Of Nebbishes and Kings

Woody takes us on a humorous/fantastic trip, not-so-bad guys flee the law, and Henry weds—over and over again.

February 1974By Comments

1973 WAS A SINGULARLY LAUGHLESS movie year, with occasional chuckles, a snicker now and then, the knowing smile for satire or the pleased grin for sheer niceness—but the bellylaughs and guffaws were so few and far between that up to now they were beyond recall. Now, however, we’ve seen Woody Allen’s Sleeper—and we’re giggling at the retrospect.

Humor, of course, is as personal as sex: among a critic’s major sins, we’ve learned, is that of the superlative. Label a movie “hilarious” or “supererotic” and you create an audience, consciously or not, looking at the screen with a challenge, daring the filmmaker to do the ultimate in risibility raising or libido levitation. Well, sin though it be we can but label Sleeper hilarious—adding quickly that only those who find some amusement in Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, W. C. Fields, the Marx Bros. and Woody Allen will find it so. Allen devotees will find this fourth of the films he has directed his best to date as filmmaker as well as his best work as actor and as writer, with Marshall Brickman, an outstanding humorist in his own right and writing, as co-author of the screenplay.

Allen has taken a major step in his own characterization, making the transition from nebbish to nice guy, the change reflected perhaps in his taking the role-name of Miles Monroe. In Sleeper Miles is our delegate to the future: proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store on Bleecker Street and a clarinetist by avocation, he goes into the hospital for an ulcer operation and gets “a cosmic screwing.” He’s discovered 200 years later, wrapped in aluminum foil and frozen stiff in a capsule in the automated super-futuristic regimented world of 2173. The world as he knew it, Miles is told, was destroyed “over 100 years ago when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” The scientists who defrost him want him as a source of information on the various artifacts of a past civilization—they’re part of a still unbrainwashed underground movement that is just discovering individualism and becoming interested in Marxism—but in minutes the secret police are on the trail of the “alien” in their midst and the chase is on.

What follows doesn’t for a change, defy description any more than the plot of A Night at the Opera or Horsefeathers would—but the juice lies in the moments, in the sight gags and throwaway lines and sparkling scattering of satiric wit both in the background and in closeup, as our hero makes his hair-breadth escapes, meets, loses and gets girl and stabs at the present and the future with the wonderfully lunatic sanity that is the hallmark of the true humorist.

As brilliant as the script and performance is the design of the film, with art direction by Dale Hennesy (of Fantastic Voyage acclaim) who used actual outdoor locations for the astounding exteriors, and studio sets for the clever commentary of the interiors, while special effects to make it all work were created by A. D. Flowers (of The Poseidon Adventure). And for the final topping, or wrap-up, however your ear works, there’s a score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans and his own group, The New Orleans Funeral and Marching Orchestra. Small doubt that with Sleeper Woody Allen comes into his own as a filmmaker. But more important from our standpoint, perhaps, is that he has provided us with the best comedy in years and enabled us to deem it hilarious without a quibble or a hesitation—just with bellylaughs and guffaws.

THERE’S PLEASURE OF ANOTHER SORT in French filmmaker Claude Lelouch’s Happy New Year, a beautifully romantic near-nostalgic caper tale with a lovely bow in the direction of the liberated woman. Lelouch, now 36, hit the big time back in 1966 with A Man and a Woman, that very classy women’s-mag soaper, and after two misses (Live for Life and Life, Love, Death in ’67 and ’69) began to hit at the head as well as the heart with, in successive years, Love is a Funny Thing, The Crook and (time out for the Smic, Smac, Smoc disaster) Money, Money, Money, the last released early 1973. With his new film, he spans the years, opening his film, in fact, with A Man and a Woman being shown as a 1973 holiday treat for prison inmates, three of whom are paroled for the New Year.

But wait—Lelouch, that master of romantic color, making a contemporary film in black and white? The sensibility of this young filmmaker becomes apparent early on. For it is a dreary black-and-white world into which Simon, one of the parolees, emerges, his girl’s apartment deserted, himself apparently supplanted, his one place of call a transvestite nightclub. But then Simon remembers—and in vivid color we set out on an enchanting caper on the Riviera with Simon, the master thief, plotting a “psychological heist,” with the dumb-crook assistance of his buddy Charles, their target the Van Cleef and Arpels shop at Cannes. That an antique shop next door is run by a lovely lady is the lagniappe that turns out to be a charming complication and, in the Lelouch manner, a completely satisfying one.

As a triple-threat moviemaker—producer, director and writer—Lelouch has provided a triple-leveled film that works as thriller, as romance, and as humanistic story, and works with chic every step of the way. His casting is impeccable: Lino Ventura, as Simon, proves himself a nouveau Bogey, with a completely irresistible smile to boot, defining a true man as “someone who goes all the way” and Francoise Fabian, as the female in the tale, proves herself the kind of woman who can suggest to the man she is dismissing,” A man always tells a woman he can love her and still live his own life; imagine it the other way.” And Charles Gerard is simply swell as the semiliterate and wholly loyal sidekick. Lelouch has himself a ball in noting the seven-year generational gaps have occurred in our society, in paying an hommage to his own romanticism and in giving us a grand suspense-story about a “real” man and a “true” woman.

PAPILLON IS A MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENT. It drags on for two-and-a-half hours, as only a $12,000,000 production can, to show us that the talents of even Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen can be buried under endless restatement of the obvious and that the best of adventure stories can be attenuated into boredom. There is nothing wrong with this story of two abortive and one seemIngly successful escapes from Devil’s Island that intelligent cutting couldn’t correct: after all, from 1931 on, Cedric Hardwicke, Victor Jory, Joseph Schildkraut, Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer and a host of other have shown us the pure hell of tropical-island penal colonies and the lust to escape from them—and done it in well under two hours.

Even so, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. have given us an elliptical version of Henri Charriere’s autobiographica[ Papillon (the nickname he bore for the butterfly tattooed on his chest), which recounted his eight attempts at escape from French Guiana before a ninth led him to safety and permanent residence (as well as best-sellerdom) in Venezuela. And co-producer-director Franklin J. Schaffner has so overloaded the screen with details of routine and irrelevant characterizations that exposition predominates with one-liners and quickie-confrontations substituting for drama during the first half of the film. Then, in an attempt to jam-cram the climax, we race through a frenetic muddle of escape and capture and final try for freedom that becomes as banal as it is confusing.

Even the tedium, of course, is endurable, primarily because of Hoffman’s witty and beautifully restrained portrait of Dega, the slight, bespectacled, prissy forger who financed Papillon’s and his own survival and escape attempts, and because of McQueen’s emergence as an interesting actor in repose (rather than as the flip charmer he usually embodies) in his portrait of Papillon as a man of superlative courage and determination. Each has a moment—McQueen as he accepts a half-smoked cigar from a leper and puffs on it, Hoffman as he turns his head in the embrace at their final parting—that pierces to the very heart in its revelation and effectiveness—and makes us aware of the root of our disappointment in the film. There is little cause for involvement—no chief sadist to hate, no true lust for liberty for men unjustly imprisoned (McQueen’s insistence on his innocence seems routine, Hoffman’s lucrative forgeries simply give him an edge over less fortunate criminals)—and we’re given, in effect, a pair of movie stars to root for, with compliments to the makeup men obviously called for. And the net effect is of a strung-together serial, complete with comic relief (intentional or not) in Papillon’s respite in an Indian village where he has a Tom Jones eating-courtship scene with a tawny maiden and we’d swear there was a strain or two of “Stranger in Paradise” in the score. Victor Jory, incidentally, who went the route in Escape from Devil’s Island in 1935, is the all-silent Indian chief in this one and Anthony Zerbe does a nice bit as the superscabrous chief of the lepers.

HOFFMAN’S ON HAND AGAIN IN Alfredo Alfredo but the film belongs to Pietro Germi; it’s almost a sequel to his delightful Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned. The Italian title of this Italian film translates as “Till Divorce Do Us Part,” apt for the recounting of the torments of a nice quiet man roped into a devouring marriage and finally released therefrom, by the reform of the divorce laws, only to find himself at the altar again, betrayed by the liberated lady of his heart. Since Hoffman spoke English during the filming, his dialogue is dubbed by an Italian-speaking actor and Hoffman seems to be miming the part. Nevertheless, he is completely charming as the pleasant routine-ridden bank clerk who is infatuated with a lovely young thing but cannot bear her ultimate infatuation with him. And with Stefania Sandrelli, that exquisite creature of Seduced and Abandoned and The Conformist, as the ultra-possessive female, and Carla Gravina, the liberated lovely of The Inheritor, as the free-wheeling love of his life, there’s a delightful comedy at hand.

Germi is a past master in highlighting the social satire inherent in domestic and sexual relationships, in parental avarice where their children’s future lies, in matrimonial demands and extramarital inhibitions. And the Italian divorce laws, past and present, are choice grist for his mill of ironic comedy. Women’s wiles and men’s morality are his fascination but while there’s a cruel clarity to his perception there’s an overwhelming fondness for his foolish creatures that permeates his films and makes Alfredo Alfredo a joy.

FOR THE YOUNG THERE’S AN engrossing feature-Iength animated film, Fantastic Planet, “inspired” by Stefan Wull’s novel, Oms en Serie, a science-fiction fantasy whose technique is as fascinating as its plot. Directed by Rene Laloux, who collaborated on the scenario with Roland Topor, who did the original art work, it’s a Lil1iputian-oriented tale of the Draags, 39-foot super-science-oriented creatures on the planet Ygam, who keep Oms (or humans) as pets. The prime minister’s daughter finds a baby Om and raises him but he runs away at 15, finds a colony of wild Oms and helps lead the successful Om revolt that results in the founding of the planet Terra. A new and complex technique that has won the film several festival prizes results in animation of fascinating depth and imagination, reminiscent most of Czech animators’ work.

Humor and pathos underline a fine adventure story, yet for a ridiculous reason—there is frontal nudity in the outlined Om figures (women’s breasts, a suggestion of male genitals)—the film has been rated “R.” There are so few worthwhile children’s films around that it’s a shame to hinder their enjoyment of this one, but the over-18 young-in-spirit can accompany the youngsters and marvel too.

IF YOU MISSED THE BBC’S The Six Wives of Henry VIII on CBS, all you movie-going television-scorning snobs, you missed Keith Michell’s superb Emmy-winning performance as the multi-wived monarch. But thanks to the enterprise of some British moviemakers, you’re being given a second chance courtesy of Henry VIII and His Six Wives. In this film—wherein the opulent sets and costumes and lovely settings seem, along with Michell, borrowed from the BBC offering—you are given a chance to watch the overwhelming performance of Mitchell as the monarch who reigned for 38 years and devoted the last 14 to a succession of five wives in his search for a male heir, a proper political alliance, and a virtuous companion.

There is, of course, something irresistible in the Henry VIII story, the period, the ramifications of each marriage; moviegoers take particular pleasure, I suspect, in the changes time, our mores and our morals have wrought on the 1933 Charles Laughton version of The Private Life of Henry VIII on which we did our cinematic teething. Frances Cuka, Charlotte Rampling, Jane Asher, Jenny Bos, Lynne Frederick and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Henry’s wives are perfection in their roles. I can pay them no greater compliment than to note that one remembers each clearly in retrospect, as one remembers Donald Pleasence’s Thomas Cromwell and Michael Gough’s Suffolk, and has a suffusing awareness of a time and a place in each segment of history. With a screenplay by Ian Thome, who did the Jane Seymour segment of the BBC production, and with yeoman direction by Waris Hussein, the film is, in sum, a thinking-man’s spectacular, with something, of course, to pleasure even the non-thinkers.

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