As noted in the Criterion Channel’s write-up on one of Britain’s most popular comedic film actor, Peter Sellers claimed that he was such a chameleon on screen because he had no actual personality of his own. I’m sure those who worked and lived with him would have argued otherwise, as the man who once opted to have a telegram delivered to his front door asking his wife to bring him up a cup of tea had a definite personality and it wasn’t always a pleasant one. After producers denied his demand to have Virginia Maskell recast as his wife in Only Two Can Play, he gave up his points on the film’s back end and, when the film was well received and went into profit, he spent the rest of his life badmouthing it as a bomb. Not exactly Mr. Cellophane.
There’s actually more stories like this about Sellers than there are nice ones. In a world where we understand people with a gift for comedy to often be dark and damaged souls, he stands as a totem as one of the darkest of them all (at least of those not accused of any crimes). His show business career began as a mere two-week old baby, appearing in his parents’ variety show act, growing up in a form of entertainment that lent itself to his later skills for varied characterizations, disguises, and personas (many of which tend to ethnic humour that doesn’t quite fly now).
Making his debut on BBC radio after the war, he moved into films in the fifties and quickly found popularity. Gifted as he was at making people laugh, Sellers cared a great deal about showing off his range and was frustrated by audiences only supporting his slapstick. His worldwide success in The Pink Panther movies was as much a gift as it was a sentence and likely contributed to the difficulties he provided producers with for the remainder of his short life. He was equally insecure about his looks and likely believed it was part of the reason people didn’t take him seriously. On What’s New Pussycat, he was furious when anyone pointed out his similarity in appearance to the film’s writer and co-star Woody Allen (though to be fair, they wore the same glasses in it), and on the big-budget disaster Casino Royale, he kept pushing to make it a serious Bond film and not a spoof. The producers eventually fired him and his footage was stitched into an incomprehensible mess of a rewrite (and it made money anyway, go figure).
The thing about Sellers, though, is that when he was good there was no one better. That is likely why he is not remembered for his cruel tantrums but for his comedy, his name conjuring up pleasurable memories in film watchers who have seen The Party a million times or can remember the first time they watched one of the Pink Panthers. The chameleon quality really was quite impressive. He was as committed to the silliness of Inspector Clouseau’s inability to punch out an English idiom with accuracy as he was at creating the guttural noises made by a trashy gangster in a darker film like Never Let Go. Unfortunately, audiences were indifferent to most of it, preferring to focus only on his goofier comedies and the celebration of his versatility mostly took place after his passing. Being There was a rare case of his being rewarded in his lifetime for not putting on a disguise or French accent and was for him a crowning achievement. He was disappointed to lose the Academy Award for Best Actor to Dustin Hoffman (his second acting nomination, Dr. Strangelove was his first) and died of a heart attack a few months later.
The Criterion Channel’s collection of Peter Sellers films is a wonderful treat as much because of what it avoids as what it includes: there’s no Panther, Being There or The Party, there’s few of the roles he’s best known for (though the Kubrick roles are there for good measure). By including so many lesser known projects, Criterion pays great tribute to someone whose body of work is so rich in variety.
THE PETER SELLERS MUST-SEES
The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)
The high point of Ealing comedies of the fifties, this devastatingly funny caper is miles ahead of the graceless 2004 Coen Brothers remake. Shady Alec Guinness moves into the spare room of a sweet, elderly widow (Katie Johnson) to rehearse music with his amateur orchestra. He’s actually playing records on the gramophone while he and his fellow criminals (among them Sellers and his future Pink Panther nemesis Herbert Lom) plot the robbery of a bank truck. After she unwittingly helps deliver the “lolly” to the bad guys, Johnson gets wind of what is really going on and decides to turn herself in, inspiring the boys to silence her. Unfortunately, their own foolish greed is no match for her even-keeled, ladylike resolve, but neither is the stupidity of the authorities, who deliver the best joke in the film’s delicious conclusion. One to cherish for the ages.
Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Lolita marked Kubrick‘s move away from being a Hollywood studio filmmaker. Dr. Strangelove established him as an auteur of note, from here on in he’d be, like Fellini, the only star of his films. Peter Sellers plays three roles in this unabashedly wicked satire on Cold War paranoia: an RAF executive who fails to prevent a mad American general from sending a bomb to Russia, the American president trying to keep Russia from igniting its Doomsday machine, and the president’s wheelchair-bound German scientist advisor who keeps accidentally calling his boss “mein Fuhrer”. Kubrick is so on the nose with the humour (including character names like Jack T. Ripper and Merkin Muffley) but it never feels preachy, while production designer Ken Adam contributes outsized war room sets that rival the best of his work on James Bond. If you’ve ever dated a straight man, you’ve already been forced to watch this (and have its meanings repeatedly explained to you), but in case that hasn’t happened yet, just know that it actually is really good.
Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962)
Criterion doesn’t have a particularly good transfer of this film to offer, but ignore this deterrent and watch this witty and wise adaptation of That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis. Sellers plays a librarian and amateur drama critic in the fictional Welsh town of Aberdarcy (standing in for Swansea) whose happy life with wife Virginia Maskell is threatened when Mai Zetterling, the wife of a local bigwig councillor, walks into his place of business and sparks fly. They begin a passionate affair and she promises to tell her husband to give Sellers a big promotion within the library system that could solve his economic frustrations. A few moments go the way of slapstick comedy but for the most part it plays like slice-of-life spontaneity. Sellers gives a masterly, understated performance and Maskell matching him with her own moments of humorous wisdom.
I’m All Right Jack (John Boulting, 1959)
This witty satire upends all notions of post-war Britain as a socialist paradise of nationalized industries. Ian Carmichael has been educated for management at Oxford, as is natural for his upper-class status, but as he can’t find suitable work, he settles for a job on the floor of his uncle’s munitions factories. His guileless attitude accidentally inspires a strike led by staunch union leader Sellers (at 34 made up to play a middle-aged father and winning a BAFTA for his efforts). His interest is in keeping working men employed even if it means poor production rates, while at the top the crafty suits have plans of their own that the workers’ actions don’t necessarily contradict. In its hilarious conclusion, Carmichael gives everyone a stern talking to in full public view but, well, that makes a muck of things too. Delightfully ribbing fun at anyone’s lofty ideals of what works best for humanity, this also shows Sellers’ talent for transformation that feels like a real character and not the kind of jokey caricatures he performed in films like The Party (though, truth be told, an actor with real crow’s feet might be a better choice for selling it).
The Mouse That Roared (Jack Arnold, 1959)
A gentler anti-nuclear bomb comedy than Peter Sellers would make with Kubrick five years later, this parody of political war games takes place in a tiny, fictional Alpine duchy where Sellers once again plays multiple roles. Grand Fenwick has one industry, exporting wine to the United States, but when the Americans create their own substitute and it threatens Grand Fenwick’s economy, the Prime Minister (Sellers) decides to send a small army across the pond to invade. Victory is impossible, but Americans have a habit of giving a great deal of financial aid to the countries that they devastate in battle and it would ultimately work out in Grand Fenwick’s financial favour. The grand duchess (Sellers) approves the plan, so a group of chain-mailed soldiers are sent with the country’s forest ranger (Sellers) as their leader, but what they find is a New York City abandoned for a nuclear bomb test, so they capture the scientist who created the bomb and his beautiful daughter (Jean Seberg) and take them home in victory. Colourful and snappy, it never gets smug about its allegory and instead focuses on its natural, unforced charms.
Never Let Go (John Guillermin, 1960)
A satisfying precursor to the kind of plot you’d later see more often in a grindhouse revenge flick, this one stars Richard Todd as a cosmetics salesman whose car is stolen by a ring of car thieves working under gangster Peter Sellers. Todd loses his job thanks to the fact that he can’t make sales appointments on time, and the police can only do so much since Sellers runs a legitimate garage as a front. Todd therefore makes it his personal business to set things right despite the fact that it brings physical danger upon him and threatens to destroy his home life with wife and kids. Efficient and sharp with a climax that feels like a western set in a corner of London, this also shows Sellers off in a rare dramatic role that he carries off without a hitch, his mannerisms and accent blend in with the seedy atmosphere and never feel like an overdone caricature. Audiences, only really loving him as a comedian, stayed away in droves and the film was a giant bomb. It’s a shame.
Mr. Topaze (Peter Sellers, 1961)
Peter Sellers made his first and only feature film as director with this adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s play, which has been made into various films in France (and once with John Barrymore in Hollywood as well). He gives a perfectly brittle performance as a mild-mannered schoolteacher who sticks to his principals about a failing student whose rich aunt insists should be given a free pass. He gets fired by his principal, then is roped into a shady business scheme by an actress friend and her corrupt city council boyfriend, and after giving into the amorality of the life of a greedy businessman, he finds success. It’s not the best adaptation of Pagnol you’ll ever see. Sellers has trouble getting the film off the ground and it takes too long to warm up its first act before really zinging towards the end, but he gets masterful, controlled performances from all around him as well as himself. It’s a shame that this film’s disastrous critical and commercial reception convinced him to remove it from circulation (it has barely been available for many decades) and never repeat the task of directing again.
Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
Vladimir Nabokov’s runaway bestseller challenged notions of understanding as forgiving, presenting the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert with such pinpointed, passionate accuracy that it still riles up readers who mistake the author’s ridiculing the character for permissive approval. Censorship meant that Kubrick couldn’t bring the book, which ends with Humbert realizing that even the most exotic fantasy once indulged becomes banal, to the screen with accuracy. However, he still manages to push buttons with the affair between James Mason as Humbert pursuing teenager Sue Lyons after marrying her brash mother (a remarkable Shelley Winters). Sellers shows up in one of his most inscrutable performance as Clare Quilty, one of the few times that audiences let him get away with not playing it obviously for laughs. The 1997 Adrian Lyne version is more accurate to the plot of the novel, but neither film can really quite capture the air of reductive humour with which Nabokov’s dense prose treats the male ego.
FOR FANS ONLY
Let’s Go Crazy (Alan Cullimore, 1951)
Sellers’ film debut Penny Points to Paradise had only used three of the four weeks scheduled on a studio set, so the fourth was used to put together this silly bit of fun. It’s set in a nightclub where legitimate musical acts are showcased between funny gags in which Sellers shows off his Man of a Thousand Faces talents as various characters including Groucho Marx, a huffy matron, a nerdy Romeo on a date and as a waiter who cons his customer out of his own meal. Fans of the legendary performer will certainly want to see this.
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (Richard Lester, 1960)
Filmed over two Sundays for a gargantuan budget of seventy pounds, this 10 minute comedic short is pure bonkers experimentation by Richard Lester, who would use many of its zany techniques in his breakthrough feature A Hard Day’s Night five years later. A group of men including Peter Sellers and that great exasperator Leo McKern spend a day’s pleasure out in nature with their contraptions and machines, some real, some imaginary, using them for sport, for art or athletics. Naturally, the Benny Hill-style chase makes for a great climax. The film is silly fun, and earned Sellers his first of three career Oscar nominations, for Best Live-Action Short.