Monday, 19 October 2015

No. 80. Peter Sellers: THE PARTY (1968)

THE PARTY (1968)

The successful director/actor partnership between Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers had already produced gold with the character of Inspector Clouseau, but in THE PARTY I believe they brought out the very best in each other. It’s a hugely funny master-class in on-screen comic timing and how to exploit a premise for maximum laughter.

Sellers plays Hrundi Bakshi, an unassuming Indian actor who’s also an unwitting walking disaster-area. Like Clouseau he is accident-prone, but unlike the arrogant French detective Hrundi is blessed with the sweetest of natures, endlessly patient and polite but in blissful ignorance of the havoc he wreaks.

In the opening scene, this is established marvellously on a film set. Hrundi is the brave bugler on a hill-side in a period movie of GUNGA DIN. Whilst the big shoot-out goes on below him, he heroically blows out a warning. So strong is his actorly need to give service that he refuses to die no matter how many bullets he’s peppered by. Each time we think he’s dead he valiantly struggles back up, almost indestructibly sounding increasingly weak notes until finally the director is forced to call ‘Cut!’ He ruins a take of a staged over-powering of a guard by wearing a modern-day wristwatch. However, the last straw is when he accidentally detonates the vastly expensive money-shot fort set prematurely. His firing results in the studio head vowing he will never work in the movie industry again. Innocently, he asks “Does that include TV?”

Due to a error in the office, Hrundi is invited to the studio boss’s lavish Hollywood party –and this is the location for almost the entire body of the film, one long marvellous buffet of sight gags. Edwards is masterful at staging the elements and then allowing them to play out, matching the timing not just of Sellers but of the supporting comedy players with his camera positioning and discipline of comedy rhythms.

The party has all the typical Tinseltown cliches such as the sleaze-bag wigged agent trying to promote/exploit the reluctant actress (Claudine Longet). As the gruff studio head toting an ever-present cigar, J. Edward McKinley gives a pleasingly deadpan performance who Edwards regularly cuts to as he lugubriously surveys this carousel of Hollywood hangers-on. At one point, he pulls off a one-liner worthy of George Burns when a minion tells him his wife has fallen into the pool. He coolly looks at his cigar: “Get her jewellery”.

Peter Sellers shows not just impeccable physical comedy timing but great subtletly. Watch his discreet sniffing and then dumping of the strawberry soup entrĂ©e or his beautifully-sustained internal excruciation at waiting outside the bathroom while Longet softly trills the treacly ‘Nothing To Lose’. His Indian accent is precise. sounding exactly like Deepa Chopra and his manner perfectly conveys the great pains to avoid causing any social embarrassment or inconvenience. The more endearingly he tries to remain unobtrusive, the wider his mahyem spreads. This is a comic peformance of considered and executed genius. Sequences of Sellers are laugh-out-loud funny. Savour his experimentation with the tannoy system in the house, reciting ‘Birdy num nums’ and unknowingly causing the cowboy actor to rip the pool table baize as he coils up and then deliciously hits the plosive of ‘Howdee PART-a-ner’.

Edwards also shares the comic wealth across the cast. There is the professional war between the waiter, Steven Franken, who gradually descends into alcoholic catastrophe as he drinks more booze than he serves, and the Maitre’ D who bids to cover for him until he resorts to strangulation (a terrific running sight-gag captured in the swinging kitchen doorway).  Edwards’ direction is sublime. He has the talent to frame a gag superbly and the confidence to know when to cut or hold a shot for greatest effect, like the growing amusement of watching Bakshi’s toilet fully roll unfurl right to the end in one shot.

The script supports the precision, not padding out or diluting the laughs by other functional linking scenes. It even allows Hrundi a little depth of steel under the endlessly affable exterior when he bravely defends Longet against the agent’s bullying demeaning of her: “‘In India we don’t think who we are. We know who we are”. This is then undercut nicely as the agent retorts:
“You’re a meshuggah”.
“I’m not your sugar”.

THE PARTY is almost a sustained modern throwback to silent comedy, yet in the climax there is the literal gate-crashing by 1960’s youth, courtesy of the boss’s daughter and her friends with an elephant modishly daubed with psychedelic colours and slogans ‘Chicken Little was right’. Hrundi’s offense at their stunt causes the party then to become a foam washing party to clean the pachyderm, and all ends well with him possibly ‘getting the girl’.

Attend THE PARTY and revel in the sheer infectious joy of Hollywood comedy masters at the top of their game…

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