“The truth is that humour and terror play an equal part in his vision, which takes shape at the point where the two extremes meet.”
Whistling in the Dark
“Are you scared of dyin’?” Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) asks the older cowhand Ross Bodine (William Holden), after one of their pals has been killed in an accident near the start of Blake Edwards’ sombre revisionist Western Wild Rovers (1971). “Yeah, kinda,” Ross confesses. “Except I sure as hell don’t spend much time thinkin’ about it.” Frank nods: “Yeah, me either, from now on.” As if to reassure himself, he swigs from a bottle of liquor and hands it to his friend, who drinks in turn.
Judging by his films, mortality and associated fears were rarely far from the mind of Edwards, who died in December 2010 at the age of 88. This might seem surprising for a director who remains best-known to the public as a light entertainer, forever linked with the airy romance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and the broad comedy of the Pink Panther saga. The truth is that humour and terror play an equal part in his vision, which takes shape at the point where the two extremes meet, where life starts to resemble (to quote the same scene in Wild Rovers) “a really bad, crazy dream.” Think of the hapless Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), a cuckolded fall guy carried away in a police van at the end of the original Pink Panther (1964). Or the alcoholic Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) in the gruelling Days of Wine and Roses (1962), tearing up a greenhouse in search of a bottle of whiskey, howling when he thinks it’s gone for good, then finding it after all and guzzling the contents as he sprawls in the dirt. A scene or two later Joe winds up in a straitjacket, writhing in the corner of a starkly lit cell: no laughing matter, it would seem, except that in the later Panther films the same fate repeatedly befalls poor Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), driven insane by the bungling of his resurgent nemesis Clouseau.
Edwards has been called many things: a “manipulative sock-bam director” (Manny Farber); “the last of the traditional sexists” (Stuart Byron); “post-Hitler, post-Freud, post-sick-joke, with all the sticky sentimentality of electronic music” (an acute assessment by Andrew Sarris in 1968)1. He has always had his passionate supporters, yet it’s not hard to see why his critical and commercial fortunes have been so erratic (his last major hit was Victor/Victoria, in 1982). Edwards is a master of slapstick, a genre that, despite the prestige of the great silent clowns, still rarely gets the respect it deserves; his formal brilliance is also bound up with his use of the Scope frame, meaning that up till the advent of “letterboxed” DVDs it was impossible for modern home video consumers to get a full sense of his achievement. There’s no denying either that his blend of Hollywood gloss and New Age “sophistication” has its dated aspects — shading at times into old-fogeyism, as with Dudley Moore’s gibes at the Beatles in 10 (1979).
Factor in Edwards’ taste for racial stereotypes, and the clean-scrubbed niceness of his frequent star Julie Andrews, and he begins, indeed, to look like a figure from a bygone age. In fact, he began his directing career at the moment when the system we now call “classical Hollywood” was nearing collapse; he is one of a handful of auteurs — with Bob Fosse, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich — who not only survived the wreck but made it the formal and thematic basis for their subsequent work. In the sense film scholars use the term today, Edwards is not a “classical” director — even if Wild Rovers was consciously modelled on Greek tragedy, and equally ancient precedents exist for the picaresque forms of The Great Race (1965) or Skin Deep (1989)2. Rather, inconsistency and excess are his trademarks: he burns through genres, smashing them together or pushing them to self-annihilating extremes.
This approach is seen at its peak in The Great Race, which begins as a nostalgic tribute to the slapstick of Mack Sennett before evolving into a parodic dictionary of cinematic forms, taking in the western, the swashbuckler, science fiction — the gadgets of the villainous Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) are “steampunk” before the term was coined — and a screwball-style battle of the sexes. Decades later, the elegaic Sunset (1989) is equally hard to place: is it a light-hearted caper, a perverse film noir, or a western in disguise? All three seem applicable, but the generic mix-up is more than the sum of its parts: Edwards conjures something like an origin myth for Hollywood cinema in general and his own in particular, with silent-era cowboy star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) torn between rival symbolic fathers. In town as a consultant on one of Mix’s westerns, Wyatt Earp (James Garner) is the man Clouseau would like to be: an iron-willed paragon of courtly sophistication, negotiating all physical and spiritual obstacles with wily grace. His evil counterpart is the studio head Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a blasphemous parody of Chaplin whose veneer of feline courtesy barely masks a psychopathic clown like Batman’s Joker, a true monster from the id. Though Wyatt has his anarchic impulses and Alfie strives for control, the pair can nevertheless be taken as symbols, respectively, of Law and Chaos: the twin gods that preside over Edwards’ art.
Born William Blake Crump in 1922, Edwards was a creature of Hollywood virtually from birth: his father was a production manager, his grandfather a successful director of the silent era3. He began in the 1940s as an actor, mainly in small parts, before branching out as a writer for radio, film and TV; he penned a number of screenplays for the director Richard Quine, and created the series Peter Gunn (1958-61) and Mr Lucky (1959-60), the former a “property” he would revive more than once in his later career. A director in his own right from 1955, he had his first significant hit with Operation Petticoat (1959) — but the film that put him on the map was undoubtedly Tiffany’s, with Aubrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a free-spirited, guitar-strumming tenant of a Manhattan apartment block4.
Though Edwards did not originate the project and took no script credit — George Axelrod was assigned the task of adapting Truman Capote’s already celebrated novella — Tiffany’s prefigures much in his later work: the ambivalent treatment of sexual license, the lurches between euphoria and despondency (Holly suffers from the “mean reds”) and the wild, gag-packed party scenes. (Parties would become as much an Edwards signature as brawls, which not uncommonly follow straight after.) Most characteristic of all is the indulgence in both crassness and treacle, each used as a weapon against the other: Hepburn’s innate sweetness is subverted not just by hints about Holly’s loose morals, but also by the demented mugging of Mickey Rooney as a Japanese photographer, in a performance generally viewed as an embarrassment ever since5. No whit abashed, Edwards repeated the stratagem a few years later in The Party (1967), with Peter Sellers in brownface as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a moronic Indian actor invited by accident to a swanky Hollywood dinner; during a wistful song performed by the adorable gamine Michele Monet (Claudine Longet), he writhes desperately against a wall, struggling to curb his need to urinate.
Though Hrundi at this point remains a teetotaler, later he will plunge into a swimming pool and be plied with liquor as a recuperative — launching a final series of disasters that transform the film-long party into a true, disorientating carnival. Alcohol, for Edwards, is the chief means of moving between opposed psychic states; intoxication is as vital to his universe as CinemaScope, and the two go together, for without both he wouldn’t be able to show a drunk weaving across a screen crowded with revellers, leaving chaos in his wake. “All I know is that the sober world is one world and the drunk world is another,” someone says in Days of Wine and Roses, a statement that complicates the film’s apparent puritan morality: drink destroys, but also offers an escape from the hypocrisies of modern civilization, portrayed as bleakly here as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s rather Edwardsian La Notte (1961). Certainly, there’s nothing obviously appealing about virtue as represented by Joe’s Bible-quoting father-in-law (Charles Bickford) — whose fiercely protective attitude to his daughter (Lee Remick) may rouse suspicions today — or by his equally dreary Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (Jack Klugman).
The other essential ingredient in the Edwards recipe is the insinuating cocktail jazz of Henry Mancini, recognisable beneath all its disguises, once and forever confirming the truth of Noel Coward’s line about the potency of cheap music. Typically, Mancini’s scores for Edwards are built around a few hummable themes repeated in constant variations; the effect is wistful and a bit maddening, evoking the spinning of a carousel that speeds and slows without ever coming to a halt. While only a couple of Edwards films qualify as musicals in the conventional sense, most of them embrace the old tradition of leaving space for a song or two — often recycling a melody that has been heard in instrumental form from the outset, and now seems imbued with ready-made nostalgia. Likewise, the lyrics may express overt longing for a departed Eden:
The days of wine and roses
Laugh and run away
Like a child at play
Through the meadow land toward a closing door,
A door marked “Never more”
That wasn’t there before . . .6
Transferring this longing to a different plane, The Great Race and Sunset are among the most direct expressions of an impulse that can be found in much of Edwards’ work, the desire to recreate some earlier, “simpler” form of cinema; indeed his sense of arriving after the golden age of the medium, a nostalgia hardly available to previous generations, may be what most clearly defines him as a modern figure. In William Empson’s phrase, some portion of Edwards’ cinema can be understood as a version of pastoral7, the genre in which naïfs are understood to offer the truest wisdom: Hrundi, in all his tactless stupidity, is a pure soul, while the sophisticates around him are corrupt and vulgar. Holly is outwardly more knowing, but her “free spirit” pose depends on a comparable naiveté that proves to be half-assumed, half-genuine. “She’s a phony, but she’s a real phony,” her “agent” O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam) aptly puts it.
But even the most harmless pretenses have consequences, as even Holly has to learn8. Founded in bad faith, the willed dream of innocence cancels itself out as the characters approach the waking world — and so the films float for as long as possible in a zone of indeterminacy, where sex, for example, is a rumour rather than a fact. No filmmaker is more obsessed than Edwards with castration jokes and coitus interruptus, and slapstick substitutes for the erotic in his work as regularly as the killings do in a slasher movie; Clouseau’s servant and martial-arts training partner Kato (Burt Kwouk) seemingly exists solely to ambush his master in moments of passion9. If consummation as such is rarely permitted, the not-always-comic peaks of intensity in an Edwards movie typically occur when physical boundaries are broken and the screen is filled with “floating white objects”10: bubbles, feathers, confetti, or the snowflakes that cover Frank in Wild Rovers as he lies dying, his comrade by his side. It’s an image of loss of control, the erasure of visible differences, interchangeably death or orgasm: at any rate, a fulfilment that the characters can reach in no other way.
The Girl from No-Man’s-Land
To put all this differently, there is a definite “back to the womb” drive in Edwards — and if you don’t believe me, believe David Fowler (Burt Reynolds), the sculptor hero of The Man Who Loved Women (1983), a Don Juan who traces his need to seduce every attractive woman in sight back to his early relationship with the archetype of them all. On the couch with his therapist (Julie Andrews) he recounts an early memory of arousal at seeing his mother, a prostitute, in her bath; he remembers, too, that she “walked very fast” — and sure enough, a flashback shows her moving down the street with the confident, faintly masculine stride of Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), the outspoken suffragette heroine of The Great Race.
Wood, it’s worth noting, had a miserable time during the Great Race shoot11, and her arch performance communicates an uneasy suspicion that her sexuality is being exploited, burlesqued, or both. Andrews, Edwards’ wife for forty years and his regular leading lady from Darling Lili (1969) onward, serves as a more satisfactory quasi-maternal love object, though her string of films with her husband must stand as one of cinema’s more perverse examples of an artist-muse relationship. Plainly, Edwards sought to free his wife from the governessy persona established in Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964), and The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) — but the aim is pursued with an aggression that remains disconcerting no matter how far she’s understood to be in on the joke. If there’s something adolescent in Holly’s beatnik act as in Maggie’s claims of “emancipation,” the characters Andrews plays for Edwards are undeniably adults; yet just for this reason, she serves for him as the ultimate “straight woman,” who needs to be knocked off her pedestal and mussed around a bit. So in the Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981) she’s a movie star persuaded to tarnish her squeaky-clean image by flashing her “boobies” onscreen; in Victor/Victoria, she’s a struggling cabaret singer who finds success as a mock drag queen, “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman”; and in The Man Who Loved Women she’s an authority figure who “cures” her anxiety-ridden patient only when he inadvertently gets a peek up her skirt and recognises her as a “female” no different from the rest.
In the same vein, the premise of Darling Lili is an especially inspired sick joke: the beloved singer Lili Smith, a symbol of hope and purity for the British troops of the First World War, is secretly Lili Schmidt, a German spy. Ordered to seduce the American flyer William Larrabee (Rock Hudson) in the line of duty, she predictably finds herself falling in love for real. But her change of tune has nothing to do with conscience as such: she never repents her treason, nor gives up her bond to the German overseer (Jeremy Kemp) who unselfishly loves her in turn. Larrabee, in turn, has his own secrets to conceal: here, again, consummation is delayed, though less by pratfalls than by verbal fencing conducted in Edwards’ best formal, quasi-epigrammatic style. Some of Edwards’ most elaborate mise-en-scène is used to give the impression of a topsy-turvy world, where Larrabee’s fellow pilot T. C. Carstairs (Lance Percival) can fly only while drunk, and Lili slaps her man for daring to suggest she might be a virgin. The lies and double-crosses are miraculously forgiven with the arrival of peace, but the public weren’t so kind: with its expensive musical numbers and aviation scenes, the film cost Paramount millions, one of a series of flops that came close to ending Edwards’ career12.
As he always acknowledged, Edwards learned the trade of slapstick from Leo McCarey13 (the director responsible for pairing Laurel with Hardy). But his films with Andrews, like his essays in “sophisticated comedy” generally, belong to the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch, in which love and duplicity go hand in hand. The similarities lie not only in the fanciful cosmopolitan settings, the bedroom farce machinations and the games with offscreen space, but in the gentle relentlessness with which both directors work to undermine narrow standards of moral rigour. The romantic spy thriller The Tamarind Seed (1974) is a return to the themes of Darling Lili but also an inverted replay of Lubitsch’s capitalist apologia Ninotchka (1939); here, it’s a cynical Russian agent, Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif), who sets out to challenge the scruples of a proper English lady, Judith Farrow (Andrews). An assistant at the British Home Office, Judith can’t be sure if Sverdlov wants her for herself, her body or as a source of military secrets, an uncertainty that in the long run encourages rather than curtails her unwilling interest. For Edwards, the film is a unique stylistic experiment, with dissolves, long lenses and post-dubbed dialogue used to detach the central couple from the intrigue unfolding around them; again, their chaste courtship takes the form of a philosophical dialogue, pitting Judith’s “true-blue” ethic against Sverdlov’s proclaimed lack of ideological or other faith. While he may finally come over to Judith’s “side,” the happy ending verges on nihilism, since we’re not allowed to forget that their final union spells the doom of another couple: a principaled gay politician (Dan O’Herlihy) — who retains some of our sympathy even after he’s revealed as a Communist spy — and his ambitious, violently unhappy wife (Sylvia Syms).
There seems no reason to doubt Edwards’ description of himself, in a 1982 Playboy interview, as “very heterosexual”;14 still, it would not be out of place to locate a “queer” strain in a body of work which treats heterosexuality (even in marriage) less as an unquestionable fact than as a phenomenon to be puzzled over or reinvented from scratch. The films with Andrews are as far from orthodox feminism as they are from the gender norms of Hollywood; again, the lure of indeterminacy is strong, and the most charged relationships are those where rules are suspended and roles are up for grabs. This is true even, or especially, when the possibility of sex is off the table: “friendship” is a weak word for the bond between the heroine of Victor/Victoria and Toddy (Robert Preston), her witty gay mentor. Even Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite its bowdlerisation of Capote, relies on the assumption that its writer-gigolo protagonist (George Peppard) belongs in a different category from Holly’s usual run of gentleman acquaintances15. Love between men, developed well beyond buddy-movie convention, is the central theme of Wild Rovers — and is celebrated in a less complicated way in Sunset, where Mix and Earp recognise each other as kindred spirits from the moment they meet16. Still less conventional in its way is Earp’s brief but mutually satisfying romance with a tuxedo-wearing brothel keeper (Mariel Hemingway) unfazed by the thought that he’s old enough to be her grandfather.
To be sure, Edwards — even in his final, soul-searching phase — is not the dedicated preacher of a radical personal morality. In 10, his most overt effort to deal with the “sexual revolution,” the composer hero (Dudley Moore) resolves his mid-life crisis by heading home to his mature, forgiving spouse (Andrews, yet again). Similar reconciliations conclude the voyages of the straying protagonists of Skin Deep (1989) and That’s Life! (1986); on the other hand, David in The Man Who Loved Women sticks to his skirt-chasing ways and meets his death in a random road accident, distracted by the prospect of one conquest too many. Neither path is obviously preferable to the other: as Zach (John Ritter) candidly explains in Skin Deep, these middle-aged adventurers want it all, a “meaningful, monogomous, healthy, relationship” and the thrill of constant newness, constant discovery. The unknown is desirable, but at the same time triggers anxiety: and anxiety is what powers these late films, sending them lurching in unpredictable directions, or racing toward inevitable collapse.
Life in a Looking-Glass
As several commentators have noted, masquerades play a central role in Edwards’ films, as they do in the history of comedy since the ancient Greeks. Even the most innocently assumed costumes can have troublesome results: Zach in Skin Deep turns up at what he has been mistakenly informed is a fancy-dress ball as Aladdin from the Arabian Nights, and stands out like a blazing sore thumb in a sea of tuxedos. More frequent is the masquerade that aims to conceal or deceive, as when thieves disguise themselves in gorilla suits in The Pink Panther, or when soldiers exchange uniforms with the enemy in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966). Other films more seriously pursue the theme of characters masking their true selves, as in Darling Lili and The Tamarind Seed; but what constitutes a true self for any Edwards character is a mystery in its own right. Masquerades disturb because they hint that nothing is as it seems — or indeed, that all appearances may be arbitrary, and any claim to know the world or self a dangerous illusion.
Here, again, we have anxiety, which finds expression in Edwards’ favorite device, the gag. A gag involves a faulty judgement, such as murdering the wrong victim or sitting down in the wrong chair; such blunders are inevitable in Edwards’ universe, which teems with ambiguous gestures and signs. Hrundi in The Party puts his hand over a glass to show he doesn’t want a drink, and a thoughtless waiter pours the wine over his fingers; it would be hard to say which of them is most in error. Even the simplest gag contains an idea, if only about man’s failure to master his environment. Never mind all that jazz about love and fulfilment, Edwards seems to remind himself; just see if you can cross a room without losing a shoe, or tripping over your own feet17. No task is so straightforward that Clouseau, or Hrundi for that matter, can’t fuck it up. Even some of Edwards’ noblest heroes are not immune: his version of The Man Who Loved Women is in some respects more sensitive than the 1976 Truffaut film that inspired it, but only one of them contains a scene where the hero superglues himself to a dog.
Edwards stages most of his gags in long shot partly to leave a gap between his characters’ misapprehensions and our own. Like Jacques Tati, he is never afraid of letting us predict his moves in advance: Clouseau need only wander into a billiard room or a gymnasium and the practised viewer will start to scan the screen like a soldier before a minefield, mentally itemising potential causes of disaster18. The only certainty is that Clouseau will gain nothing from experience, however painful; if he enters the same situation again, he will make the same mistakes or find new and better ones. In one of their earlier articles on Edwards, William Luhr and Peter Lehman assert that Clouseau is an exemplary figure because he “has no faith in anything and continually adapts”19; the description might apply to James Coburn’s wiseguy lieutenant in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, but here seems hilariously back-to-front. Clouseau is governed by a single fixed idea, this being his view of himself as a brilliant detective and man of action; his “adaptations” are desperate, after-the-fact efforts to preserve this fantasy (“I see you are familiar with the falling-down-on-the-floor ploy”). Were his self-belief to falter, he would plummet to his doom, like Wile E. Coyote gazing into the abyss after he runs over a cliff.
It hardly needs saying that many of the abysses in Edwards’ films are as literal as those in Road Runner cartoons; his characters are always tumbling down staircases, off balconies or down holes, the camera observing their trajectories from a convenient distance or remaining implacable as they vanish beneath the frame. Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), the nominal hero of S.O.B., stays out of sight for much of the film’s first hour, confined to an upstairs bedroom of his beach house after a series of botched suicide attempts20. Finally, he rises to his feet and stumbles forward onto a rug that has been placed over a hole in the floor that he created earlier in a effort to hang himself21. Very slowly, he descends into the room below, where one of Edwards’ parties is in full swing, the guests too plastered to notice anything odd has occurred . . .
Here the membrane between the literal (descent) and the metaphorical (a longing for death) is paper thin. But it is not enough to say that Edwards’ gags symbolise psychological states, though they often do; nor that they “exceed their narrative, character, and thematic logic,”22 though this can be true as well. Watch a Buster Keaton film, and it might seem that Keaton thought of nothing except the best way to stage a gag; with Edwards, the forced logic of the staging becomes a meta-gag, and a shift between spaces is often a shift of genres at the same time. Thus even some of his most earnest films are broken up by slapstick interludes that serve not merely as comic parallels to the main action, but as a reminder of the artificiality of all genres alike. In Darling Lili, Lili and Larrabee’s tryst in a country house is intercut with the misadventures of a pair of French detectives patterned after Laurel and Hardy as they attempt to keep watch from outside. Similarly, in Victor/Victoria Edwards spends a couple of patient minutes building to the moment when Victoria utters a single high-pitched note offscreen, shattering a wine bottle and bringing “the world’s greatest acrobat” crashing to the ground. As with several of the same film’s musical numbers, the gag is pointedly set in a frame, singled out as a gratuitous interlude with no visible consequences: hence, again, a double joke.
By contrast, in Edwards’ broader comedies the narrative is less a basis for gags than gags are a basis for the narrative: they dictate the terms on which the story is told. Near the start of What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, a 360-degree pan is used to familiarise us with the square of a small Italian town that will serve as the main field of action (a fountain at its centre recalls the traffic island that serves as the fulcrum of the climax of The Pink Panther). Subsequently, the story unfolds on multiple “levels” that are both literal and metaphorical. Negotiations between the commanders of opposed armies occur at ground level, usually in broad daylight; upper rooms are intimate refuges that enable a different kind of conquest; hidden beneath the town is a maze of catacombs, like the underworld of ancient myth. The majority of the gags depend on interactions between these three levels: characters pop up unexpectedly from below, or fall into the depths where they’re doomed to wander, perhaps forever.
If What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? ranks a notch below its director’s farce masterpieces, it’s because the anarchy remains theoretical, the product of a carefully implemented scheme. In the Panther films and elsewhere, the gags have a wider demoralising impact: as the sets and characters fall apart, so do the plots. Edwards is usually at his best when he has a frantic actor — Sellers, Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore — stranded in wide shot and buzzing like a mosquito against a closed window; the window is the film frame, while the surrounding edifice is the “cinematic apparatus” itself. Sellers’ habit of muttering repeated lines looks forward to the modern school of ad-lib comedy in its apparent sabotaging of a presumably “well-constructed” script; likewise, Edwards’ addiction to “topping the topper” — adding one more link to a chain of gags — allows scenes to drag on well after their narrative function has been exhausted. With his chivalric delusions and his well-shielded amour-propre, Clouseau on the one hand is Don Quixote reborn; on the other, he’s less a character than an instrument of retardation, the Second Law of Thermodynamics made flesh. It’s apt that he begins as a supporting player in the original Pink Panther and goes on to commandeer not only that film but a string of sequels, like a spoiled child demanding ever-wider sections of time and space to himself.
As a consequence, most of the action in the first Panther sequel, A Shot in the Dark (1964), takes place, as it were, behind our backs. Before any of the characters have been introduced, a pre-credits “overture” depicts a series of crucial events in shadowy pantomime; then, at the end, a convoluted series of explanations are blurted out so rapidly we hardly have time to take them in. For the intervening hour and a half Clouseau stubbornly occupies the foreground — fiddling with a globe, setting his coat on fire, miraculously surviving a string of assassination attempts, and making irrational pronouncements that turn out to be correct not because of any special insight, but because he’s the hero, another arbitrary convention. By the fade-out, his myth is so well-established that Edwards, returning to the series after a decade, can afford to play against our expectations: in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), Clouseau’s first appearance is delayed for over fifteen minutes as a largely silent heist sequence stretches into plainly intentional tedium. At this formalist extreme even the absence of gags can be taken as a form of mockery, ironically indulging the pretence that anybody is watching a Panther sequel for the plot.
The Sweetheart Tree
Edwards is enough of a classicist that (unlike Mel Brooks or Jerry Lewis) he’s generally unwilling to take the final step and “break the fourth wall” — but there are exceptions, of which The Great Race, his supreme masterpiece, is the most significant. At first, this seems to be his most straightforwardly cartoonish film: with his white suit and twinkling smile, The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) represents the Good, while the black-clad Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) is the incarnation of Evil. Yet as soon as these characters are given flesh, they start to flicker between their original conception as abstract essences and their concrete existence as putatively real persons in a real world, reminding us that a “live-action cartoon” is after all a contradiction in terms. Leslie is courteous and noble but also a smug male chauvinist23, while the infantile Fate is rather more sympathetic in his perpetual fury at coming off second-best24. Moreover, as Serge Daney noted in a brilliant contemporary review, “Leslie and Fate are first Curtis and Lemmon,”25 familiar actors whose all-too-human qualities stand out at every turn.
Besides being personifications, Leslie and Fate are rival professional daredevils, entertaining the public with escapology or efforts to break the land speed record; mimicking the form of a Mack Sennett two-reeler, The Great Race opens with a series of gags where Leslie repeatedly triumphs while Fate, accompanied by his assistant Max (Peter Falk), falls flat on his face. Finally, the plot proper is launched when Leslie hits on a scheme to promote an American brand of automobile with an absurdly conceived race from New York to Paris. Naturally, Fate is quick to get in on the act, sabotaging most of the entrants so the race is reduced back to a duel between the two men.
Or nearly. For, as we’ve seen, The Great Race also has a heroine, Maggie, bent on proving that a woman can compete in a man’s world on equal terms. When her car, too, falls by the wayside, she uses her feminine wiles to stay close to the action, playing Leslie and Fate off against each other as she rides as a passenger with each in turn. Backward-looking as The Great Race appears, this diagrammatic plot structure — two vehicles moving along parallel lines, with a woman zig-zagging between them — oddly prefigures Monte Hellman’s decidedly New Hollywood yet equally absurdist Two Lane Blacktop (1971).
In its grand scale, its regular changes of locale, its frequent digressions and its ludicrous depiction of heroic deeds, The Great Race qualifies as a comic epic, a genre that Henry Fielding equated, in his 1742 preface to Joseph Andrews, with the emergent modern form of the novel26. For his part, Edwards sets his film near the start of the twentieth century, a period associated with rapidly changing social mores as well as the development of various modern technologies such as the motor-car. Though the invention of cinema itself is referred to nowhere directly in The Great Race, it’s evident from the outset that the film’s true epic theme is the birth of the medium itself: the opening credits are inscribed on a series of mock-primitive title cards, complete with a tinkling Mancini accompaniment and a string of simulated technical goofs (one card is shown upside-down, a fly buzzes in front of another, and so on). Thus it’s hinted that cinema, from the very beginning, carries the seed of its own destruction; Hellman famously simulated the burning of film in the projector at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop, but Edwards tops him in advance by having one of his cards flare up before the action has even started.
It’s plain from the outset that the project of recreating an archaic cinematic form — something not unique to Edwards, even at this period — is doomed in any literal sense. On the one hand, the wide-screen Technicolor images and lavish production values of The Great Race are a far cry from its ostensible models; on the other, it takes a certain flair for paradox, or perversity, to associate a lost Platonic world of archetypes with a genre defined by its association with anarchy and mess. But if failure is the eternal comic theme, then Edwards’ inability to fulfil his self-imposed task can be taken as the condition of his achievement. The longer they remain onscreen, the less Lesley, Maggie and Fate can be accepted as frozen figures of allegory; but this slippage of meaning is the film’s saving grace, the life-blood that circulates in its veins. In fact, it’s the literal prospect of freezing that allows opposition to collapse into sheer undifferentiation: during a snowstorm in the Arctic, good and evil wind up nestled side by side under a blanket, newly intimate and oddly domestic, sharing yet another bottle of liquor to keep away the cold.
One of the most dialectical films ever made, The Great Race can be viewed among other things as a response to Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which in turn lifted the “comic epic” template from the relatively straitlaced Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, 1956)27. Billed as “the comedy to end all comedies,” Kramer’s film is a species of anti-masterpiece in its own right, and perhaps the ultimate expression of its maker’s hatred for cinema28. Kramer, explicitly, sought to critique mid-century materialism; harking back to Anderson’s film in its depiction of a planet-spanning battle for supremacy, The Great Race too can’t help announcing itself as a film of its own era, in its unavoidable Cold War subtext as in its forecast, via Maggie’s feminism, of social upheavals yet to come. Still, in place of Kramer’s one-track misanthropy Edwards substitutes the ambiguity of pastoral, taking his unreal recapitulation of cinema’s childhood as an alibi for the dream of fantasy without consequence, slapstick without harm.
This dream is seen at its purest in a wordless, tossed-off gag sequence set in a forest glade, where the villains toss buckets of water over each other after the jealous Fate observes Max, Laurel to his Hardy, spying on Maggie bathing in a lake: perfect slapstick, dependent on timing more than props and executed with a minimum of fuss in a single shot. Given what Edwards can achieve with such limited means, the multimillion-dollar extravagance of The Great Race looks like pure redundancy — another kind of meta-gag, turning the joke of the film against itself. Leaving the characters exactly where they started, the tit-for-tat action of the sequence describes a perfect circle pitted against the film’s squiggles and straight lines: a cycle that could potentially continue forever, like the struggle between Fate and Leslie depicted in the film’s first movement, or like the journey across the globe that in theory could bring the characters back to where they started, like Phileas Fogg (David Niven) in Around the World in Eighty Days.
Needless to say, the idyll doesn’t last. The Great Race is a film of multiple high points, multiple climaxes: every time it seems to be winding down, it cranks itself up again. For a good half hour of screen time, the racers are stalled in the imaginary Central European nation of Carpania, where Fate proves to be the double of the epicene Prince Hapnick29 and the film morphs into a pastiche of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), complete with a new set of villains that make Fate look like the burlesque figure he is. After many reversals of fortune, the interlude ends when the fiendish Baron von Stuppe (Ross Martin) dives from a window into a rowboat that shatters beneath his weight — letting us know that the film has shifted back into its original gear, and that soon the racers will be on the move once more. Shortly afterwards comes the famous, orgaistic pie fight sequence, which leaves all the characters indistinguishably soaked in multi-coloured cream30. Only Leslie, sauntering through the melée, remains untouched — till at the last moment one single pie lands square in his face, spoiling his pristine image once and for all. Maggie, the unintentional culprit, stops short in the midst of the battle with a look of sacred horror, as if unable to believe what she’s done.
In fact, it seems she may have found the formula that will convert the “great” Leslie from a stubborn prig to a full human being — though this illusion, too, is short-lived. The scene that follows returns us to the forest, with Leslie looking unexpectedly haggard in close-up as he shaves in a mirror, the lather on his face a reminder of his recent humiliation. Seemingly nude under a blanket, Maggie makes a provocative bid to win his attention; thwarted, she borrows a guitar from Leslie’s assistant Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn) and launches into “The Sweetheart Tree,” the Great Race theme tune heard on an endless loop from the film’s first instant31. As she sings, the lyrics are superimposed onscreen and a bouncing ball dances over them, inviting the audience to sing along.
Together with the earlier forest routine with Fate and Max, this sequence constitutes the secret centre of The Great Race: in a film filled with collapsing boundaries, among the last to go is the gap between the depicted universe and the spectator, which also means the gap between past and present32. Johnny Mercer’s lyrics tell of a “tree in the forest” that will burst into “blossoms of white” at the kiss of true lovers, a tranquil analogue to Edwards’ typically violent images of ecstasy. For the moment, Maggie occupies the still point at the heart of the turning world, though she can’t help sneaking a glance at Leslie’s reaction as he listens. Leslie, for his part, is moved enough that he offers a truce and promptly kisses her — whereupon she slaps him, and it’s clear their battle has one more round to go.
Leslie and Maggie continue bickering as their car clatters through Paris and right up to the finish line at the Eiffel Tower — till the very last moment when Leslie, moved to humanity at last, brings his car to a halt to prove his love. With this concession, gender relations are finally placed on an equal footing, and the pair can be wed. This is the traditional Hollywood ending, where the hero accepts defeat in one sense in order to succeed in another — as in It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) or, in an inverted form, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)33.
But Fate is not satisfied: “You let me win!” he screams at his rival, and promptly proposes another race from Paris back to New York. So the protagonists set out once more, in a second “ending” that seems closer to Edwards’ heart: a dream of eternal circulation, where the finish line is never anything but a mirage. But there’s one more twist, which could be described as Edwards’ ultimate castration joke: Fate, unable as Clouseau to learn by experience, has cooked up yet another of his plots. “Push the button, Max!” he orders. Max obliges . . . and in extreme long shot, the Eiffel Tower collapses. End of the film, end of the fictional universe, end of Hollywood cinema as Edwards once knew and loved it.
Epilogue: The Party Goes On
But then death, in the Edwards universe, is no more permanent than anything else; the spirit of Clouseau survived the demise of both character and star, in sequels continuing up to Son of the Pink Panther (1993), Edwards’ last work for the big screen. As for Edwards’ own legacy, it is tempting to conclude, as Sam Wasson does, that he has had no successors within the Hollywood system; yet it would be odd indeed if a filmmaker of his originality and drive had not left his mark on subsequent generations. The Naked Gun films of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team openly model themselves on the Panther series, and though Edwards may not have admired John Landis’ Animal House (1978)34, it’s a plausible conjecture that his sensibility had an impact on the entropic slapstick vision of Landis, who made his own version of The Great Race in The Blues Brothers (1980). There is testimony to the influence of Sellers’ performances for Edwards on many of today’s brightest comic stars, from Sacha Baron Cohen to Steve Carell; while Hollywood’s reigning king of comedy Judd Apatow may have little of Edwards’ visual ingenuity, he belongs to the same tradition of fusing low farce with serious inquiry into the morality of social and sexual behaviour35. It might not be stretching too far to see traces of Edwards in the zany masquerades that rewrite 20th-century history in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), or in the malicious caricatures and deadpan visual jokes that frame an idealised platonic love affair in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Certainly, David O. Russell’s manic I Heart Huckabees (2003) comes close to the mature Edwards philosophy, with its heroes who oscillate between fantasies of cosmic union and equally extreme states of nihilistic despair.
Edwards’ ultimate legacy, of course, is laughter, though not of the most comforting kind. What this means is stated most clearly in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), the fourth and wildest instalment in the series, in which the demented Dreyfus has acquired a death ray capable of destroying cities in a flash. But Clouseau, despite his frequent stumbles, leads a life more charmed than even Leslie’s — unwittingly sidestepping every knife or bullet as multiple assassins pursue him through one of Edwards’ most nightmarish parties, an Oktoberfest celebration that becomes a bacchanalia of death. When Dreyfus rejoices at news that his adversary is slain, we know that in fact he’s alive and well, the real victim being a killer in a Clouseau disguise36: a joke within a joke, since by this point in the series Edwards was regularly forced to rely on body doubles in place of his erratic star37.
Dreyfus, who has acquired many of his foe’s accident-prone tendencies, is missing a tooth from an earlier mishap — and so he summons a dentist to his castle hideout, who proves, of course, to be Clouseau himself in disguise. Only after nitrous oxide has been administered does Dreyfus slowly realise the true identity of his visitor: unable to separate reality from the effects of the drug, he can’t help laughing hysterically as Clouseau’s “old man” make-up melts away, as if confronting him with the mad, meaningless truth beneath the surface of things. Naturally, Clouseau starts laughing along as if he understood the joke, launching Dreyfus into ever-wilder and more agonised fits of cackling — even before he realises that his “dentist” has extracted the wrong tooth. Without ceasing to be hysterically funny, the scene lasts so long and grows so nightmarish that it suggests a philosophical question: why do we laugh in the first place?
Edwards’ answer is clear. We laugh in self-defense, when we catch sight of the abyss; a burst of laughter is a little spasm of madness, like panic, or sexual arousal, or intoxication. But the experiences that threaten to destroy us are also those which make life worth living: the lesson learned by Zach in Skin Deep, knocked down by an almighty wave at the moment he finally sees his way out of his despair. Bruised, soaking, giddy, but alive, he emerges beaming with the force of the revelation that just hit him: “There is a God — and he’s a gag writer!” While these tidings give Zach the strength to quit the booze and pull his life back together, we know that for him and others there can be no permanent equilibrium between law and chaos, rigor mortis and abject collapse. Carstairs in Darling Lili is afraid to leave the ground while sober, but keeps on drinking because he likes to fly: one way or another, most of Edwards’ heroes move eternally around the same circle.
And as long as we keep laughing, we move with them. Follow the bouncing ball . . .
- Manny Farber, “Don Siegel” (1969) in Negative Space: Manny Farber On the Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998) p. 125; Stuart Byron, “Blake Edwards” in Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis (eds.), The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, (New York: Viking Press, 1977) p. 94, quoted in June Werrett, “Blake Edwards,” Senses of Cinema 24; Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 93. [↩]
- June Werrett argues that one aspect of Edwards’ comedy belongs to “an old tradition that stretches back to Aristophanes and is typified by farce, obscenity and sexual metaphor” (Werrett, ibid). For Edwards’ comments on Wild Rovers, see Bill Krohn, “Blake Edwards: Jumping Around,” in Patrick McGilligan (ed.), Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 92-93. [↩]
- These biographical details are drawn from Sam Wasson, A Splurch In the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2009). [↩]
- Girls with guitars were something of an Edwards fixation in the 1960s, as Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Great Race and The Party all show. [↩]
- By everyone except Pauline Kael, who called it “the most lowdown and daring thing in the movie.” See her 5001 Nights At The Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), p. 99. [↩]
- The lines are by the great Johnny Mercer, easily the best lyricist the Edwards-Mancini team ever had. [↩]
- William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral  (London: Hogarth, 1986). [↩]
- By his own account, Paul’s climactic reproof to Holly was one of Edwards’ own additions to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s screenplay. See Krohn, ibid, p. 93. [↩]
- This character might be considered another unfortunate stereotype, particularly given Clouseau’s recurrent allusions to “my little yellow friend.” Still, it should be noted that Edwards himself took a practical interest in karate, once expressed a desire to film “the definitive martial arts movie,” and greatly admired Bruce Lee. See “Playboy Interview: Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards Playboy, December 1982 [accessed January 9] and Tom Bleeker, “Bruce Lee: Before and After the Praise,” Black Belt, January 1979, pp 66-70. [↩]
- This phrase comes from William Luhr and Peter Lehman, Blake Edwards (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981), p. 200. [↩]
- Wasson, ibid, pp 98-99. [↩]
- Wasson, ibid, pp 137-167. [↩]
- Wasson, ibid, pp 103-104. [↩]
- “Playboy Interview: Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards,” ibid. [↩]
- This impression might have been reinforced if Edwards had got his wish and cast Tony Curtis as Holly’s fellow hustler. See Corinna Horan, “Tantrums At Tiffany’s: How A Viper’s Nest Of Clashing Egos Nearly Killed Off One of the Best Loved Films Ever Made,” Daily Mail, November 14, 2010. Accessed January 15, 2011. [↩]
- Sadly, no Edwards film to my knowledge portrays friendship between women in the same light, though the daring Micki and Maude (1983) ends as a portrait of a successful menage-à-trois. [↩]
- “I claim there is a Clouseau gene that exists in my family,” Edwards told Bill Krohn in the 2000s. Much anecdotal evidence supports this view. See Krohn, ibid, p. 96. [↩]
- Military themes recur in the first half of Edwards’ career, though there’s little to say if he was deeply marked by his own eighteen months in the Coast Guard during the Second World War, the last five months spent in hospital after a diving accident. See Dennis McLellan, “Tinseltown All-Rounder Who Did It All,” The Age, December 18, 2010. Accessed January 11, 2011. [↩]
- William Luhr and Peter Lehman, “Detecting, Defecting, and Whistling in the Dark: The Recent Films of Blake Edwards,” The Velvet Light Trap, Fall 1974, pp 22-25. [↩]
- Felix, a film producer, has fallen into despair over the anticipated failure of a costly musical, Night Wind — a scenario plainly inspired by Edwards’ own woes on Darling Lili. [↩]
- Edwards claimed in a 2002 interview with Larry King that he similarly planned to kill himself at his house in Malibu, only to be interrupted by a chain of mishaps even more gruesome than those in his movies. See “CNN Larry King Weekend,” July 27, 2002. Accessed January 15, 2011. [↩]
- Peter Lehman and William Luhr, “Blake Edwards’ Engagement of the Slapstick Tradition in Blind Date,” Film Criticism, Fall 1988, pp. 20-32. [↩]
- Although Sam Wasson doubts Leslie’s public image as a ladies’ man, noting that his car the Leslie Special “seems better suited to Liberace’s poolside than to a transatlantic road trip.” See Wasson, ibid, p. 106. [↩]
- Rarely harming anyone but himself and Max, Professor Fate is ancestor to a long line of endearing would-be supervillains that recently includes the anti-hero played by Neil Patrick Harris in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Joss Whedon, 2008). [↩]
- An essential piece of Edwards criticism, in which Daney sums up the film with matchless eloquence but all the same brands it a failure. At least he liked The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. Serge Daney “Strange Bodies,” trans. Jane Pease, Rose Kaplin, Nell Cox, Cahiers du Cinema in English, no. 3, 1966, pp. 26-27. Accessed December 30, 2010. [↩]
- Henry Fielding, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr Abraham Andrews , ed. Douglas Brooks-Davies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). [↩]
- Also following in Kramer’s wake was Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965). The sub-genre persisted with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series Wacky Races and a later series of “comic epics” such as Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981). [↩]
- Notorious for his equation between artistic value and the transmission of a “message,” Kramer took the opportunity in Mad World to push his literal-mindedness to new extremes: when the dying “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) kicks a bucket in the opening sequence, the gag depends not on the specifics of the image but on a verbal idiom evoked in the manner of a rebus. Similarly, the “comic legends” who appear in cameos represent the idea of comedy without being called upon to do anything funny; the most generous reading would be to view the film’s absolute unfunniness as its ultimate misanthropic joke. [↩]
- Played again by Lemmon, the Prince is one of the first and most flamboyant of Edwards’ gay characters, blatantly flirting with Leslie and screaming with laughter in a manner that recalls the same actor’s performance in Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959). [↩]
- According to Ken Adam, this sequence was directly inspired by the pie fight that Stanley Kubrick filmed but cut from the climax of Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a comedy of destruction on a grander scale than even Edwards ever dared. See Christopher Frayling, Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design (New York: Faber and Faber, 2005), p. 112. [↩]
- Wood is dubbed here by Jackie Ward, a reminder that this moment of innocence, like everything in The Great Race, is an artificial construction. [↩]
- There are hints of this already in the opening credits of The Great Race, when an imaginary audience is heard cheering and booing cartoon images of Leslie and Fate — but actual spectators are not explicitly invited to follow suit. [↩]
- At the sublime end of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — retained in all the film versions — all seems lost until the hyper-rational hero is reminded that he has gained a day on his round-the-world trip by crossing the International Date Line. Thus he wins his bet and gets the girl, but only by acknowledging that the “laws” of space and time are as inconsistent as any other human invention. See Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days , trans, Michael Glencross (London: Penguin, 2004). [↩]
- “Playboy Interview: Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards,” ibid. [↩]
- As for the “rebooted” Pink Panther (Shawn Levy, 2006), the less said the better. [↩]
- Topping the topper, the assassin in question is played by Omar Sharif, in an allusion to his Tamarind Seed role that briefly allows the film to change genres into a full-throttle romance. [↩]
- Edwards’ own testimony leaves little doubt that Dreyfus’ rage against Clouseau — the double he can’t shake off — was inspired in part by the relation between director and star. “He was not a likeable man,” Edwards said of Sellers in 2002. “He was, you know, there were times when it almost bordered on evil.” See CNN Larry King Weekend, ibid. [↩]