The Life and Death of Peter Sellers [2004)

The kid stays in the picture.  Underestimated.  Geoffrey Rush does justice to cinema’s greatest anti-hero:  bumbling, fumbling Peter Sellers.  This is the capstone to Sellers-study.  Listen to his four EMI albums.  Search in vain for those early British films.  Perhaps you will find them.  It’s really no fun to order everything from Amazon.  Takes the whole sociological aspect out of it.  Go into the marketplace with your agoraphobia and see how the lesser-known films are scant on the shelves.  Even the shelves are scant.  Soon I will download Peter Sellers’ personality directly to my brain.

As this film makes clear, Sellers had no personality of his own.  Perhaps.

Charlize Theron makes as convincing a Britt Ekland as Rush does a Sellers.  Very.  Emily Watson is superb as Peter’s first wife Anne.  John Lithgow gives the best performance I’ve ever seen him do as director Blake Edwards.  Miriam Margolyes is striking as Sellers’ mother Peg.  Peter Vaughn does a tremendous job as Sellers’ father.

There are so many truly touching scenes in this biopic.  Tears of a clown.

Sonia Aquino was perfectly cast as Sophia Loren and she gives off just the right lust factor to make us feel what Peter must have been feeling.  He was insane.  He was never cut out for fame.  He was ill-prepared.  Like Andy Kaufman.

Perhaps the most pithy scene is when Sellers settles for shagging Sopia’s stand-in.  We pity him.  We despise him.  We laugh.  We cry.

The kid stayed in the picture.  Fat, homely Peter of The Goon Show.  He bared his teeth and sunk them into the arm of show business.  He bit the hand that fed.  He paid a heavy price for fame.  It is like the Leonard Cohen song “Came So Far for Beauty”…my favorite song ever written.  It is the story of all movie stars.  Godard was infinitely deft to include this song in Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Stanley Tucci hits just the right notes in portraying Stanley Kubrick.  But the real auteur here is Stephen Hopkins.  He made one of the best, most touching, genius films I have ever seen.  Emotion pours from every splice; every joint of montage.  May he be given many more projects as worthy of his talent as this.

One last note.  Geoffrey Rush does his best acting ever in this film.  Lithgow was right when he said that.  We will be forever indebted to the depths which Rush plumbed to show a true Hollywood story worth telling.

 

-PD

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [1972)

First off, this film has never been properly restored (to my knowledge) and the copy I have on disc makes this quite apparent.  From the opening titles one can hardly read a word.  It’s as if a taxi driver in Cairo went into a local cinema and set up his camcorder pointed at the screen.  Suffice it to say that the medium is the message to this extent.  The story would be almost psychedelic enough just based on the thoroughly bizarre film transfer.

Fiona Fullerton is actually quite good as Alice.  The Nigerian-born actress would go on to appear in A View to a Kill (1985).

It’s hard to quibble about a film which employs a dodo bird.  This, of course, is to the credit of author Lewis Carroll.  Peter Bull is oddly cast as the Duchess.  You might remember him from Dr. Strangelove as Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski.

The disembodied head of Roy Kinnear as the Cheshire Cat adds a rather clunky touch near the end of the film.

But this film really is worth it if for none other than the ten-or-so minutes of Peter Sellers as The March Hare.  With prim and proper accent he, along with the Mad Hatter and Dormouse, regales Alice with a pun or two (“spook only when spooken to”).  This really was my whole reason for watching, but I’m glad to have experienced the whole slice of mind-altering pie.

Dudley Moore seems a bit misused as the Dormouse as he spends most of the film asleep.  For fans of The Goon Show one can spot Spike Milligan as the Gryphon.  The scene with the Mock Turtle is when the film really gets going.  One even gets the sense that perhaps the production was shot in sequence (due to the comfort the cast seems to have by that point…a characteristic apparently missing in earlier scenes).

Of special notice in this film is the music of John Barry.  The world knows him best as the official James Bond composer.  His work here lends this production a timeless sheen of orchestral mystery.  Perhaps it’s just my faded copy, but there are some truly magical moments every now and then.  I wouldn’t call it on the whole a masterpiece, but director William Sterling did an admirable job.  This was, in fact, Sterling’s only foray into non-TV film directing.  Not bad at all, sir!

The song credits even give one an opportunity to view sous rature in the flesh (“How Doth The Little Busy Bee Crocodile”).  Whether or not Isaac Watts would be pleased, we can assume Heidegger and Derrida would find some jollies.

And so, plenty of croquet and even a Lobster Quadrille.  Someone call Gérard de Nerval.

 

-PD

The Party [1968)

This is the holy grail of awkward.  For all us misfits, all us loners, all us wallflowers:  this is the glory of being a loser.  Sellers may have been better in Being There, but this is his most perfect film.

The name Hrundi V. Bakshi is to outcasts what Humbert Humbert is to perverts.  Sellers plays Bakshi in such a painfully ill-at-ease way that we just wanna give the guy a hug.  If you are looking for the fount from which sprang Napoleon Dynamite, this is it.

Hrundi says the wrong thing…at the wrong time…always.  Except for this one night when a beautiful starlet (ill-suited to such a vacuous profession) sees in him the spark which makes life worth living.

Bakshi may be a man of impeccable manners, but he is honest to the core.  However, he is prodigious when it comes to “stepping in it.”  From the very outset of the party, he must extricate himself from the first of many delicate situations.  It’s not easy being Hrundi.

Yes, Mr. Bakshi just wasn’t meant for this world.  He is like the dodo bird.  His heart is too pure and he is green in all but the Hindustani language.  Some might yell “racism” at Sellers in brown face, but it is really a very respectable portrait of an Indian man with great humility through and through.

There are few movies I enjoy watching more than this one.  Samuel Beckett never concocted a situation equal to the artful absurdity which Blake Edwards here captured on screen.

And so three cheers for Hrundi…and may all of us Bakshis find our Claudine Longets.  Birdie num num!

 

-PD

Being There [1979)

The battery is dying.  I may not be able to finish.  I liked watching this movie.  Very much.  Peter was never better.  When I was a boy I didn’t understand.  I understand.  A movie is like a garden.  The light comes and goes.  The sun hides.  There are clouds.  I like to watch the light.

I miss Peter.  He did a very good job acting in this movie.  I like movies.

Shirley was beautiful.  I don’t think she looked old.  She looked very beautiful.

Maybe it is best to talk only about this movie.  I liked the static.  The screen looked like Christmas Eve.  Eve.  Eve was beautiful.  Peter was funny.  I think it is his best performance.  I hope they will not close up the movie theater when he is gone.  If I remember him, then he is not gone.

You tell that honky…ass whole, I won’t take…from no Western Union manager…or I’ll cut his ass.

If you see Raphael, please tell him.

I like to watch movies.  Yes.

 

-PD

Trail of the Pink Panther [1982)

Ugh.  Ay carambas!  Yikes.  This film is torture.  I will not claim to have made it all the way through, but I held on as long as I could.

This really is just a travesty all around.  It starts well enough.  Harvey Korman is an admirable Auguste Balls.  “Maybe they did have enough outtake footage to patch together a film,” I thought.  I kept as alert as possible, trying to find the inevitable and unenviable “break point.”  It comes after Sellers exits the elevator:  the last laugh.

It is a jaw-dropping stroke of hubris…Sellers doing soft-shoe on the spilled rice and then the exact same set piece with the keys in the door and the ripped trousers.  It’s all downhill from there.  It turns into a “greatest hits” playback of scenes from the previous films with stupefying ennui courtesy of interviewing those who had known Clouseau.

I must say, however:  I made it further into this debacle than I thought I would.  At least the “pup-out” lighter scene was priceless (truly the last laugh).  Perhaps I will return to this revolting pastiche once my stomach has calmed down…in a couple of weeks.

 

-PD

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas [1968)

I must hand it to Drew Barrymore.  She fought the law and she won.  It is nothing short of a minor coup (?) that she persisted in having this film shown as part of TCM’s Essentials programming (against, perhaps, the “better” judgment of Robert Osborne).  I’ve had this film in VHS form sans case awaiting the perfect moment to watch it.  That moment came tonight thanks to guest programmer Drew.

I should mention that I rather like Robert Osborne.  His love for film is unquestioned.  He has that twinkle in his eye…even when speaking about the most apocryphal “classics.”  It was truly a moment in my life when I first heard the word Cahiers pronounced…and the speaker was none other than Mr. Osborne.

On to the film at hand.  This really is a strange movie.  Mostly because it is not strange.  Peter Sellers plays what might best be described as Zeppo Marx for the entirety of the film.  I must, however, give it to director Hy Averback for having crafted a film which nicely calls into question the values people place on rather vacuous objects and principles.  At least the very last scene (Sellers hastily strolling down the street) finally achieves a sublime effect which was labored over for 94 minutes before being realized.  Sadly, this film has all the trappings of The Party (truly Sellers’ best performance) with almost none of the brilliance.  It is acutely agonizing to watch Sellers play the straight man.

 

-PD

The Revenge of the Pink Panther [1978)

It all starts to blur together.  After the masterful return to form in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, this film fails to distinguish itself from the series.  There are some amazing moments.  True.  But perhaps it would have behooved the creators to have set the entire film in Hong Kong rather than merely the last portion.

The saving grace of the Bond series from Eon Productions is that, though formulaic, one can differentiate one film from another (more or less) by the location shooting.  The original Pink Panther movie boded well for just such expectations by having Clouseau go off to Cortina d’Ampezzo for a postcard background.  When one thinks of Bond, we can picture Jamaica (Dr. No), Turkey (From Russia With Love), Japan (You Only Live Twice) and Switzerland (particularly On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but also Goldfinger) to name just a few.  Such differentiation was sorely lacking in this parallel string of sequels.

Back to the film at hand:  it is not at all bad.  It just becomes difficult to tell it apart from the preceding four installments (not including 1968’s Inspector Clouseau which featured Alan Arkin rather than Sellers).  [I suppose Arkin is the Lazenby of this franchise.]

There are some nuggets in this film–some “set pieces” which make it wonderful viewing in spite of its meta-laziness.  When Sellers manages to kill Ed Parker…that’s surely a laugher.  But what follows is even better.  As Clouseau has the floor sawn from beneath him, we once again enter a surreal world of Sellers vs. Kwouk (which Blake Edwards had begun to capture ever more rivetingly in the preceding two films).  Sellers ends up largely covered in blue paint (which also splatters on the walls of the apartment beneath his…a half-finished renovation) and the whole thing begs the question as to whether Sellers and the creators of this film were versed in the history of Yves Klein.  Klein, of course, in addition to “patenting” a particular shade of blue (International Klein Blue) was also a martial arts enthusiast (becoming a master of judo at age 25).  And.  He was, of course, thoroughly French.

Dyan Cannon looked lovely in this film and the scene with Sellers by the fireplace is both charming and hilarious (in a Samuel Beckett sort of way).  Sellers as Godfather Scallini presages the Austin Powers “fat suit” antics of Mike Myers.  Finally, the medal presentation at the end of the film is befitting for the aging Sellers:  a grand exit from the series proper.  [One last trio of antics…the faulty sword, the pigeon on his gendarme casque, and the thorough unraveling of the French president’s necktie.]

Graham Stark is excellent in yet a third separate role (over the course of the series) as Auguste Balls.  Special notice should also be given to André Maranne who was an iconic face and personality throughout the franchise’s run.

Sellers contributed a magnificent archetype to cinema with his storied presentation of the Clouseau character over the course of these many films.  He is, and always will be, (notwithstanding Casino Royale) the anti-Bond.  Farewell sweet soul.

 

-PD

 

The Pink Panther Strikes Again [1976)

This is a brilliant film. And though I doubt the Quasimodo disguise kit which Clouseau just happened to have on hand prior to learning of Dreyfus’ escape was spun-off into a product tie-in, it should have been.

The problem with the prior film (The Return of the Pink Panther) is remedied here in spades with liberal experimentation. Having Dreyfus form a S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-like crime organization is as ingenious as it is utterly ridiculous. Students of German cinema may be left wondering whether Professor Fassbender is actually a reference to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. No matter: the joy of this film is how little it takes itself seriously.

Clouseau once again is buoyed by his charmed existence: like Charlie Chaplin meets Forrest Gump. The world’s top assassins (assigned to kill our beloved Inspector) are no match for Clouseau’s fateful luck–stumbling over each other like a bunch of amateurs in his wake–and he is none-the-wiser (being both detached and oblivious).  Peter Sellers was pure nitrous oxide when he was at his best. His visual humor has been near-unparalleled in the history of cinema. His performance in this film ranks with The Party as among his best.

Awkward men everywhere can exult in the clumsy attempt Clouseau makes near the end of the movie to simply get undressed (similar to his misadventures with Capucine in the original installment of the series).

Director Blake Edwards expanded on the “psychedelic” touches of The Return of the Pink Panther by having more outrageous slow-motion scream-groans in the primary karate skirmish between Cato and Clouseau. It is a truly masterful instance of surrealism.

In short, it is a viewing experience not to be missed. This is your dossier.

-PD

The Return of the Pink Panther [1975)

From the start it is a pale imitation of Topkapi.

But the film is salvaged by upping the ridiculousness of Sellers’ French accent.

The grand premise is similar to Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), but the Pink Panther series had by 1975 lost that je ne sais quoi which made the first two films of the series minor masterpieces.

This film is really all about Sellers’ uncanny skill at impressions (and there are some good ones):  the phone company man, the German-speaking housekeeper and even the Tony Clifton-esque playboy.

It is interesting to note that Sellers actually did have a residence in Gstaad (one of the principal settings for this film).

Also interesting to note is that Graham Stark (who had previously played Hercule LaJoy in A Shot In The Dark (1964), the second episode in the series) plays the role of Pepi.  Pepi is actually the only other interesting character in this whole film.  There is a sort of “Signor Ugarte meets Marty Feldman’s Igor” about his performance.

The direction at least has some interesting “psychedelic” moments (I’m thinking of the two slow-motion shots of Sellers flying through the air attempting an unsuccessful karate kick).

One thing is certain:  Sellers had a comedic magic which even caused his fellow actors (Catherine Schell in this film) to visibly “crack up” during takes.  The “corpsing” (as it is known) will be familiar to viewers of Saturday Night Live.  Sellers really embodied the part (as any good purveyor of imitations would).  When true comedic genius is present, it is often hard to find a Zeppo Marx.

But what I find most fascinating about this awful film (awful aside from Sellers) is that the director Blake Edwards had just three years previous made a fantastic drama starring James Coburn called The Carey Treatment (1972).  Edwards was no slouch as a director.  That then brings into question the underrated acting skills of Coburn (Derek Flint for spy-spoof enthusiasts).

With the immense talent of Sellers and the thorough competence of Edwards, I can only surmise that (like the Bond series beginning with You Only Live Twice (1967)) the series itself became a stale constraint due to pressure from above.  The only real innovation allowed to happen was in the liberties Sellers took with the Clouseau character.  The accent is more indecipherable, yet that becomes formulaic over the course of 114 minutes as the new gag is run into the ground.  The imitations are creative and elaborate (almost like a playful take on Dr. Strangelove), but none of them seem particularly well thought-out.  Somehow there was a disconnect between the talents of Sellers and Edwards.  Had they been creating as one, this awfully good film might have been great.

 

-PD

 

A Shot in the Dark [1964)

If you are not paying strict attention it may escape you that A Shot in the Dark is the second installment in The Pink Panther series.  After playing second fiddle (literally…in bed…a “Stradivarius”) to David Niven in The Pink Panther, Peter Sellers parlays his upstaging of Niven into this starring vehicle loaded with bombs, murders and surprise karate attacks.

After receiving a “beump” on the head, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer) is rendered unconscious.  While out, a gun is placed in her hand making her appear to be the culprit in a mysterious murder.  Leave it to a crew working in Britain and relying heavily on fake French accents to name a key character Dreyfus.  Think Alfred Dreyfus…1894-1906…not at all a funny affair in the annals of French history.

What is more, the newly introduced character Cato could not be further from the lofty Cato the Younger of Roman history.  The two Catos, however, do share a stubborn tenacity.  But more about that later…

Clouseau (Sellers) is as bumbling as ever and, as always, blinded by love.  After being cuckolded and taken by Capucine in the first installment, this time he lets love rule in his passion for Elke Sommers’ character.  Unlike the first film, his blind faith this time turns out to be vindicated.

The scene at the nudist colony is almost as good as the quintessential Sellers movie The Party (1968).

Things start to really go downhill for Clouseau’s boss Commissioner Dreyfus when the man in charge manages to chop his own thumb off in a guillotine-shaped cigar cutter.  Dreyfus proceeds to “go postal” in an attempt to rid himself of his least favorite employee (Clouseau):  the bane of his existence.

Burt Kwouk’s character Cato (actually spelled Kato, but only for this episode of the series) keeps the good inspector on his toes by attacking him at all hours of the day and night.  They are, apparently, friends.  Their sparring makes for some interesting phone calls as Cato answers “Inspector Clouseau’s residence” and hands the phone to Sellers who is twice breathing heavily from a just-finished skirmish.  It leaves the impression that Clouseau might be homosexual and that perhaps a “passionate moment” has been interrupted by the caller.  Indeed, Clouseau is always (without fail) in the wrong place at the wrong time (and alternately, the right place and the right time).  His is both a cursed and charmed existence.  Coupled with his indecipherable accent, he is a complete enigma.  The film seems to be asking, “How does this man even exist?!?”  And that’s what makes his story so entertaining.

For serious film nerds, notice Monsieur Ballon’s wife as being Tracy Reed:  the one and only actress in Dr. Strangelove.  I admit…it’s hard to recognize her without her bikini.

Graham Stark is great as Hercule LaJoy (no doubt an Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot reference).  Perhaps no greater embodiment of patience has existed in the history of cinema outside of Officer LaJoy.

It should be noted that director Blake Edwards was a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma:  not exactly the place from whence you would assume such humor to emanate.  Indeed, this film is all about Edwards and Sellers.

Let us not forget the timeless Operation Petticoat (1959…even the timeless have times) with Cary Grant which Edwards helmed.  Even Andrew Sarris noted the achievement of Edward’s film Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961).  And we musn’t forget 10 (1979) with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.

It’s a long way from Tulsa to Portsmouth, U.K. where Peter Sellers was born.  The thing about Sellers is that he really was a late bloomer as regards international stardom.  He was 38 when he first played Clouseau on screen and 39 for his turns in Dr. Stranglove and A Shot in the Dark.

For fans of The Kinks, it should be noted that the Sellers family relocated to Muswell Hill when Peter was aged 10.  He was of a Protestant father and Jewish mother so naturally (?) he attended Catholic school.  Sellers was, in fact, an accomplished drummer and was at one time billed as “Britain’s answer to Gene Krupa.” (!)  His first studio album (sketches and comic songs) was produced by George Martin in 1958 and released on Parlophone (reaching #3 in the U.K. album charts).  In 1960 he recorded an album with Sophia Loren (including the #4 U.K. hit “Goodness Gracious Me”…also produced by Martin).

Sellers made his directorial debut in 1961 with Mr. Topaze.

But back to the film at hand.  Even Bosley Crowther himself admired Sellers’ performance in A Shot in the Dark.

Sellers really had a wild year in 1964…what with Dr. Stranglove…A Shot in the Dark…and the eight heart attacks he suffered over the course of three hours from popping amyl nitrates prior to having sex with Britt Ekland.

Sellers received a CBE shortly after leaving (quit or fired) the set of Casino Royale (1967).

“What’s that you say?  Oh…”

 

-PD