Released in 1970, this is a rare gem, notable for a superbly controlled dramatic performance by Peter Sellers with even less of the vocal and physical disguise pyrotechnics than I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS. Not only this, but Alvin Rakoff directs him and Sinead Cusack in what is virtually a two-handed filmed stage play for most of its three acts, increasing HOFFMAN’s novelty even further - even though in fact it is adapted directly from a novel by its author Ernest Gebler.
Sellers plays Benjamin Hoffman, who at the start appears chillingly calm and intensely focused as he welcomes Miss Smith (Cusack) into his London flat. Smith is frightened of him but is obliged against her will to come. We know nothing of their relationship or the reason for her stay, but clearly it is his idea and she has no choice – she has left her fiancé temporarily to travel here. Tantalisingly, we are drip-fed gradual hints of a short-term arrangement brokered between them that seems to involve her being a forced concubine. His way with words is eccentrically disturbing “Please make yourself look as if you want to be fertilised”. He cannot resist spouting slightly menacing misogyny: “Women cheat by instinct….Fallopian tubes with teeth”. Sellers conveys a rivetingly sinister aspect as he dominates her. Cusack is delicate and fearful, immediately earning our sympathy in what we guess might be a suspense thriller of mind and status games between the two. Hoffman orders Smith to be his sexual plaything but continually shifts the goal-posts of planned conquest unnervingly from the presumption of sex that night to setting his alarm clock to have his way with her the next morning at 6am. She tries unsuccessfully to leave after feigning headaches and heartburn, but by morning his desire is curbed abruptly when he finds she is a virgin.
From here, the tension between them begins to ease. Smith is perplexed by his behaviour but her fear begins to diminish. As they become more at ease with one another, we understand that she is a secretary in a cigarette factory and he, her boss, discovered that her boyfriend has been tipping off criminals to hijack trucks of their product. In return for not shopping him to the police, Hoffman has blackmailed Miss Smith into spending a week as his ‘slave’. He has no woman in his life; he was married but she is missing, unexplained. Over the days Smith becomes less afraid of him as she grows to understand him more. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, she sneaks into the other always locked bedroom and finds it is a poignantly untouched shrine to the wife who left him, tormenting him by note with the promise of hordes of lovers she will now brazenly enjoy. There is the suggestion that his power-plays and hostile remarks are a cover for possible impotence or fear of intimacy with women.
By the third act, Smith has been shown Hoffman’s new home he is renovating and he opens up enough to confess his longing for her for the last eighteen months from the distance across their workplace. It’s a terrific scene for Sellers, taking the carefully-composed shell of intimidating simplicity he has shown so far and exposing real vulnerability underneath. His whole performance to this point has been an artifice of control to hide the man’s true nature, and what is so impressive ironically is that Sellers doesn’t use a single funny voice, impression or grand-standing gesture to achieve it. All of his effects, as it were, are in the remarkably subtle influences of language and oppressive atmosphere he weaves, proving what a wonderfully under-rated straight actor he was aside from the comedic chameleon the public adored. Consequently it is all the more profoundly moving when he allows the protective layers to be stripped away in pain…
Cusack too plays marvellously against Sellers, thawing from utter mistrust to a developing unexpected love convincingly. By the time the bargain is met, she leaves her boyfriend at the end to return to Hoffman, asking for piano lessons, a say in the kitchen design and a significant kiss. Possibly this is a mixture of pity in her as much as love – we don’t know what the future will bring for this relationship or any other - but it is sweetly concluded to the same beautifully sung Matt Munro song ‘If Ever There Is A Next Time’ that opens the film, its telling refrain a man pledging his love: “I can offer you the autumn of my life…”.
Such was the raw truth of Sellers’s work in HOFFMAN that it sent him into depression after finishing the film. He disowned it upon release, allegedly due to the part being uncomfortably close to his real self he always claimed never to have known. I find this as touching as the film. It is sad that he wasn’t able to come to terms with himself, or to be gratified by the knowledge that his art could be as brilliant at self-revelation as it was in self-disguise.