Saturday, 24 October 2015

No. 82 - Peter Sellers: HOFFMAN (1970)

HOFFMAN (1970)

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.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

No.81. Peter Sellers: I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS (1968)


After the success of THE PARTY, Peter Sellers continued in the groovy head-space of the late 60s in his next film. I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS was co- written by Paul Mazursky (who would go on to explore counter-culture free love with the film BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE which I’ll be reviewing here) and Larry Tucker and was directed by Hy Averback whose background was in TV comedy. It’s a fun vehicle that allows Sellers to become drenched in the hippie zeitgeist and balance it with an unusually ‘ordinary’ characterisation he pulls off for the first half of the film.
We open with a bearded guru in robes, who foreshadows the plot by urging his devotees to go out into the world and free the good people of their encumbrances: “Psychedelicize their impoverished dreams…”

Sellers plays Harold Fine, a square, conventional city lawyer (channelling an excellently specific NY accent) with the requisite overbearing Jewish mother and an equally pushy fiancé, Joyce (Joyce Van Patten) who accuses him of not being serious about their vaguely-intended wedding: “You’re afraid to move, Harold”, she whines. Harold is bored, but not so much that he will take any risks to break out of his doldrums. All this is about to change when a car accident supplies him with a temporary car from his local garage, a smog-belching ex taxi-cab painted in psychedelic swirls. Reluctantly, he takes it and this becomes a magnet for series of life-transforming incidents.

Required to find his brother Herbie (David Arkin) to take him to a family friend’s funeral, Harold takes him and his girlfriend Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young, a perfect Haight-Ashbury blonde free-spirit). Herbie insists on dressing in the Native American clothes of a Hopi Indian, which appals Harold as he will not convey respect turning up looking like Tonto. To make matters worse, due to a hearse-driver’s strike (did you know they had a union?), Harold causes even more shame by being forced to take the casket in his totally unsuitable Mystery Machine.

By night-time, after an all-day search leading to the eventual cemetery, Harold lets Nancy stay at his apartment. By way of thanks for his painstakingly chivalrous hospitality, she leaves him a gift of some brownies she made, neglecting to mention they include an entire bottle of hash – made to a recipe by the titular Alice B Toklas. There follows an amusing scene where Harold and his in-laws enjoy the whole plateful, complete with wide-eyed enthusiasm, uncontrolled laughter at non-sequiturs and orgiastic trippy sound effects of succulent consumption.

Somewhere deep down, Nancy has expanded Harold’s consciousness and this trigger causes him to jilt his bride at the altar and take up with the ‘younger model’. This is the funniest part of the film as Sellers morphs from a repressed suit into a long-haired, bandanna and beads cross between an early ‘70s John Lennon and a studious Bjorn Borg. He embraces the modish speech and values of the younger generation and the guru full-throttle, initially unconscious of the absurd image he creates. He and Nancy passionately neck in their car, Harold urging her to “Kiss my Ankh!”, before two cops come and question him. Harold attempts to convert them away from working for the man with no success.

It isn’t long however before he realises that the hippie ethos is no more a comfortable lifestyle for him than the rat race he escaped from. His jealousy over Nancy’s free loving without limits rears up as cold hypocrisy: “I wanna be free, but I wanna be free with you alone”. He struggles also with the lack of privacy in turning his apartment into an open house for free-loading freaks with whom he has nothing really in common. His desperate cry of “I’m so hip it hurts!” is a lost man trying to convince himself he is ‘with-it’. When a new supply of brownies kick-starts a joyous house-party, he sits brooding alone in the corner - ironically echoing Dustin Hoffman’s removal from the ‘scene’ of his parents’ brainwashing of him into an opposite model of  suburban conformity.
A second attempt at a wedding compels Harold away once more with cold feet at the decisive moment – but this time when questioned as he runs away, his only thought for the future is: “ I don’t know and I don’t care!”…

I LOVE YOU ALICE B TOKLAS examines the conflict well between the attraction of turning on, tuning in and dropping out versus the pull of safe, known security. It also starkly exposes the generation gap of the ‘60s between parents and youngsters in the widening chasm of their differing attitudes toward the rules of society.  Funnily enough, in this stage of his career, I’ve always felt Sellers was re-energising himself with a new youthful aspect. He went from a premature middle-age stoutness in the Ealing years (see him in THE LADYKILLERS) into a sleek, trendy man of his time through the late ‘60s into the 70s almost as if he was reversing his body-clock. International success in this period suited him - and yet he allows Harold to look all of his real age of forty-two as the full weight of the culture clash descends on him near the end of the film. It’s poignant and profound.

Mid-life crisis and the sweet agony of trying to recapture a shifting youth landscape that one no longer understands is a rich seam to explore on-screen, especially when set in the turbulent Sergeant Pepper era, which can only increase the contrast. Films such as 1973’s BREEZY which I’ll  later captured this. The exception is TV’s MAD MEN where John Slattery’s Roger managed to still be the epitome of cool in the ‘60s even when smoking a doobie and espousing the new values of his children’s peers.

Fans of Peter Sellers who’ve not seen ALICE B TOKLAS may be intrigued to watch him admirably tackle a character who in his buttoned-down, caterpillar state has none of the vivid disguise and voice externals of Inspector Clouseau or the wonderful cold-war fruitcakes in DR STRANGELOVE.  Harold is introverted, controlled and a reactor, not the focus-pulling comic instigator that Sellers mastered. Dig it…

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 entrée 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…

Sunday, 18 October 2015

No.79. THE STING (1973)

THE STING (1973)

Paul Newman and Robert Redford were keen to follow up their dynamite partnership from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNSHINE KID, but they exercised the great judgement that was typical of both of their careers by waiting till just the right movie came along. That was to be the feel-good classic THE STING.

Redford was offered a script by David Ward that instantly piqued his interest; a brilliant and original 1930s period piece about the world of the con artist based on his extensive research into that world, its lingo, characters and lifestyles. Ward’s ambition was to direct it himself. Redford, by now firmly established as a star and careful to protect his reputation, was apprehensive about trusting such a rarely superb and ambitious vehicle for him into the hands of a first-timer. George Roy Hill, director of BUTCH CASSIDY, found out about it and was on board as a much more experienced choice to helm the project. By chance, Newman heard about the script which only then prompted Hill to consider him for the role of the revered Henry Gondorff, legendary con-man mentor to Redford’s younger grafter Johnny Hooker. The cash register of potential rung in Hill’s mind. Newman though was not so sure. His own ego was strong enough to be concerned about playing what he thought of as an old king passing on his crown – Newman thought this a little premature at his age. He was persuaded by the perfection of the script, Hill’s talent and the chance to recapture the on-screen magic with Redford. The con was on…

The plot demonstrates the precise execution of a confidence trick, performing this not just on the ‘mark’, the target, but also adding a second level of fun by playing one on the audience. Hooker (Redford) is a small-time grifter running scams with his black surrogate father Luther. When they rip off a numbers racket courier working for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (the sublimely intimidating Robert Shaw), Luther is killed. Hooker seeks revenge, enlisting the help of the aforementioned Gondorff (Newman) to pull off a hugely ambitous fake horse-racing wire scam to fleece Lonnegan. Gondorff assembles a veritable army of pro tricksters, following the rules of their profession by rigid discipline of set-up and execution to earn the vital component of streetwise Lonnegan’s confidence before encouraging his greed and then ripping him off without him knowing the identities of his opponents. Along the way, Hooker is pursued by the perfectly-cast Charles Durning as bent copper Snyder who along with Hooker is leaned on by FBI agent Polk to assist the Hoover boys in entrapping Gondorff.

The resulting con is so massive in scale that whilst we don’t find out till the end that in fact Hooker was in on this elaborate part, solely set-up as a crucial means of dispatching Snyder and Lonnegan when the horse-racing loss of Lonnegan’s $500,000 is a successful dupe, Hooker himself doesn’t know that the waitress Loretta (Dimitri Arliss) who he beds is actually a very clever deep-cover assassin who was hired by Lonnegan to kill him, Gondorff saw so far ahead, as is the nature of his supreme skill, that he sent a bodyguard to protect Hooker all along and kill her as she is about to take his life.

The pleasures of THE STING are greater than a suitcase crammed with used bills, and some elements still surprise many years after having watched it multiple times, such is its artful building of artifice.
Ward steeped himself in the lore of the confidence man, following their rules governing the keys to their success, namely the instilling of utter confidence in the mark via superb acting skills, turning his own greed against him, and ensuring that the greatest cons are carried out against the richest men, which morally is somewhat redeemable in a semi-Robin Hood style. Ward also ensured that the vernacular of the 1930s was heard in the dialogue; words such as ‘jake’, ‘spiffy’, but more importantly the clandestine language of con artists: “Those boys’ve got to be the Quill” stresses the wonderful Harold Gould as Kid Twist, needing a team of the highest calibre to cheat Lonnegan. The eye is treated as sumptuously as the ear: Edith Head provides gorgeously cut sharp suits and feminine clothing; the sets are terrific and deeply detailed.

Ironically, one of the most evocative aspects of the film is actually its most anachronistic; the famous Scott Joplin music was actually over thirty years out of date - ‘The Entertainer’ was written in 1902. The Ragtime tunes used in the film, played by celebrated composer Marvin Hamlisch, made it quite a shock when I saw the ‘1936’ card at the beginning as I’d always felt THE STING was set in the 1920s due to that jaunty score. However, who cares? Hill was right to choose mood over strict authenticity in that regard and no-one can hear that piece without fondly thinking of the gleeful hoodwinking tone of the film.

Incidentally, another quirky detail commandered is Robert Shaw’s limping in the film. Whilst it oddly fits his character, it wasn’t intentional. Shaw sheepishly confessed to Hill that he’d damaged his leg playing handball before filming. He feared it would rule him out and was fully ready to take responsibility. Hill asked him to walk up and down, pondered the gait it gave Shaw and simply decided it would be incorporated. (Conceivably, as an Irishman, it could have been a First World War wound).

This was just one example of Hill’s trusting in his own instincts that make him a very under-rated film director, one whom I’m going to explore much more within my blog. He inspired absolute respect from his crew and especially the actors. If you watch any interviews from this or BUTCH CASSIDY, the verdict on his judgement from actors is universally glowing. Even his stern discipline at times was overlooked as it was always in the service of the film, not his need to impose some external ego-driven style. Charles Durning was rebuffed when he attempted to add ideas to his part. “I hate New York actors”, grumbled Hill. “They’re always thinking”. For Hill, the concern was in telling the story for the audience’s benefit, nothing else mattered artistically.  Newman made a valid point in the DVD documentary interview that film-makers like Hill had a mind-set that would be almost impossible to support in today’ committee-focused studio system, where fear of failure has given preview screenings and test cards precedence over sound artistic gut judgement. Back then, a film was shot, edited and then released by its director based on faith in their work, not endlessly second-guessed to the point of reduction into a pale shadow of itself (e.g. FIERCE CREATURES).

Sit back and enjoy the bravura magic trick performed by this classic Hollywood movie, made by creatives at the top of their game who clearly love their work and embrace the good fortune to be based on a marvellous script.