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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE PARTY (1968)

After their big success with THE PINK PANTHER/’63 and A SHOT IN THE DARK/’64, Peter Sellers & writer/director Blake Edwards made their only non-Inspector Clouseau project. Something of a low-budget experiment, THE PARTY was a largely improvised, nearly plotless, Jacques Tati-style comedy. (MON ONCLE/’58 appears to be the main influence.) It’s an uneven mix, occasionally hanging on to gags that are painfully embarrassing if not particularly funny, but more often hitting targets no one else would dare. Sellers pulls out his terribly polite Indian character (seen earlier in THE MILLIONAIRESS/’60), now an enthusiastic, if decidedly incompetent actor in Hollywood. After wrecking a big location shoot, he’s accidentally invited to a wild all-night party being given by the wife of the studio boss, and proceeds to wreck that, too. That’s basically it. But when Edwards & Sellers are ‘on,’ that’s plenty. Most of the scenes in this remarkably efficient, nearly abstract construction (the film might have been ‘pitched’ as a vehicle for Harry Langdon in his ‘late-‘20s heyday) are done in daring one-take master shots, so they build comedy and comic suspense with the joy of seeing the thing happen. Though, this being Blake Edwards, he’s too much the professional to put quotation marks around his technical chops and point it out for you. He just gets on with it.* Some of the comic embarrassment goes on longer than it can sustain, but have a look at the camera moves & timing at the extended dinner table scene or the way Steve Franken’s drunken waiter routines grow exponentially hilarious. (Franken, who died a couple of weeks ago, rarely got this kind of screen time. Typically generous of Edwards. He peaks on an out-of-control lurch which sends him up the stairs before sliding down on his bum. This, and much more in here, could have done proud service in a Laurel & Hardy short.) Edwards even sends himself up, twisting a sweet, useless song out of the wan Claudine Longet, but making it do service as the midpoint resting spot for Sellers’ tour-de-force ‘gotta Pee!!’ routine. And give a hand to lenser Lucien Ballard who had to have his lights ready for just about anything, yet manages to maintain Edwards’ usual swanky visual style. At a time when most studio comedies were ugly as sin.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Maybe if Edwards called more attention to his film strategies, and less to nailing laughs, he’d get as much attention as Jerry Lewis does from VSC (Very Serious Critics).

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As recalled by writer/director Paul Mazursky in his auto-bio, SHOW ME THE MAGIC, when he visited the set for this film, Edwards & Sellers were already not speaking to each other. On an improvised film?! Hard to believe? Not for those who know anything about Sellers, a very difficult man, even as comic geniuses go.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, Jacques Tati’s MON ONCLE pairs nicely. Tati brings an internal discipline Edwards never cultivated. But then, Tati only made five pics in his entire career. Or, if you’re feeling daring, try Marlon Brando’s hilarious faux Indian guru in the otherwise highly forgettable CANDY/’68. Rail-thin and spouting hilarious cant, it’s a glorious send-up of everything APOCALYPSE NOW/’79 took so seriously. And only Brando would do the parody first.

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