Wednesday, November 22, 2006

23. British director Peter Glenville's US film "The Comedians" (1967): Relevant today as ever


While many viewers might have forgotten this film, the relevance of the subject of expatriates living in countries ruled by dictators and the recognizable traits of the four major characters in many persons we encounter in life make me recall this movie again and again.

Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, and Peter Ustinov are a heady combination but I will not remember the film for any one of their "acting" capabilities as much as the four wonderful main characters woven by Graham Greene and Peter Glenville. There is almost an unrecognizable James Earl Jones whose fabulous voice is overshadowed in this film by those of Burton and the suave Guinness.

"I have no faith in faith," rants Brown (Burton) the anti-hero of the film--a typical Greene character (compare with Greene's 'The Burnt-out case'). Cynicism is turned into comedy. The splashes of Catholic motifs made in passing reference ("defrocked priest") hark back to Burton's earlier role in The Night of the Iguana. Guinness' reference to looking like a Lawrence of Arabia recalls his own role as Prince Faisal in Lean's movie. Not having read Greene's book, I am not sure whether Greene introduced these clever details into the script to suit the actors or whether the details had previously existed in the book.

The gradual unmasking of the Major (Guinness) is a treat creatively captured by Glenville and Greene. The final speech made by Burton to his group of ragged rebels seem to have a common "comic" thread with George Clooney's speech to his soldiers towards the end of the recent Mallick's The Thin Red Line.

Ustinov's diplomat and Taylor's vulnerable diplomat's wife, who admits to her lover that he is the fourth "adventure," are both comedians--Greene's likable misfits who cannot change their destiny and are strangely reconciled to accept their inevitable end. All the four main characters are "prepared" for their destiny they have designed for themselves as a consequence of previous actions in life. The closing shot of the film is a shot of a suggestive blue sky, redeeming the foibles of the comedians on terra firma.

I admit that when I saw the film some 20 years ago, I did not appreciate the film as I do now. I was missing the forest for the trees. This film does not belong to Burton, Taylor, Guinness, Ustinov, Jones or Lillian Gish. It belongs to Greene, Glenville and the French cinematographer Henri Decae.

I do not imply that Burton was not good--but George C. Scott said one should evaluate a performance by remembering the character more than the actor. It is in that context that I remember the four main characters. Burton's kisses are different here than say in Boom or Cleopatra--only to add detail to the character. Taylor is strangely subdued only to add power to her smoldering role. Guinness' gradual unmasking is pathetic yet endearing only to add more substance to the character. Decae's camera captures details that shocks--e.g., empty drawers in desks to collect bribes, public executions of rebels watched by school kids...

I am not surprised the film was a box-office failure. I am surprised that this film, to my limited knowledge, has never been taken seriously for what it offers--a superb script, commendable acting, good direction, and some fine camerawork. These are the bricks that build great cinema!

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