John Le Mesurier

Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975, Gene Wilder)

I didn’t know what to expect from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, other than some of the principals of Young Frankenstein to reunite. As it turns out, Smarter Brother is Frankenstein’s younger brother. For his first directorial outing, Wilder basically just mimics Brooks’s direction of Frankenstein. There are the constant fadeouts and the same scenic approach to humor.

Unfortunately, Smarter Brother is nowhere near as good.

The third act of the film is full of these lengthy sequences absent dialogue–there’s a lengthy opera performance, then a sword fight, even the last scene in the film relies on music over characters conversing. It’s good music (John Morris also composed the Young Frankenstein score), but it’s clearly masking the absence of content.

The film only runs ninety minutes and, during that final scene, I realized how much better it opened than it finished. The present action of the first third is one night, introducing Wilder as the titular character, Marty Feldman as his sidekick and Madeline Kahn as the love interest and damsel in distress. Once that first night is over, however, the film flounders. Wilder’s script still has some really funny moments, but he’s clearly churning out whatever he can to keep it moving.

Dom DeLuise shows up in the second half and is funny. Leo McKern is mediocre but likable as the villain. Wilder spends too much time on him. Roy Kinnear is mostly annoying as McKern’s stooge.

The idea alone should have made a better film.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gene Wilder; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Jim Clark; music by John Morris; production designer, Terence Marsh; produced by Richard A. Roth; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (Sigerson Holmes), Madeline Kahn (Jenny Hill), Marty Feldman (Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker), Dom DeLuise (Eduardo Gambetti), Leo McKern (Moriarty), Roy Kinnear (Moriarty’s Assistant) and John Le Mesurier (Lord Redcliff).


The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson)

What a strange film. I’d never really heard of it, past the title, so… I didn’t know what to expect, but even if I’d known something about it, I doubt I could have expected it.

Collinson is a fantastic Panavision director, so the Italian Job is always watchable, even through the awkward opening. The first act or so pretends it’s a traditional heist movie with Michael Caine as the lead. In addition to playing a lucky recently released convict (the heist has nothing to do with his ability, just his enthusiasm), he’s also the most irresistible man in all of England. The first fifteen minutes do little but feature women swooning for Caine.

Also incredibly strange is Noel Coward’s criminal mastermind (imagine a Bond villain as an affable British gentleman). It’s silly, but funny… especially his cell walls covered in pictures of the Queen.

It takes a while to make itself clear, but the Italian Job is a farce. It’s not a spoof of a heist movie, instead it is farcical.

The heist sequence, which removes actors and gives the audience cars to root for and identify with, is exhilarating. It’s not particularly strikingly choreographed for a car chase, but the Italian locations and Collinson’s composition make it great to watch.

Speaking of Italian locations, the film’s so outrageously anti-Italian, I can’t believe they were allowed to film there.

And a great score from Quincy Jones.

It’s slow to define itself, but once it does… it’s a great time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Collinson; written by Troy Kennedy-Martin; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by John Trumper; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, Disley Jones; produced by Michael Deeley; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Charlie Croker), Noel Coward (Mr. Bridger), Benny Hill (Professor Simon Peach), Raf Vallone (Altabani), Tony Beckley (Freddie), Rossano Brazzi (Beckerman), Margaret Blye (Lorna), Irene Handl (Miss Peach), John Le Mesurier (Governor) and Fred Emney (Birkinshaw).


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