Watching Panic Button, two adjectives came to mind repeatedly. Anemic and stupefying. It’s incredible the things the film can’t make funny–like Maurice Chevalier, Carlo Croccolo and Eleanor Parker dressed up as nuns trying to make it to a Venice film festival. Not the Venice Film Festival, because the one in Panic Button also shows TV pilots. But director Sherman–or whoever directed the chase sequence (there’s also an Italian language version of the film directed by Giuliano Carnimeo and it could have just been second unit)–bombs it. It’s never funny, even though Parker and Croccolo are working. Poor Chevalier, on the other hand, becomes a metaphor for the film itself.
Panic Button is about the New York mob needing to lose half a million dollars. There’s an expository prologue with bad acting and worse dubbing. Mob boss’s son Mike Connors flies to Rome to make a TV pilot starring Chevalier, whose movies are poorly rated on late night television. It’s not a stupid idea for a movie, but everything except the idea is stupid. Connors falls for leading lady Jayne Mansfield, except they have no chemistry. Independently, they’re both actually fine–and even though it’s still not funny, Sherman’s best direction is of the female actors–Mansfield and Parker–but together they’re charmless. Meanwhile, Chevalier is living off his ex-wife (Parker) in some kind of fantasy world where he’s an accomplished actor. He’s not believable having a single movie credit to his name, much less enough to provoke marketing research.
The first act isn’t too bad, actually. Parker is great. She’s about the only one who makes Panic Button feel like a real movie and not, you know, something someone had to lose half a million dollars making. The film plays Chevalier’s character and the actor himself as a patsy, which is unfortunate. Awful editing from Gene Ruggiero doesn’t help. Sherman’s direction is no shakes whatsoever, but Ruggiero can’t even cut screwball banter. Well, wait. Sherman shoots it too wide so maybe there’s just nothing to cut.
And Parker and Connors have a lot of chemistry. So it reflects poorly on his character when Mansfield’s cleavage wins his heart. Of course, it’s fine for Parker. Even though she was married to Chevalier and then supported him for years after their divorce, it turns out she didn’t know him at all and there’s a chance for reconnection. Unfortunately, no one seems to have let Chevalier in on that development because his performance–regardless of the bad writing–is utterly one note.
Panic Button even manages to screw up Akim Tamiroff as a wacky acting instructor who ineptly directs the TV pilot.
And the music from Georges Garvarentz is super lame.
However, while Panic Button doesn’t have anything to recommend it–unless one wants to see Parker hold half the movie up with expressions or a travelogue of sixties Rome and Venice–the cast does do enough solid work it’s not a complete waste of time. Even with the mindnumpingly long chase sequence and a cruel (and inept) finale, Parker, Connors, Mansfield, Croccolo and even Chevalier to some degree take Panic Button seriously enough it’s not an abject failure.
Directed by George Sherman; screenplay by Stephen Longstreet and Hal Biller, based on a story by Morton Friedman; director of photography, Enzo Serafin; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Georges Garvarentz; produced by Ron Gorton; released by Gorton Associates.
Starring Mike Connors (Frank Pagano), Eleanor Parker (Louise Harris), Maurice Chevalier (Philippe Fontaine), Jayne Mansfield (Angela), Vincent Barbi (Mario), Carlo Croccolo (Guido) and Akim Tamiroff (Pandowski).