Friday, 30 October 2015

No.87. Peter Sellers - GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN (1973)


Until the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise took the world by storm, historically pirate films had almost always failed at the box-office. GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN is a shining example of why. It’s all at sea from the start…

Peter Medak was the unfortunate captain of this leaky vessel, initially scripted by Evan Jones and then Ernest Tidyman, but subsequently augmented by Spike Milligan when he came aboard for his acting scenes.

The rambling plot, salvaged from what was shot and stitched together in episodic title-card form years after shooting and then released again in the 1980s, concerns Sellers as a treacherous ship’s cook, Dick Scratcher (yes, the humour is at that woeful level) who kills his captain Ras Mohammed (a sadly wasted Peter Boyle) after they bury their treasure on an island. However, due to a poor memory, he kidnaps a young boy and enlists him to help spot the ghost whose appearance would signpost the location of their buried loot at a later date. The crew of the Sword of the Prophet include such Sellers real life ship-mates as David Lodge - and press-ganged American star Anthony Franciosa, clearly a vain studio bid for international market success. Franciosa didn’t get on well with his wayward leading man and despite cutting a dashing Fairbanks-esque pirate look, his Portuguese accent at times circles the Cape of Chico Marx. Sellers certainly transforms himself more acutely than he did for many of his films in this period. He channels a tap-a-da-marnin’ t’ick southern Oirish brogue for the film, and physically his floppy fringe, scraggly facial growth and mad-eyed look is reminiscent of a young GOON SHOW-era Milligan.

On the plus side, money was definitely spent, equipping a handsome ship and some nice aerial photography to show it off on the high seas. The location footage to suggest Algiers was done in Cyprus whose port and ruined pillars look very cinematic. The movie also begins with a lush, lovely theme song by Denis King and a protracted but authentic-looking sepia silent movie style prologue detailing the initial skulduggery by Scratcher, albeit lasting too long.

What is clear is that stories about Sellers’ mutinous behaviour off-screen affect what is shown on-screen as well. Sellers mostly sounds like he’s indulgently improvising his lines, sometimes going off on flabby flights of fancy that are far from the welcome heights of comic invention he could reach guided by a disciplining hand on the tiller like Blake Edwards. Such was Sellers’ displeasure though with the scenes shot before Milligan reported for duty as treasure-hunter Billy Bombay that he tried to get Medak on side to scupper the production. Medak refused, and found himself not only dealing with a selfish, sabotaging star but this also seemed to rub off on Milligan. In Roger Lewis’s whopping and invaluable biography ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’, he confirms that during an off-day he was enlisted by Sellers to shoot a TV commercial for a well-known cigarette brand. Sellers refused to actually hold one of the products on camera, claiming he was the President of the Anti-Smoking lobby. Milligan similarly declined, citing that he was the Vice-President. The hypocrisy alone beggars belief, never mind the non-compliance!

James Villiers and Murray Melvin come aboard at one point investigating the boy’s abduction, but mercifully quality classical actors as they are soon flee at Franciosa’s ruse of faked contagious skin infection.

Milligan did inject some fresh lunacy into proceedings, as well as some re-writing, and for fans like myself at times it is a joy to see the two old Goons sparking off each other, such as their bazaar (and bizzare) quarrelsome reunion scene where Milligan is gulling people with the three-cup trick. Though they are obviously entertaining each other, occasionally the audience gets a look in, but these moments are miniscule doubloons in a beach of washed-up sea-weed. Milligan cannot resist resorting to his peculiar but amusing expressionist acting and a large punnet of vocal raspberries at the drop of a hat. Weirdly, from this point suddenly Sellers and Spike’s breaking of the fourth wall to address us is then adopted repeatedly during the second half of the film by them and once even by Franciosa. Perhaps this was part of their plan to change the tone from then on. It matters not a whit as this ship still runs aground.

Eventually, Scratcher finds Bombay’s treasure instead of his own and makes off with it back to his ship. Upon opening the chest, he is gutted that the haul is made up entirely of cannon-balls. On land, Bombay and his crazily identical crew of men (sporting the same white beard and tri-cornered hat as him) wade out to do battle and all but he are killed by the balls - fired at them as cannon-fodder. Bombay derides Scratcher for not realising the balls were composed from valuable silver and that almost all have sunk to the sea-bed. I should add there are a couple of quick sight-gags here worth noting: as Milligan pummels Scratcher on the beach in frustration, we see from his point of view that one fist from the side surreally turns into a rain of multiple arms punching Sellers from all angles. Also, a slyer camera joke is during Sellers’ failure to enlist his men to stop Franciosa; he continually exits and enters the frame during the speech and as Milligan and the others shout after him to one side, he startles them by reappearing from the other.

Finally, Franciosa and the rest of the crew steal away with the real treasure, leaving Sellers up to his neck in the sand and Milligan exaggeratedly tied to a tree. It’s tempting to see that as a metaphor for the movie (or just desserts for the twosome?) but really no-one comes out unscathed from this watery grave. All too often it plays like a baggy tour of TREASURE ISLAND that’s gone on too long, ragged and collapsing into indulgent in-jokery, especially from its pair of comedy stars. Maybe they should have known better – or been prodded along the plank by a director who could have helmed the voyage with more authority…

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