THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS (2020, doc)

June 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Watching someone go through therapy – exorcising the demons of their life – is a bit uncomfortable. So while we understand Peter Medak’s ‘need’ to revisit the project (from almost 50 years ago) that nearly derailed his promising career, there are plenty of moments here where we feel like we are intruding. As a filmmaker, Mr. Medak’s most natural form of expression is with a camera, so re-tracing a dark time as a documentary makes some sense; we just wonder why he had to drag us along to share his misery.

A “67 day nightmare” is how Peter Medak describes the experience of filming GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, a film that was never officially released. It was 1973 and Medak was a hot young director, fresh off THE RULING CLASS with Peter O’Toole. When Peter Sellers, one of the most sought-after international film stars, agreed to sign on, the 17th century Pirate movie based on the novel by Albert Sydney Fleischman, was thought to be a sure-thing box office smash. In reality, it was the beginning of Medak’s nightmare that still haunts him today.

While re-visiting the original Cyprus sets, and meeting with seemingly anyone who was involved with production and is still alive, Medak recollects specific instances of things that went sideways. The vast majority of it leads right back to the behavior of Peter Sellers, who seemed to be sabotaging the film from very early on. Was it arrogant “star” behavior? Was Sellers depressed over his breakup with Liza Minnelli? Was he bi-polar? We get interviews with co-writer (and Sellers’ buddy) Spike Milligan’s agent Norma Farnes, as well as the film’s Costume Director Ruth Myers, and Sellers’ stuntman Joe Dunne. None of these folks seem to have any pleasant memories of making the movie, and when you add in commentary from other filmmakers like director Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR FU MANCHU, Sellers’ final film, 1980) and director Joseph McGrath (CASINO ROYALE, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN), it appears the common denominator in creating anguish was Peter Sellers.

Among the tales we hear are in regards to Sellers firing a producer, his clashes with Medak and co-star Tony Franciosa, his push to keep Spike Milligan involved as writer and director of some scenes, and most shocking of all, Sellers’ faking a heart attack on set, and the admission of collaboration in fraud from Dr. Greenburgh. We expect artists to have unusual personalities and quirks, but it’s unfortunate when one person can affect the livelihood of so many others.

‘Why go through the pain of re-visiting this?’ Medak is asked the question a couple of times, and it certainly runs through our head while watching. Clips from the film are dropped in throughout the documentary, and it comes across as a pirate farce that appears to have been disjointed at best. I recently watched a “lost” Sellers film entitled MR TOPAZE (aka I LIKE MONEY) from 1961. It was the only feature film where he was credited as director, and if the stories from behind-the-scenes are true, it was yet another case was Sellers was guilty of sabotage.

Medak’s mission with this documentary seems to be one of catharsis. Or maybe it’s his chance to prove he wasn’t to blame for the tragedy of this project. When he talks to producer John Heyman, it seems clear that Heyman, despite losing millions on the film, was able to move on – to get over the setback … something Medak still hasn’t done. While no cast or crew members attended the wrap party, we do wonder if anyone will have an interest in this mess that occurred nearly five decades ago. The only value may be from the perspective of cinematic history or lore, at least other than, hopefully, Peter Medak’s mental well-being and soul cleansing.

Available on VOD June 22, 2020

watch the trailer:


MR. TOPAZE (1961) re-release

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the only feature film to have Peter Sellers credited as a director, and it was released in 1961. Retitled “I Like Money” for its United States release, it seems that regardless of the title or continent, the film can only be labeled a box office flop and disappointment to viewers and critics alike. Considered “long lost” and unseen for decades, the only surviving 35mm print has been restored by the British Film Institute, so that new generations can be disappointed … or perhaps appreciate it from a ‘history of cinema’ perspective (which I certainly do).

Peter Sellers directs himself, as he stars as Albert Topaze, a provincial schoolteacher of the highest integrity. We get a good feel for Topaze in the scenes playing under the opening credits. He’s a dedicated teacher, but not one the students respect. Topaze has a crush on fellow teacher Ernestine (played beautifully by Billie Whitelaw, whom you’ll recall as the nanny in THE OMEN, 1976). The obstacle here is that Ernestine is the daughter of the bellowing Headmaster Muche (Leo McKern, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), Topaze’s demanding boss. Topaze’s loyal friend and landlord is Tamise (Michael Gough, BATMAN, 1989), another fellow teacher.

Topaze is a timid fellow, though of the highest moral principles. When the Baroness (fiery Martita Hunt) flashes what today we would call entitlement by demanding Topaze change her grandson’s grade or be fired, Topaze finds himself out of work. It’s here where scheming Suzy (Nadia Gray, forever a part of cinematic lore thanks to her unforgettable cameo in LA DOLCE VITA, 1960) and Castel Benac (Herbert Lom, Sellers’ memorable co-star in the “Pink Panther” franchise and THE LADYKILLERS, 1955), entice Topaze into their shady business … hoping to fend off legal inquiries given the reputation for honesty Topaze brings to the enterprise.

Can money corrupt even the most upstanding character? The story comes from renowned French writer Marcel Pagnol and his 1933 play with Raymond Massey in the lead. Pagnol also wrote the novels “Jean De Florette” and “Manon of the Spring”, the sources of two excellent films from director Claude Berri. There have been at least three other film versions of ‘Topaze’, two 1933 projects including one starring John Barrymore and directed by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, and a 1951 version directed by Pagnol himself with Fernandel in the lead.

Mr. Sellers is in fine form here, and in the first half he displays some of the physical comedic traits that defined his Inspector Jacques Couseau in the ‘Pink Panther’ series a couple of years later, and this film was released three years prior to the all-time classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. It seems the real issue with the movie, and why it was so poorly received, is that Sellers plays such a challenging character. Initially Topaze is a sympathetic, likable man and he transitions to one we have little interest in – one to whom viewers simply can’t relate.

Still, despite the obstacles within the story, it’s fascinating to go back almost 60 years and discover a previously unseen Sellers project that features not just the stellar cast listed above, but also John Neville (THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN or for fans of “The X-Files”, he known as “the well-manicured man”), British film veteran John Le Mesurier as a blackmailer, and the only film acting gig for Michael Sellers, the son of Peter (he plays young Gaston).

Nadia Gray sizzles in singing “I Like Money”, a song written by Herbert Kretzmer, and Herbert Lom gets an instant classic line, “He’s an idiot. I like him.” Is this a comedy? Certainly the first 20 minutes bring laughs, but by the end, those laughs seem quite distant. Watching a man lose his soul and his friends is painful. Can money buy happiness? Topaze has his answer, but as viewers we aren’t so sure he’s correct.

Available June 12, 2020 via Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema

watch the trailer:


DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)

November 2, 2012

 DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB

Greetings again from the darkness. Difficult to decide if it’s more shocking that this film is almost 50 years old, or that it ever got released in the first place. No other black comedy satire on such a sensitive political issue has ever had its theatrical release right smack dab in the middle of the ongoing issue. The cold war between Russia and the US was in high gear and the Cuban Missile crisis had just occurred. In fact, President Kennedy’s assassination caused the film’s opening to be delayed.

 Stanley Kubrick only directed eleven feature length films, and ten of them can be considered classics (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, to name a few). Dr. Strangelove is regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all-time, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone under 30 really “getting” much of the humor – unless they happen to be a history buff. The movie could come across as one big “inside joke” to those unfamiliar with the times.

 Loosely based on Peter George‘s “Red Alert” novel, Kubrick decided to take the source material and turn it into satire. He brought in Terry Southern (“The Magic Christian”) to help with the script, and then he turned the incomparable Peter Sellers loose in 3 roles (originally 4, but he broke his leg and gave up the Commander King Kong role). Stories abound with Sellers causing multiple takes and significant editing due to his ad-libbing cracking up other cast members (and even Kubrick).

 The structure of the film involved three separate, yet intertwined sequences. We see Burpelson Air Force Base Commander General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issuing the order to Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) to lock down the base. It turns out, Ripper has gone a bit loony and somehow issued the strike first command against Russia. Mandrake spends much of this segment trying to calmly obtain the Recall Codes from Ripper. We also meet the crew of one of the multiple B-52 bombers in route to Russia. Led by Commander “King” Kong (Slim Pickins), they are on the way to deliver two nuclear bombs. One of his crew is played by James Earl Jones in his screen debut. Lastly we go inside the War Room where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) is meeting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff and advisors. A key player here is General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in full kill and be killed mode.

 There are so many interesting bits to discuss, but let’s limit to just a few. Watch the camera angles that Kubrick uses to film Hayden. He is made to look both powerful and nuts. Hayden (so great in Kubrick’s The Killing) has the voice and tough guy stance to make us believe he could start a war due to a Russian plot to pollute the “precious body fluids” of Americans. Sellers plays two roles in the War Room, but his straight man performance as the President allows George C Scott to really shine in one of his few comedic turns as an actor. Scott’s performance is somehow over the top AND right on the button (so to speak). When watching Slim Pickins in the iconic final image, keep in mind that he was a real life rodeo cowboy prior to breaking into acting.

 Obviously the character names are outlandish (Keenan Wynn plays Col. Bat Guano), but it should be noted that the character of the President was based on real life politician and Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. The General Turgidson character is based on real life General Curtis LeMay who was infamous for his kill ’em first attitude. Also, General Ripper was based on General Thomas S Power, who was LeMay’s protégé and ultimate replacement as Joint Chief of the Air Force. It should also be noted that Tracy Reed is the only female character who appears … and yes, that is her in the Playboy magazine that Commander Kong is perusing.

There are so many classic lines and sight gags in the film that it’s challenging to keep up on the first viewing. Also, it’s been a few years since a pay phone and coke machine played such vital roles. When Kubrick killed the original pie fight ending, he added more frightening images and the poignant closing song – “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. Director Sidney Lumet did a film version of this same basic story told in a straight-forward and thrilling manner. His Fail-Safe was released less than a year after Dr. Strangelove.

**NOTE: While it’s now common to refer to the film as “Dr. Strangelove”, the actual title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  It is the longest title of any film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  The film received four total nominations, but it turned into the year of My Fair Lady (Best Picture), George Cukor (Director), and Rex Harrison (Actor).

watch the unusual trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gXY3kuDvSU