Friday, June 05, 2015

The Diamond In the Wiffle Ball

I almost think I'd hate 1967's The Comedians less if it were a completely bad film. It's certainly mostly a bad film, a story about simmering revolution in Haiti that makes just about every mistake many expect from a movie from the 50s; it takes place in a country with a black population but all the important characters are white, black people are presented as either noble or vicious and always requiring moral guidance from white people, however disreputable or dubious the particular white person. And yet it has one interesting minor character, Major Jones played by Alec Guinness. This is even despite the fact that he wears black face in one scene.

It's obviously played for laughs but otherwise the film endeavours for deadly serious statements on human behaviour. So the fact that Major Jones, a wanted man, is able to sneak past guards to get into the Uruguayan embassy this way is insulting on multiple levels.

He's not the only star in the film--it's an all star white cast including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, and Lillian Gish. James Earl Jones also has a minor role but this was long before he was well known. Everyone gives a fine performance in their clich├ęd or strawman roles.

Burton's character, Mr. Brown, is at the centre of the film, he runs a bankrupt hotel he inherited from his mother and is the cynical heartbroken ex-patriot in the Casablanca mould, except he's actually carrying on an affair with the object of his passions, Elizabeth Taylor's character, Martha, wife of the Uruguayan ambassador, Pineda (Peter Ustinov).

She and Brown sometimes fight, sometimes make love, all of it insubstantial water treading. I understand the very concept of the film is partly an indictment of these people who carry on their sordid lives while the country is terrorised by a military regime around them but their shallowness is so broad it's cartoonish. When Brown petulantly accuses Martha of considering him just a plaything it provokes eye rolling more than interest in his motivations.

Lillian Gish and Paul Ford play a rich, elderly American couple who have naively journeyed to the country to propose a plan to build a vegetarian academy of some sort. A scene where police breaking up a funeral push Gish to the ground is meant to be shocking but it's so poorly shot the violence looks about as real as a Terry Gilliam cartoon. Even worse is a scene where Gish comes downstairs in the hotel and her intervention somehow prevents Brown from being beaten by police.

I knew exactly how the whole scene was going to play out before Gish even came downstairs. I knew it wasn't going to make any sense but I knew it was going to happen anyway because that's just the kind of movie this is. In spite of it all, I admired Gish, a great silent film star, for taking on what for her would be a relatively risky role. For all the questionable racial politics in the film, it's still a step up from Birth of a Nation, in which she starred.

Yet, again, Major Jones is kind of fascinating in spite of everything else. Played by Guinness like one of his broader comedic roles--like The Lavender Hill Mob--he's never reluctant to brag about his military career in Burma. One assumes he's exaggerating, especially with stories about how he can "smell water". At the beginning of the film he's apprehended for having a letter of invitation from a government official who's been imprisoned. He's stripped naked and tortured, which mortifies him, yet when Brown visits him in his cell he seems to be taking it all in stride, saying he's been through worse ordeals. Guinness uses the right amount of subtlety to suggest this might only be a brave front--but one put on by a man experienced at lying.

His role is relatively small compared to Burton and Taylor yet he becomes rather crucial for the end of the film, a frustrating resolution in that it is both racially patronising and yet, just for the character Guinness portrays, a bit fascinating with a genuine insight into human behaviour.

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