakoff's directing starts well as the opening titles, over Matt Monro's "If There Ever Is a Next Time," follow Miss Smith on her trek across London to Hoffman's flat. After that his work is attractive and doesn't try to overcompensate for the restrictions built into what feels like a filmed stage play. It's clear that he's letting this be Sellers' and Cusack's show. But that leads to directorial choices that come off as staid and hemmed-in, and that fail to sustain the needed momentum from start to finish.

I'm apparently in the minority by finding Ron Grainer's musical score insipid and off-putting. That's okay. He earned his place in screen heaven by originally composing the title theme to Doctor Who.

Ernest Gébler adapted his own novel into the screenplay. While he seems to have loved the sound of his own typing, Hoffman's epigrammatic script is occasionally striking:
"Every girl is a flower garden with a compost heap at the bottom. And many a noble man has had to drown his dwarf wife in a zinc bath or strangle an idiot girl on a muddy common in order to draw attention to himself."

"Girls all over the world are afraid of men with my expression. Plain, sad-faced men. Mature, sexually starved men. In offices, busses, and trains. Men who've missed the boat. Their day is coming. Their revolution is almost upon you."
It's like being forced to lick the seat on a city bus, but I can't deny that it makes an impression.


When Hoffman gets talked about at all, the conversation typically orbits the question of the uncomfortable truths the film reveals about Sellers. I wonder instead how much of a self-portrait we're getting of the writer who created Sellers' character in the first place.

Granted, I shouldn't even begin to speculate on how much — if at all — either Hoffman or Hoffman reveals Gébler's own personality, self-loathing, or attitudes toward women and men. Trying to discern the writer via the material is often a mug's game.

Nonetheless, I have to work hard to restrain an impulse from my gut and from my experiences among writers — the impulse that prods me to imagine Gébler as one broken, deeply unpleasant son of a bitch.

Unfair, I know, and an impulse that doesn't shine well on me. Yet I find the material here so repugnant, while simultaneously so well polished, that I can't help but wonder, What kind of "plain, sad-faced" man, who believes he has "missed the boat" and fantasizes that his "revolution" is coming, could invest himself so fully in expressing sentiments like this? Or does the question answer itself?

I don't know, and here I'll leave that question, and the movie, for good. I don't need to revisit this one again.

Next up, as a palate cleanser: one more Sellers movie that I do enjoy revisiting every few years.

For the Love of Film (Noir): a week-long, multi-platform blogathon

Go to Ferdy on Films and spend too much time (which will actually feel like not enough time) supporting the second film preservation fundraising event, For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon:
"This year, the Film Noir Foundation is our special valentine, and they've honored us by earmarking our funds for a very special film: The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me (1950), with blacklisted director Cy Endfield at the helm, and starring Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in."

Go there, browse, click links, and donate if you can. Like last year, there are more good-to-excellent film bloggers represented than you can shake Joel Cairo at, all of them active contributors to the diverse, intelligent, often illuminating web-wide conversation about movies and moviedom and the folks who love it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Peter Sellers as Laurence Olivier as Richard III doing The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"

Since we're having a Peter Sellers-palooza here, the post after The Magic Christian seems like a good place for these video finds.

Sellers had a casual on-and-off association with The Beatles. George Harrison met Ravi Shankar at Sellers' house, changing the course of Harrison's musical and spiritual explorations. (Shankar advised Sellers on playing the sitar in The Party.) In 1968, during his two-week hiatus from the Beatles during the White Album recordings, Ringo wrote "Octopus's Garden" while vacationing with his family in Sardinia on Sellers' yacht. Starr also gave Sellers a rough mix of songs from the White Album, and here's a video of Sellers paying the Beatles a visit during the "Get Back" sessions.

He performed a number of humorous covers of Beatles songs, including a version of "She Loves You" as Dr. Strangelove. In that vein, here's a video from a December 1965 Granada ITV special, The Music of Lennon and McCartney. Sellers' cover of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" — sending up Laurence Olivier's Richard III in the bargain — became a UK Top 20 hit that year.

Happily, and rather miraculously, we also have an outtakes reel:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Magic Christian (1969) — If you want it, here it is, come and get it

This third film in my alone-on-the-couch-with-the-flu Peter Sellers retrospective — after Blake Edwards' The Party and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas — was based on the short book by hipster novelist Terry Southern. According to Southern, a copy of his 1959 comic novel found its way to Peter Sellers via their mutual friend Jonathan Miller.
"Peter liked it to the improbable degree that he went straight to the publisher and bought a hundred copies to give to his friends. One such friend, as luck would have it, was Stanley Kubrick."
Thus Southern pinged Kubrick's radar, and that led to Kubrick hiring Southern to co-write the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove once Kubrick decided to make his nuclear Armageddon movie a comedy.

In the movie-making Circle of Life, that's not a bad little outcome for a writer's first solo novel.

Sellers, meanwhile, imagined a film version of The Magic Christian as a pet project, with himself taking the lead role. In 1968 Southern wrote draft after draft of the screenplay, aided (or hindered) by Sellers, director Joseph McGrath, and a pair of TV comedy writers named Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

The ultimate result, 1969's The Magic Christian, is at best a baggy, vapid interpretation of the source novel. Ringo Starr's character was invented for the film and for Starr specifically. While seeing Starr cohabit a film with Sellers, Racquel Welch, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, etc. is of keen interest to us lifelong Beatles fanatics, The Magic Christian is diverting more as anthropology than as entertainment. Indeed, it may engender a trippy period appeal you might otherwise reserve for a lava lamp. Unfortunately, both as a movie and as a satire of society's corruptibility and greed, it's likewise formless and gloopy.

This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.

It aims, with unearned smugness, to skewer the moneyed classes through the English Theatre of the Absurd that fostered Monty Python among others. Because pre-Python Cleese and Chapman were among the too many cooks behind this screenplay, some of its better moments bear that distinctive Python stamp.

Sellers plays millionaire prankster Sir Guy Grand, who in the movie's first moment of unexplained whimsy adopts as his son a scruffy youth sleeping in Hyde Park (Starr, mere months from becoming an ex-Beatle and seemingly anesthetized). Together they work their way up the social ladder staging elaborate scenarios — at Sotheby's, in a fine restaurant, at an Oxford-Cambridge boating race, bringing an anti-aircraft gun to a pheasant hunt, and so on — to freak out the toffs, expose the shallow bigotry and avarice of the Establishment, and generally prove that "everyone has their price."

The final 20 minutes boil over aboard the luxury cruise ship "Magic Christian," where the cream of elite society is curdled by a mishmash of psychedelic goings-on that include a vampire, willy-nilly dwarfs, and a rampaging gorilla suit.

Just to be clear here: It's not as though I'm constitutionally opposed to the movie's "message." I acknowledge that human beings can willingly become self-degrading Pavlovian animals when fat wads of cash are wafted under our noses. And if you know me personally you already know that "black humor" and I have a long and happy relationship.

It's just that I'm repulsed at the cellular level by any vehicle — a movie, a political manifesto, a raised-fist poetry slam declamation, a bathroom graffiti pronouncement, the typical Tea Party utterance — that mistakes pompous, unnuanced, mean-spirited and blinkered treatment of its thesis for thought-provoking insight. Especially when I'm supposed to be laughing along with the humor of its delivery mechanism.

In The Magic Christian, this self-satisfied faux-profundity reaches face-palm levels in its final moments, when, to make sure we Get The Message, Sir Guy tosses wads of bank notes into a swimming pool vat brimming with offal, shit, and piss, into which the dapper swells mingle with the hoi polloi to wade in and submerge to line their pockets. 

On the other hand...
Because its sketch-comedy indictments of Society's Empty Values don't get much less sophomoric than that, The Magic Christian is never as clever or enlightened as it thinks we think it is. Never mind that, after more than 40 years, any satire here that might once possibly have been biting now just gums.

One of the movie's problems is that there are no characters here, only actors used as furniture moved about from one underdeveloped vignette to the next. Its rudderless, rambling course — leading to its over-the-top, throw-anything-at-the screen climax — makes this an English cousin of 1967's overstuffed Casino Royale, with whom it shares director Joseph McGrath; although Casino at least had the good nature to be occasionally stupid-silly-fun instead of just callow and bitchy.

Oh, Christopher....
Not such a fantastic voyage.
As The Magic Christian meanders drunkenly from scene to scene, out come the "name that celebrity" cameos that contribute to its minor cult-kitsch popularity. There's Laurence Harvey as a strip-tease Hamlet, Raquel Welch in a brass brassiere as the "Priestess of the Whip" among a galley of topless slave girls, barfly Roman Polanski chatted up by singing transvestite Yul Brynner, and Christopher Lee in full Dracula regalia as the Ship's Vampire. Continue this drinking game by spotting Cleese and Chapman, Richard Attenborough, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Mind-scrub of the week: Yul Brynner in drag hits up Roman Polanski at the bar.

The music — namely Badfinger's "Come and Get It" (penned by Paul McCartney) and Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" — adds to the nostalgia fest.

Geoffrey Unsworth supervised the photography, though it's safe to say that he's better remembered for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, and Superman.

The Magic Christian has fleeting moments of fun, is a should-see for those of us who dig on Sellers and vintage Britcom, and heaven knows it's a sampler tray of its time. Too bad it's all such a dismal mess, a joyless exercise that sets out to deliver a Statement that's puerile and obvious and ultimately doesn't amount to much. One may ask if Sellers, Southern, and other well-heeled individuals behind The Magic Christian made it as a quick, easy means to sucker in the "rebel" youth market it's so clearly aimed at. But that would be cynical, wouldn't it?

Music: Ute Lemper, "All That Jazz"
Near at hand: Wild Child by T.C. Boyle

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) — Making a hash of it

Here's the second in a brief survey of Peter Sellers films I revisited while recently laid up with the flu. Sticking with a chronological order here, this one follows The Party by six months, opening in October 1968.

For Sellers fans interested in score-keeping the up-and-down work during his late-'60s blue period, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas isn't as charming or pleasant as The Party. On the other hand, it's not as smugly charmless as The Magic Christian ('69) or as dreary as Hoffman ('70), both of which I'll get to next.

This movie is, in fact, hardly there at all. As in The Bobo ('67) or There's a Girl in My Soup ('70), Sellers stars in a romantic comedy that's as insubstantial as smoke. Sweetly scented, legally questionable smoke in this case, but that's where its one overarching joke comes from.

As the insufferably cutesy trailer below suggests, for a movie that takes its title from the Haight-Ashbury scene's recipe for marijuana brownies, ILYABT doesn't aim to be anything near a "counterculture" experience. Rather, it's conventional and derivative and middlebrow enough to fall back on broad stereotypes of what audiences in Omaha thought of the "hippie movement." For Sellers completists and fans of that Sgt. Pepper-by-way-of-The Monkees vibe, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is a quaint watch-it-once experience.

Sellers plays Harold Fine, an L.A. lawyer and 9-to-5 square. Harold lives his bourgeois, buttoned-down, asthmatic life by unenthusiastically going through the motions. That includes a loveless sex life with his secretary/fiancée (Joyce Van Patten) who desires nothing more than a wedding. Strained TV sitcom circumstances put Harold behind the wheel of a "psychedelic" station wagon and in the company of his brother Herbie (David Arkin), a hippie who freaks out the squares at a Jewish funeral by arriving in traditional Hopi burial paint and feathers.

This is the stronger, funnier half of the movie, with Sellers — a sui generis performer no matter the material — again nailing a character at odds with the world around him.

But when he meets lovely Venice Beach hippie chick Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), Harold and the movie both spin off into less engaging directions. Not that Taylor-Young is at any fault. On the contrary, she's delightful, not to mention a leggy beauty in that fringed miniskirt revealing the butterfly tattoo positioned enticingly there. (She earned a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Newcomer.")

It's just that when free-spirit Nancy draws out Harold's repressed grooviness in bed and elsewhere, he tunes in and drops out, kicks off his inhibitions along with his Florsheim wingtips, exchanges his suit and tie for love beads and tie-dye, and grows his hair to his shoulders within the span of one jump cut.

Yes, he's dropping his outer squaresville facade to free his inner vibes, and probably getting the best sex of his life in the bargain, so more power to him, I say. Presumably we're intended to groove along with him vicariously, empathizing perhaps with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of this middle-aged neo-hippie's escape from the Establishment's constricting, uptight enforced propriety.

If only. As set up and played out here, way too early in the film Harold's transformation ultimately strikes us less as far-out liberation than as a pathetic, occasionally embarrassing nervous breakdown.

"I've got pot, I've got acid, I've got LSD cubes," he kvetches when Nancy starts questioning his dedication to his newfound hippitude. "I'm probably the hippest guy around here. I'm so hip, it hurts!"

And he's right, it does.

The screenplay by Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky (agreeably directed by TV veteran Hy Averback) delivers some humorous moments; for instance, the pipe-smoking Man In The Gray Flannel Suit buying a swinging minidress for himself.

Too often, though, it leans on trite comedy traditions by trucking in stereotypes across the board — Harold's "oy vey!" Jewish mother (Jo Van Fleet) and her cronies; the family of 11 Mexicans squeezed into one car and claiming identical neckbrace injuries; the easy conventions of portraying flower-child hippiedom; Van Patten's grating one-note role (she does her best, considering); the older generation stifled by not being "with it"....

Even in '68 there must have been little that was challenging or illuminating here, and with the Summer of Love long done and gone the movie probably felt retro the day it premiered. It opened just two months after the riot-rocked 1968 Democratic Convention, so I wonder if the national mood, post-"Chicago Seven," was an additional downer in the face of such an innocuous little comedy. If Abbie Hoffman ever saw it, I bet he could tell that its director was at the same time delivering The Flying Nun to his television.

It can go without saying that the film hasn't aged well since. Its best-remembered scene, in which pre-hip Harold accidentally serves his parents a batch of Nancy's pot brownies, has lost any comedic currency in our age of That '70s Show in perpetual reruns.

Nonetheless, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is just guilelessly entertaining enough to be worth a look. Despite the rote banalities at its edges, at its center Sellers gives his all to the material, and Leigh Taylor-Young is as appealing as a fresh-plucked peach.

Moreover, and critically important in my book, the movie comes with a gentle soul. It gives the era's youth counterculture a sympathetic, even affectionate shake. Although the hippies are portrayed with elementary sitcom strokes, ILYABT doesn't condescend or propagandize by casting them as conservative-cliché "dirty freaks" or agitprop no-goodniks. They're just good-hearted, decent folks trying their best to find their own way in the world, just like the rest of us. Similarly, mainstream society is not held up as either a faultless model lifestyle or some monolithic enemy that only Timothy Leary's flower-power acolytes can redeem.

This nonpartisan middle-of-the-road approach almost pays off in the final scenes, when Harold groks the hollowness of both hippiedom's excesses and the Establishment's straitjacketing conformity. This drives a fadeout that's a flat-footed steal from The Graduate, but it was probably a sincere one.

In Elmer Bernstein's perfunctory score we recognize glimpses of the maestro's signature orchestration amid the sitar patchouli oil; however, let's assume that the twee theme song by Harpers Bizarre, which incessantly repeats the movie's title like the mantra of an Up With People show choir, is not Mr. Bernstein's fault.

On Leigh Taylor-Young's web site, worth a look are her pages of photos and reminiscences from her experience of the movie's production.

Music: Joe Sample and Randy Crawford "Feeling Good"
Near at hand: David Delamare's Jabberwocky