This article was originally published in American Directors Volume II, edited by Jean-Pierre Coursoson and Pierre Sauvage (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1983). It is published here with the kind permission of the author.
For the appearances are glimpses of the unrevealed. (Anaxagoras)
Blake Edwards, the most important comic stylist (along with Richard Lester) of the 1960s, and without peer today, parlayed deadpan farce and intricate gag construction into a profound comic metaphysic devoted to whatever possibilities remain for wit and romance in the postwar age. For Edwards, visual and verbal slapstick provide elaborate ways to meditate on his central issue: what civilized human behavior is still tenable? His masterpieces—Darling Lili, “10”, and Gunn—along with his other major works—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, A Shot in the Dark, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, and The Tamarind Seed—all embody a civilized, conservative attitude toward the absurdities of existence. (The same would apply to his other substantial, if lesser, works: Mister Cory, This Happy Feeling, The Perfect Furlough, The Party and the butchered Wild Rovers, which in its original, now lost, cut was considered by Edwards to be among his finest achievements.)
Starting out in radio and later in television, Edwards worked in feature films as a writer, producer, and actor before directing his first features, two Frankie Laine vehicles (Bring Your Smile Along, a startling piece of self-portraiture in a Columbia “B” musical, and the trifling anecdote, He Laughed Last). As a screenwriter, he wrote many films for Richard Quine, including the best—Operation Mad Ball and Drive a Crooked Road. He originated the Johnny Dollar radio series and the Peter Gunn television series, as well as a pilot for Kraft Suspense theater involving Robert Vaughn as a young Boston Brahmin sleuth called “The Terrier”.
The most immediately recognizable quality in a Blake Edwards film is a wise-guy verbal facility keyed to visual fluidity across a lateral field. Edwards charges his surfaces with significance by using the appearance of objects to suggest their essence. The same principle applies to the behavior of his characters. The jokes and one-liners rarely express any deep commitment on the part of the characters delivering them; indeed, they serve as a means to keep them from communicating their needs and feelings, and so tacitly suggest them.
It wouldn’t be mistaken to call Edwards’s wit a well-conditioned reflex. The overall quality of humor tends to be clever, quirky, and mechanical. Audiences are encouraged to adapt completely to this style, so that the comic lines or events take on a familiar quality of convention, rather than becoming abstractions of movements or of heightened speech. The attitude expressed toward the environment, whether naturalistic terrain (Wild Rovers) or a stylized concoction (The Great Race), is invariably to take the world presented for granted. Though frequently morally charged, the films are singularly unconcerned with issues of good and evil, except as manifestations of a larger and more consuming chaotic universe. Edwards shares this strategy with Howard Hawks, though Hawks then fleshes out his artificial environment with extremely naturalistic behavioral detail, where Edwards prefers to follow through on the implications of his abstract situations: he is resolutely a man of his time, showing us how we all are out of joint.
The conflict central to all of Edwards’s films is the opposition of a highly ordered and controlled existence to an existence characterized by anarchy and chaos. The former may carry with it elements of dignity, restraint (or repression), gallantry or calculation; the latter, a sense of spontaneity, emotional freedom, sensuality, immaturity or nervous confusion. Each mode of behavior has both advantages and drawbacks, and Edwards is capable of either condemning or endorsing, almost always indulgently, aspects of each as he seeks to forge a healthy synthesis of both.
This opposition forms the central action of his early comedy-dramas for Universal, each of which shows the basic Edwardian themes in gestation. The dramatic situations in these films are remarkably similar: in each, a character with a strongly developed sense of how he ought to lead his life finds this confidence/complacency challenged by an opposing life-style. Sometimes the protagonist is loosened up and made more responsive to life by the graded acceptance of degrees of chaos; conversely, a “wild” character realizes the private, internal value of social conventions, manners, morals, or values.
This modification of attitude, with its accompanying realignment of self-image, forms the dramatic centre of Edwards’s work, and because any notion of the self implies a role that that self will play, Edwards concentrates on changes in role as reflections of changes in personality. It is hardly surprising that he finds the theatre, or more generally, any sort of presence (such as Bing Crosby’s drag episode in High Time or the numerous disguises donned by Inspector Clouseau) an effective metaphor for how people adjust themselves, and their views of themselves, to the exigencies that confront them. In some ways, the dramatic trajectory of an Edwards movie flamboyantly tracks the transference process in analytic treatment.
Curt Jurgens in This Happy Feeling retires to a country estate to breed horses because he feels uncomfortable with the newer “Method” style of acting. He resists all efforts to persuade him to return him to the stage in a meaty character role, which would require a tacit admission of his aging. But a prolonged tender acquaintance with Debbie Reynolds (a relationship paralleled by increasing pain and discomfort in Jurgens’s back) enables Jurgens to surrender his courtly isolation and to triumph in the new kind of part, a metaphor for his acceptance of a modified image of himself, less afraid of growing old and richer for his fuller involvement in what he loves best—theatre. In many ways, This Happy Feeling anticipates the more extensive and expressive treatment of a kindred story line far more sublimely subtle, in Darling Lili.
On the one hand, Jurgens and old undergrad Bing Crosby in High Time learn by their involvement with “young people” to manage their own lives with greater freedom and emotional fulfillment. Conversely, Tony Curtis acquires a rudimentary new moral awareness at the end of Mister Cory when he can overcome both class prejudice and the personal hurt he suffers as a result of his affair with a socially prominent but hypocritical Martha Hyer.
Edwards’s special genius is for expressing these themes subtly by using gags as metaphors. Thus, in The Perfect Furlough, Tony Curtis tries to persuade a disbelieving Janet Leigh that a starlet could actually have fallen into a wine vat by directing her through the actions we have earlier witnessed. Of course, the pratfall, too, is reenacted. In “10”, Dudley Moore’s frantic efforts to answer the telephone (and make contact with his soulmate) only plunge him further away from a stable connection. In What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, James Coburn takes on the job of directing extras in a sham battle in a real war.
In a related vein, Edwards also attaches significance to a mentor, who takes an interest in the protagonist to help him advance, succeed, and mature. In the earlier films, the relationships between Tony Curtis and Charles Bickford in Mister Cory, between Curtis and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat, and between Jack Lemmon and Jack Klugman in Days of Wine and Roses reflect a positive need for solid guidance, though this theme is most poignantly expressed in Edwards’s screenplay for Soldier in the Rain, far and away the best film Ralph Nelson ever signed as a director. The relationship grows more ambiguous in Darling Lili, where Lili must liberate herself from the influence of von Ruger to enjoy a safe and stable love relationship and by the time of “10”, Dudley Moore can actually strike out on his dream date because he assumes the role of moral guide. By S.O.B., everyone is on their own to twist in the wind, except to the extent succour is possible through friendship and loyalty.
Operation Petticoat summarizes the themes of the Universal comedies and perhaps is the most fully realized expression of them. Cary Grant’s upright officer represents the voice of responsibility in a quandary, and Tony Curtis’s playboy adjutant is the resourceful egoist, capable of novel solutions on the borderline of convention. Edwards’s CinemaScope work is particularly acute here, and for the first time, his distinctive blending of dramatic weight with absurdist comedy becomes apparent. Edwards’s propensity for violent nostalgia and the gay deployment of madness for sane ends culminates in the rescue of the pink submarine from destruction by the depth charges of its own destroyer by sending an inimitably American signal: women’s underwear shot to the surface in the torpedo tubes.
The fundamental conflicts established in Edwards’s Universal comedies were projected for the first time into the world at large in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Where the dramatic scale of Mister Cory, This Happy Feeling, and The Perfect Furlough was limited to the personal, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Edwards exercised his comic imagination on a larger social canvas. The opposition of Holly, the “free” character with no constructive outlets for her imaginative impulses, and Paul, the “repressed” character who is unable to express himself through his writing, sets up a distinctively Edwardian synthesis of personalities into a positive, romantic whole. The problem with each of them is that they cling with all the tenacity born of desperation to a false self-image in which ego and vanity predominate over recognition of harsh truths.
Superficially a frothy romantic comedy, the film intimates a lonely urban existence hovering just outside the movie’s context, which in the later films will assume the characteristics of an implacable void. Here, however, the nervous hipness reflects Holly’s own viewpoint. In Edwards’s seminal party scene in Holly’s apartment (which, characteristically, was improvised), the improbable, yet meticulously rendered, sight gags abstract these implications using comic terms. Formally, Edwards’s camera follows Holly’s nameless cat through the raucous goings-on, lightly suggesting the viewpoint of an isolated, anonymous outsider. In a paradigmatic gag, Holly’s long cigarette lighter sets afire the bouffant hairdo of a woman guest; seconds later, she tilts the wrist of a man to look at his watch, spilling his drink onto the burning hair, extinguishing the blaze. The mechanical precision is only part of what makes the sight gag funny—it’s also that no one there, least of all the perpetrator of unconscious disasters, Holly, takes the least notice of anything that is happening, so the comedy takes place on a separate dramatic plane from their own experience. Edwards’s slapstick is laid like a grid over the social satire, deepening not the drama so much as the expression of his own viewpoint of the world in which he and the characters operate. It might also be worth comparing in passing the benighted fumblings of Clouseau with the amoral unawareness of Holly, who (as in the gag cited above) creates chaotic situations from which, through some divine (or directorial) intervention, she emerges blithely unscathed.
Holly’s lack of self-irony crucially reflects the ambivalence of Edwards’s own involvement with the hip, moneyed milieu. Holly accepts the conventions and appearances of swinging New York but as a matter of substance rather than merely as style. Consequently, she finds herself both capable of enjoying the party and yet unable to fend off the attacks of the “mean reds” that depress her. She is pertinently labeled “a phony, but a real phony”, in that she actually believes the tinsel is real, but this legitimate superficiality cannot equip her to cope with the successive losses of husband, lovers, and brother.
On the other hand, Paul is cynical, disengaged, and hopelessly blocked on his novel. His typewriter has no ribbon in it. When he reveals this to Holly, Edwards cuts to a composition that distills the dramatic situation by using a divided frame, with Holly behind the shadows of a venetian blind’s slats and Paul sprawled on a bed at the other side of the frame. The scene is punctuated by Holly’s walk over to a mirror. Such mirror shots are deployed at critical narrative points to elaborate the film’s theme of self-images in need of realignment. At the party scene, a middle-aged woman who is drowning her repressed unhappiness with drink laughs at her reflection. Later on, Paul will come out of Tiffany’s with the engraved Cracker Jack’s ring, only to mistake a stranger for Holly. Instead, he will happen upon her in the public library. Earlier, in the key romantic scene of growing to like one another, she had visited his haunt (the library) and he hers (Tiffany’s). The discovery that each had been to the other’s turf heightens the poignancy of their impending separation. Meanwhile, Edwards had emphasized not only the need for play in a relationship with their day’s outing together but, by causing them to steal and don masks and then end the afternoon with her finally having the downstairs door key, he invests dramatic invention with metaphoric suggestion.
Holly’s succession of relationships—with old Doc Golightly, with agent O.J. Berman, with two rich fiancées, and with jailed gangster Sally Tomato—all suggest a need for a mentor figure to free her from the need to confront her own feelings and channel her imaginative liberty into a sense of self-created personal worth. She helps Paul shake off his role as gigolo, which was destroying his creative abilities, and he then shows her that love can be the principle that transforms anarchy into order without losing its precious energy. The rain that engulfs their reconciliation, like all rain, is both wet and cleansing.
More important, though, is the undertone of neurotic panic in Holly’s recurrent depressions—dubbed the “mean reds”—which would dominate Edwards’s next two black-and-white dramas, Experiment in Terror, a technical exercise that nonetheless displayed a characteristic flair, and Days of Wine and Roses. Both are dark, unpleasant, full of threatening urban forms. The view of the modern world implied in previous films through dialogue and indirection are here expressed directly through a harsh visual style of strong contrasts and aggressive camera movements. The rapid fall from the reasonably secure office comedy of the opening section of Roses to the complete disintegration represented by Jack Lemmon drunkenly flinging away the flowerpot in the decimated greenhouse measures the instability of modern existence. Although visually atypical, these two films represent an alternate way of posing the Edwardian problem of attempting to create a balanced existence with some degree of dignity and emotional fulfillment in the face of overwhelming meaningless and omnipresent danger. The delicate balance between dignity and flexibility, between the controlled and the free, is bound up with the fundamental challenge of survival itself. In watching any of the comedies, and not merely through the grisly slapstick, it’s useful to remember that the same man made Days of Wine and Roses.
At this point, the most important postulate of Edwards’s universe becomes decisively evident: the sense of continual threat and undermined security. All characters live in a persistent shadow; annihilation (or its advance man, chaos) may descend at any time, in any fashion—and the characters know it. Edwards could be fairly called a director who is fundamentally “postnuclear”, in a sense not unlike Stanley Kubrick, though Kubrick’s alienation leads him to his own eccentric amalgam of absurdist escape and Calvinist opprobrium. Edwards rejects the releases of either total despair or spiritual flight, accepting instead the condition of the world as a given and attempting to deal in a forthright manner with the problem of how to live with it. The characters who are successful in their confrontation with chaos and the prospect of annihilation attack the problem head on: in Days of Wine and Roses, Lee Remick is unable to deal with her alcoholism, but Lemmon, through the new self-image he has constructed with the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous, is able to try to make the best life he can. Defenses may be vital, but artificial defenses are worth little in the long run; you can run, but you can’t hide. Conditions must be confronted in order to be overcome. They need not even be faced clear-eyed: Clouseau’s strategy of confrontation, however addled, leads him to his anarchic victories.
Edwards can accept the lack of intellectual guidelines to modern behavior, the extent to which we are condemned by our awareness to failures of understanding. He accepts unblinkingly the very banality from which a Kubrick so carefully alienates himself. The characters always remain wholly accepting of their world and totally of it, even if the world exists only in their imaginations. (The important exception is The Tamarind Seed, where the lovers create their haven more out of imaginative power than plot contrivance.) The deck is never stacked with characters who are superior to their surroundings, not even the dapper Peter Gunn; the problem in an Edwards film is to function in opposition to an environment, while remaining both a part and product of it.
If the situation is posed in intensely physical terms, the solutions are invariably internal. For Edwards, it is one’s self-image, the style and manner in which a person lives, a self poised between elegant control of emotion and an ability to respond spontaneously, that can allow relationships of love (Darling Lili, Tamarind Seed), friendship (Wild Rovers, The Party), and decency (What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?). The Edwardian strategy is to keep one’s head together as the only means to keep it from going under. We must make do with available materials, as Dudley Moore exultantly does at the conclusion of “10” when he appropriates the “Bolero” to consummate his love for Julie Andrews.
The conditions of just being alive are parlous in all Edwards’s pictures, even the slapstick comedies. Clouseau may simply open a car door, but the possibilities for serious injury are innumerable. In Experiment in Terror, Lee Remick enters her garage, and a hand with a knife grabs her throat. Jack Lemmon introduces his wife to the pleasures of drinking, and a nightmare is unleashed. Curt Jurgens (in This Happy Feeling) runs after a train bearing away a friend, only to fall in a ditch and injure his back. Herbert Lom stabs himself with a letter opener, for a belly laugh. Darling Lili opens with the archetypal image of panic, as zeppelin bombs stampede an audience for the exits. Wild Rovers and S.O.B. open with deaths, Tamarind Seed with the recollection of one, and in “10”, George mistakes his surprise birthday party for a wake. In Gunn, Peter can swear to a disbelieving girlfriend: “God strike me dead if it isn’t the gospel truth!” cueing an offscreen explosion. Perhaps the most brilliant and compressed expression of the fragile state of human security comes in the opening sequence of The Pink Panther Strikes Again, in which Lom demonstrates his hard-won success with his psychiatrist, only to have the delicate construction of his new-found mental stability utterly unnerved by the insistent, intricately destructive sympathy of old adversary Clouseau.
Clouseau is perhaps the key invention of the Edwards canon, not only for his embodiment of certain aspects of Edwards’s comedy method but also because he provided the means back to commercial viability for Edwards in the seventies. Sellers’s Clouseau is in largest measure funny because of his sustained faith in himself, even in the face of the most outrageous challenges to his inner placidity. Attempting to sit on a modernistic couch, there is an incredible peace in his unyielding confidence throughout a 180-degree pratfall. Clouseau belongs to the tradition of the charmed fool, and his considerable virtues and minor flaws as a comic creation essentially derive from that benighted tradition. Yet in the context of Edwards’s works, he represents considerably more, although it is not The Pink Panther but rather the subsequent A Shot in the Dark that is the richest of Edward’s Clouseau films.
The Pink Panther divides its spotlight between Clouseau and the dapper jewel thief Sir Charles (David Niven, still able to do Raffles after twenty-five years), with detours to include Sir Charles’s nephew, George. The plot complications are elaborate, even though the film is largely given over to extended sequences that are irrelevant to the plot, notably a length party scene and the comic cadenzas in which Clouseau tries to make love to his wife, who is intent instead on rendezvousing with Sir Charles, her lover and confederate. At first, it seems that Edwards might be juxtaposing Sir Charles and Clouseau as contrasts between “free” and “rigid” personalities, but Edwards keeps introducing material that makes the schematism more complex. Sir Charles is rather effectively upbraided over dinner for his Don Juan reputation, which he takes deftly but without attempting refutation, while Clouseau is really only a fool to the extent of his misplaced romantic passion for his wife. It makes a certain comedic sense that they should ultimately switch roles, with Clouseau mistaken for the notorious thief, although the glibness of that resolution dilutes any edge that the comic situations might have had. Still, The Pink Panther was Edwards’s most convincing demonstration to date that slapstick and sophistication were not incompatible.
Though the outlines of the characterization are established in The Pink Panther, the character would change significantly through the course of the series. Clouseau’s professed distrust of everyone is paralleled by his inexhaustible faith in the innocence of his women, in the face of all logic to the contrary. He can be open-minded to the point of irrationality. (“I believe everything. I believe nothing”, he asserts in A Shot in the Dark). His processes of deductions are completely chaotic, and yet the unyielding obsession of his superior and nemesis Herbert Lom is “What if Clouseau is right?” Ultimately, Clouseau’s White Knight insistence on the innocence of Maria Gabrelli (Elke Sommer) proves his feelings and instincts more right, and more ordered, than all the social conventions upheld by the other corrupt characters in A Shot in the Dark, not to mention the more rational impulses of the audience. Clouseau maintains his dignity despite innumerable challenges to his aplomb, because his self-image, however deluded, is so secure as to render him unflappable. In a comic distortion of the central Edwards theme, Clouseau remains true to a sense of interior order that, however absurd, can prevail over the order of society, which turns out often to be corrupt, unsatisfying and ultimately just as chaotic. Since chaos is inevitable, we must find our own sense of order, rather than accept the inevitable disintegration operating behind imposed systems of social discipline. Edwards characteristically sees the ridiculous side of personal anarchy, while endorsing its liberating effects. The action of fate may be unpredictable, but the Clouseaus somehow survive with their sense of self-assurance crazily intact.
Clouseau’s brand of anachronistic gallantry determines his elaborately disastrous manners and conduct. His solicitude proceeds from his sense of his own character and how it should function, regardless of what situation presents itself. In a world in which the kind of comic catastrophes concocted by Edwards can occur, who’s to say that Clouseau’s is not the proper response? The world created by Edwards in which Clouseau operates is patently not a real one but a bizarre abstraction that illuminates Edwards’s own eccentric perceptions of behavior and the potential for disaster.
Clouseau represents the man of gallantry unaware of the havoc wrought by his singular devotion to a fixed idea. Critics such as Stuart Byron have focused on the gallantry of Edwards’s males as a central motif, but what is important is not the gallantry itself but how it proceeds from their personal conceptions of what their character is and how it should function (vide Captain Larrabee in Lili, Cary Grant in Petticoat, or Culley in S.O.B.). Manners constitute the surface which the self presents to the world, and they can function as a defense or mask or response or challenge to society. Significantly, manners can neither dominate nor control a situation, but they do provide a means of maintaining a self-image in any confusion. Aplomb is akin to survival. Within the kind of world that Edwards postulates—heartless, cruel, dangerous, unpredictable, capricious, arbitrary—manners represent the means by which characters have resolved to manage their ways through this world. In this sense, he projects the philosophy of Lubitsch forward in time, rather than backward, and his distinctively different visual style represents an appropriately modern response to the very different world to which he applies his wiles.
As a result of his long skein of successes, Edwards moved into more and more expensive projects, and his plots became more and more elaborately constructed. The Great Race suffers from serious inflation, particularly over-elaborated in the distended climactic pie-throwing sequence, a slapstick concept far more successfully revived in The Party, which manages to make a virtue of showing all of its gag mechanics by elaborating intricate slapstick structures counterpointed to a very subdued Peter Sellers performance.
Between these two exercises in style, Edwards achieved two of his most complex and profound works. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, and Gunn. For some unaccountable reason, critics likened the complex farce of the former to the adolescent antics of Hogan’s Heroes, and the film became Edwards’s first major commercial failure. Yet is was also his finest, most resonant achievement to date, a near masterpiece in which every comic conception contributed to a profound elucidation of Edwards’s fundamental concerns.
The film opens with a distinctive blend of the parodistic and the ominous. The Sicilian campaign was bloody, and the credits are backed by convincing combat footage. We then see General Bolt taunt his adjutant, Captain Cash, in a deadpan takeoff on The Naked and the Dead. Cash is assigned to a decimated unit with orders to take the town of Valermo. Cash, a by-the-book fanatic, is shocked to find the lax discipline of the unit under Lt. Christian. Finding the town deserted, the soldiers fan out through the village square in their choreographed movements designed for effective lateral pans in widescreen format. Everyone is at the soccer field, as the GIs find when a ball is impaled on a bayonet. From that moment on, the colors of the film gradually brighten as the reality of war is forsaken for the lessons of farce.
The Italian commander, Captain Oppo (named perhaps after the assistant director on The Pink Panther), would rather surrender, provided of course that the evening’s annual festival proceeds unspoiled. When Cash insists that the Italians march off as prisoners forthwith, Oppo redeclares hostilities. Cash’s uptight officer is thrown up against the uninhibited hedonism of Oppo and the village, and the result is animosity and conflict (Edwards’s extended single-take handling of the scene is more effective than conventional cross-cutting, since by keeping both officers in the same frame, he emphasizes them as contending forces in a situation, not as viable, individual alternatives.) It remains for the resourceful Christian to conciliate these opposing forces.
The elaborate party, replete with sight gags, serves a decidedly different purpose from those in, say, Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Pink Panther. Here the frolicsome chaos is meant to serve as a positive counterweight to the demands of war and the rigidity of command discipline. The performance of Dick Shawn progressively metamorphosizes into an imitation of Daffy Duck, spitting out “I’m in command here!” while he gets a clutch of confetti in the mouth. Muttering about how it’s all a trap, he is coerced into drinking a toast to the mayor’s daughter Gina (Oppo’s girl), when Christian proposes, “Not to drink is to call her ugly!” As often with Edwards, drinking becomes a device for dramatic revelation. With everyone safely soused, the mayor takes a photo of Gina and Cash. The motion picture camera assumes the point of view of the still camera, with an upside-down image. The world has turned topsy-turvy, as Cash surrenders to the revelers.
The morning after, Christian wakes up to the distressing news of an imminent inspection by intelligence officer Pott, only to have his own efforts to whip the company into shape stymied when Oppo, indignant over Cash’s bedding of his girl, refuses to cooperate. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost their uniforms in a card game with the Italians, so all identities have been switched. The farcical mechanism is in place, as the implications of Cash’s conversion are developed into a convoluted situation, until survival actually depends on the flexibility of the personality to accommodate impersonations of its opposites. Thus, Cash must sport both female drag and Nazi regalia, and in the manic exchanging of uniforms, their symbolic significance becomes thoroughly purged, merely the available materials in the scramble for self-preservation in a world ruled by comically sinister forces.
Edwards’s development of the situation in William Peter Blatty’s inspired script covers the gamut of possibilities, from Major Pott’s mad foray through chaos into madness, as he wanders lost through the catacombs, to the frustrated criminal activity of two tunneling robbers whose miscalculations intervene in the plot (providing the equivalent of a portable trap door), to the terrorist activities of the local motley Communist cell (who perform the only ostensible killing in the film). In a sense, world politics have been reduced to farcical features and stratagems that serve to underscore Edwards’s fundamental conviction that only individual balance creates stable meanings, while ideology, for all its apparent order, only invites functional anarchy.
The centerpiece of the film is the elaborate false battle engaged in by the two sides when the American command must be hoodwinked until an orderly surrender can be agreed to. Christian assumes the role of director, staging mock combat with zealous attention to detail. James Coburn slyly mimics Edwards’s own physical gestures and movements, which accentuate his slight resemblance to the film maker. The sequence is perhaps the most concentrated expression of the Edwards philosophy that the maintenance of order can only succeed as a form of personal expression and that art is the means to survival.
The Peter Gunn television series had been the most successful of Edwards’s various series (including Dick Powell as Richard Diamond, Detective; Mr. Lucky; and on radio, Edmund O’Brien as Yours Truly Johnny Dollar), running three seasons, from 1958 to 1961. Gunn was intended to launch a series of films, like the Bonds, which never materialized.
The dialogue in Gunn, more than in any other Edwards film, assumes a ritual quality. Peter’s putdowns never vary in their deadpan delivery, his interlocutors respond in kind, and Peter’s topper signs off the scene. Clever, quirky, and mechanical, the conversations quickly lose their sense of heightened speech.
The world in which Gunn functions is equally eccentric and unparticularized. Although the setting is specified as San Francisco, we see no landmarks but move instead through a progression of netherworld locations without any ostensible directorial comment. Both Gunn and Edwards take this hermetic and exotically corrupt world for granted. They are not concerned with issues of evil or of crime, except as manifestations of a larger and more consuming chaos. The stylized world of Gunn is the most extreme abstraction of the Edwardian universe on film, a distillation of the world presented in the earlier films. Those attributes that typify Edwards’s vision of existence—incipient threat, individual struggle in opposition to natural chaos, the “sick joke” response to an all-consuming, debilitating knowingness—are here combined to form a laboratory situation for the expression of Edwards’s view of survival.
That’s why the dialogue direction is handled as a form of artificial behavior, of manners. The characters share a trait in the way they talk—a device that propels the action much as, say, the foibles of Clouseau or the duplicity of lovers in Darling Lili. The surfaces presented by the diverse characters are functionally identical as they exchange brother acts and put-downs with Pete. This stylized behavior creates a backdrop against which the progress of Peter’s personality development can be contrasted, as Edwards flattens out the psychological and social details so his protagonist’s smallest alterations are discernible.
The need to function as a distinct being in a world where it’s hard to differentiate between cop, crook, and private eye requires an ability to find values one is capable of clinging to when value itself is no longer a meaningful concept. Peter maintains his dignity and aplomb no matter what forces attack, and he finds that there is more to love with Edie than a wisecrack. He finds reasons for doing things, when the world respects none. Gunn is primarily about the balance between self and society. The most stripped down of his works, it concentrates on the process that the other films only describe.
Unlike the parody of The Great Race, The Party represents Blake Edwards’s genuine tribute to the silent slapstick comedies. In contrast to a vulgar exercise in condescending burlesque like Mel Brooks’s ineffable Silent Movie, The Party recognizes that slapstick in its meticulous requirements, requires great elegance of intellect, even as it appeals to the nether sources of laughter. He does greater honor to the techniques of silent comedy by refusing to compromise his own thematic concerns to fit the outlines of an exercise, instead appropriating the structure and style to fashion yet another meditation on the difficult preservations of personal values in a comically capricious society.
The $2.8 million film was quite unusual in that its script ran only about 65 pages (half an average-length screenplay) and that about one-quarter of it has no dialogue whatever. (The film isn’t silent, but then neither were “silent” pictures). Perhaps more than in any other film, Edwards relied extensively on the improvisational skills of himself and star Peter Sellers. Because of the spirit of experimentation, Edwards first employed during shooting a simultaneous videotape recording of the camera’s view of a shot (the video camera mounted on the Mitchell), thereby permitting not only Edwards but also cast and crew the opportunity to analyze and evaluate each take.
Sellers plays Indian actor Hrundi K. Bakshi, imported to Hollywood for the role of a Gunga Din-like character. In his innocently overzealous way, Bakshi destroys the production to the consternation of the unsympathetically drawn director. Roger Greenspun has called the precredit sequence “the funniest slapstick scene since Steamboat Bill Jr.”, and the insertion of the comic figure into massive settings, with so much undone by so little, is one of Edwards’s most inspired inventions.
Sellers’s Bakshi is one of his intently observant, grave, interior creations of this period, one of those few roles in which his gift for mimicry was submerged in the creation of a rounded, richly detailed character. In the Keaton tradition, Bakshi is imperturbable, though in his eagerness to please there are suggestions of the foreigner-as-Harold Lloyd. Bakshi evinces certain values of politeness, solicitude, gallantry and grace throughout the picture, and he is set against the stereotypes of the party guests as a man of integrity and character. It’s not a coincidence that such a man wreaks havoc wherever he goes. A man so at peace with himself can only highlight how the world is out of joint. The scene in which Sellers plays the sitar in intense concentration at first seems like a startling choice in which to display a comic character, but in terms of establishing the solidity of the man’s personality, it quickly confers an underlying sobriety that validates the later comedy.
Edwards’s effort to invent continuous sight gags was probably foredoomed to unevenness, and there are extended passages that plainly do not work. But The Party is above all a concept film, and the act of accelerating comic amplitude builds smoothly. As Bakshi himself observes, “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of the child is pure.” Eventually, Bakshi becomes aligned with the children of his unwitting hosts in a flood of flower-child energy, as the party becomes awash with soap suds and the sunshine of what seemed in 1968 to be the coming of a new order. Edwards’s expression of sympathetic faith in the power of uninhibited innocence to purge the excesses and hypocrisies of the older generation never seems disingenuous, largely because the conviction in his efforts to construct gags is translated into enthusiasm when those gags take on metaphoric significance. The Party, like many Edwards films, has an aspect of a fairy tale, but it also serves as Edwards’s reminder to himself that there are values that are too precious to be lost. Experience has never seemed to equip anyone in Edwards’s world to face the challenges of living in it; if anything, knowingness has brought characters to a pass where it eliminates possibilities of faith without generating acceptable alternatives.
In this sense, Sellers’s Bakshi represents both an extension of and an advance on the Clouseau character. He, too, is a harbinger of chaos, as well as a man with a sublime sense of self, however misplaced. But Bakshi also maintains a dignity quite apart from his comic purpose, and in his shy, affecting encounter with his counterpart in innocence (Claudine Longet), he exemplifies the positive implications in those same traits that spell comic disaster for the corrupt world around him. (Edwards attempted to do something comparable in the last Clouseau picture, The Revenge of the Pink Panther, but by then the Sellers characterization had eroded to the point where there was no conviction that the development came from anything organic in the character.)
Darling Lili is probably Edwards’s paramount masterpiece, a richly textured meditation on the role of art in love and love in art, a mixture of formalism, romance, slapstick, suspense, and musical numbers that explores the vagaries of loyalty, gallantry, love, and art with their necessary ambiguity intact. Edwards’s camera has never been more precise in creating meanings out of situations nor more exquisite in his straight-faced way with passion and laughter, which for him are simply two aspects of the same indispensable impulse.
It’s amazing how much sexual duplicity Edwards has worked into an ostensibly wholesome family entertainment. Julie Andrews, in the performance of her lifetime, plays the idolized theatrical entertainer Lili Smith, the inspiration to both soldiers abroad and the folks at home. A patriotic symbol, she is also a German spy, in league with her mentor (and possible lover), von Ruger. In perilous times, she is a model of surface control. When zeppelins bomb London during her performance, turning a panicked, crowded theatre into an archetypal metaphor for insecurity (see also Torn Curtain), Lili is capable of calming the crowd and restoring not merely order but confidence and cheer. She is a masterly manipulator of sublime self-possession. Yet as she sings to an assembly of convalescent veterans, she is also “The Girl in No Man’s Land.”
Her assignment to pump playboy-flier William Larrabee for information confronts her with her match. Larrabee designs his own mise-en-scene for seduction, and Lili, while passing on his secrets, falls in love, which makes her angry, jealous, and less in control of her situation. Lili’s objectives become mixed, leading to some of Edwards’s most successful slapstick gags. In a jealous pique, she frames Larrabee and his former mistress, a remarkably chaste stripper, and in a fit of conscience (after receiving the Legion of Honor), she clears him by turning herself in, at which point she and von Ruger are both marked for assassination by German agents.
The characters, both brilliant and insipid, are the apotheosis of those in other Edwards films. Lili, a model of composure, is undone by her encounter with the dashingly irresponsible Larrabee. Each is trying to respond to the rigors of war in the way their personalities are best suited for survival, yet both are compromised in their professed loyalties. Whether comedy, romance, or melodrama, Edwards’s movies are notably lacking in a quality of mercy, except for the occasional eccentric love scene. Here what the French have called “the special malice” of Blake Edwards extends to the games his lovers play. They are prone to strange confessions and gentle nostalgias as well as to outlandish mishaps, and that is all part of their valiant attempt to preserve some particle of self-awareness through the absurd, dangerous fray. In the end they overcome their rituals to unite as fantasy lovers in a forgiving postwar world.
Lili’s relationship with von Ruger is the most complex and ambiguous of all the mentor relationships in Edwards’s work. He is part father figure, part charismatic dominator, unassailably supportive. They remain linked even though she must also free herself of his influence. He makes an effective foil in comparison to Larrabee, because he is equally attractive in his opposing way. Lili’s conflicts are probably insurmountable which is why the film affords her recourse and refuge only in her art.
The opening musical number, “Whistling in the Dark”, is shot in a startling 360-degree take that encloses Lili in a void in which the only source of light is upon her. This movement, and the song, is repeated at the end where she is reunited with Larrabee. Visually and musically, the number defines the metaphysical situation in which Lili and the rest are placed. She can only make meaning out of the nothingness through the power of her art, which at first draws only upon her own resources but which at the end is animated crucially by love. The freedom Lili attains is a debatable one—she is still circumscribed by the darkness—but Edwards suggest that since the world does not change because we do, all we can influence is our own sense of purpose and value. In that existential sense, the world is paradoxically both entirely of our own creation and entirely beyond our powers. Such subjectivity is acknowledged as unrealistic, but it marks the difference between egoistic absorption and satisfying human relationships. Darling Lili doesn’t describe that relationship—“10” would do that, again with Andrews—but it unifies the need for love and the necessity of art as essential allies in the struggle against enveloping nullity. In its manipulation of planes of focus, the film suggests that while nothing is as it seems, we must decide for ourselves in what we shall have faith.
There followed two successive butcherings at the hands of MGM and James Aubrey, Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment. The former was designed as a two-and-a-half-hour roadshow but was cut against Edwards’s wishes by over forty minutes, gutting the narrative. Edwards believes it may have been his finest work, and Arthur Knight, who screened Edwards’s cut for his USC class, agrees, but apparently MGM has not preserved the original cut. The latter film was shooting when Edwards realized that it would receive a similar fate, and he contends his heart went out of the project at that point. Edwards retreated from film production for two years and apparently considered giving up directing entirely. He returned to make The Tamarind Seed for his wife’s company, a work of startling complexity of story and feeling, the most emotionally intricate of all Edwards’s films and the best work he would do between the masterpieces of Darling Lili and “10”.
In her first role since Darling Lili, Andrews played a vacationing Foreign Service employee who is recovering her emotions after a disastrous love affair she wandered into after the death of her husband in a fiery accident. Determined to let her injured vulnerabilities heal, she rejects the suave advances of Omar Sharif’s Russian agent. Because their contact could represent a breach of security, the respective forces of international intelligence are unleashed on the unsuspecting couple, whose romance blossoms despite Andrews’s unwillingness to bed Sharif promptly.
The mechanics of the espionage establishment are plausibly exploited, as the endemic distrust that is the hallmark of the profession is counterpointed to the suspicion between potential lovers. As their guardedness melts, the alarm of governments intensifies. Finally, the world makes it impossible for the lovers to be together safely in it. In a controversial conclusion, the lovers are united in a somewhat implausible happy ending that asserts the transcendence of their romantic attachment over the political world that cannot countenance it. It’s an ending with an ambiguous charge of fantasy, more disconcerting than the comparable conclusion to Darling Lili, because the earlier scene had the force of a formal device, whereas the shooting of this scene is apparently straight.
Although comparisons could be made to Hitchcock’s Topaz (which, despite greater individual brilliances, is not nearly as thematically forceful or profound as The Tamarind Seed), the most pervasive cross-reference would seem to be Frank Borzage, not only in its romantic, somewhat delirious subject matter but also in the spiritual values Edwards discerns in the nature of his lovers’ relationship against the backdrop of political intrigue. The forces set in motion by their encounter reflect the enormous energy released by their bond, and some of the international cross-cutting achieves the visual transcendence that was a hallmark of Borzage’s cinema. Edwards is too modern and knowing to accept Borzage’s strategies divorced from an astringent character context, yet this is his only film that suggests that love conquers all. In Darling Lili, he seemed content to assert only that it survived all. If The Tamarind Seed is ultimately less moving, it may be because Edwards cannot escape an element of wishful thinking for all his knowing avoidance of sentimentality.
Edwards’s career was finally resuscitated by a return to the Pink Panther series, although none of the seventies outings rank with his better work, despite such flashes of inspired invention as the brilliant opening sequence of The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Since these three films grossed over $250 million worldwide, Edwards was at last afforded an opportunity to essay a personal project written during his exile, which became his biggest hit, “10”.
In “10”, Edwards examines perfection, our ideas about it and how those ideas strike back, and he virtually achieves it. Dudley Moore plays George Webber, a super-successful songwriter in the throes of midlife crisis complicated by incipient infantilism. (In a deft touch, his lovers’ son is also named George). Now literally some twelve years older than he was in 30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia, Moore again essays an antic Everyman at a psychological turning point, flailing against impinging maturity mostly because he can’t abide the terrible decisiveness of it. A rebel Wendy, he wants to go back to Never-Never Land.
That Edwards can credibly advance such a man as a surrogate for universal experience is part of his genius. Like all wise men and comic talents, he takes his wisdom where he finds it, and the emotions of the Beautiful Rich are for him no less genuine than those of Pietro Olmi’s peasants. In fact, because the details of economic survival can be safely ignored, Edwards’s characters are more trenchant examples, since their struggle to survive is more intently interior, though no less desperate. Edwards seeks the truth through his camera, and he knows, as his characters will discover through their peeping at their neighbors through telescopes, that it isn’t where you look but how you see. For all its hysteria, “10” is a relentlessly sane movie; Edwards at fifty-seven was sufficiently distant from the age of George Webber that he could view the antics with compassionate objectivity.
Edwards has always taken the absurdity of modern life for granted, so he begins where many filmmakers have strained to end up. He takes George from a sense of his lost possibilities to the point where he learns from his misadventures that possibilities are never lost, only the sense of them. “10” takes us on a comic odyssey through mania to maturity, and it shows us how it can all be done.
Comedy in “10” is a source of wisdom. It demonstrates that in the cinema, too, the unexamined life is not worth living or at least can make the day one hell to get through. Scrutiny, tempered with compassion, might just bring one to the brink of reality, and the sense of vertigo is wild. Edwards is after bigger game than a rating system for women, weighing the burdens that our expectations of perfection place on our lives. Throughout the film, characters observe with relief that “no one’s perfect!” (George himself rates Bo Derek not a “10” but an “11”.) Robert Webber’s homosexual lyricist calls perfection “a drag”. The film works equally well as a study of the transition from romantic fantasy to romantic reality or as an examination of the reconciliation of the soul to the limitless glories of its just confines.
In this sense, “10” marks a culmination of the themes Edwards has been exploring in various contexts throughout his career. George undergoes grotesque transformations as his changes in role reflect his changes in personality. The comedy is always an extension of the dramatic argument. George’s own fears of aging are hilariously mirrored in the flatulent Mrs. Kissel. His initial pursuit of Jennifer ends in a smashup with a copy car. The electronic-age farce of his missed telephone connections with Julie Andrews catapults him into a literal descent into hysteria.
Invariably, the Edwards characters who are successful in their confrontations with chaos and the prospect of annihilation are those who meet the problem directly, and no one rushes more headlong into disaster than George. Edwards knows that defenses are vital, but he also knows that artificial defenses are worth little over the long haul—you can run, but you can’t hide. The confrontation needn’t be clear-eyed (viz. Clouseau), but it must be complete. It is the very artificiality of George’s fantasies of salvation that lead not only to his undoing but to his enlightenment. It is no coincidence that Edwards met Moore in group therapy.
OF course, Jennifer is not what she seems. Edwards doesn’t judge her (as he does George when he permits a woman to blame his impotence on herself); any fault is in the eye of the beholder. Significantly, from the first delirious sight of her, we see her refracted through the long lens of George’s subjective view of her, unnaturally magnified and distanced. When he starts to make love to her, the real person is finally revealed, and the romantic dream founders on the hard truth that, yes, no one is perfect.
Edwards has always been scrupulously honest, even courageous, about his own involvement in his themes. This goes beyond the obvious, though important, fact that he is married to Andrews. He is constantly seeking metaphors to link his own viewpoint with that of the audience, such as in the crowded theater threatened by a zeppelin bombing in Darling Lili. The cinema is an art where both artist and public are voyeurs, which Edwards highlights through the use of the telescope with which George watches his hedonistic neighbors and they him. When George returns to Sam, they give up, and the camera pans along the telescope, and, with a cut, assumes the viewpoint of the telescope’s long lens, the same device through which he had expressed the deluded idealism of George. The iris shot carries associations with Griffith. Through this setup, Edwards achieves a great epiphany, as George starts to make love to Sam to the strains of “Bolero”. I know of no more moving demonstration of how salvation is perforce a matter of found materials; the trick is to find whatever tools we can use. The elements of his experience have become the basis for a newly meaningful life. Not only funny, the moment, being seen as through the eyes of the cinema itself, manifests truths about Edward’s art as well. Meditation has settled into contemplation, and voyeurism has been transformed into enlightenment. No act of sex occurs in “10” until the frame after the last frame, and the film can justly end when the sex can truly begin.
Perfection, George’s shrink notes, is something we no longer are. We all must live with the prospect of death. “10” shows that even if we start out knowing everything, we can still learn something and that at the start of every day of reckoning, we can look in the mirror, repeat that no one’s perfect, and echo, as “10” does, thank God.
S.O.B. may well be the most personal project yet realized by Edwards, and it’s obvious that the outlandish events in the film derive from his own decades of experience in the industry. It’s a sour, bleak, occasionally bitter view of Hollywood, yet it’s also an outrageous farce festooned with elaborate sight gags and smart-alecky one-liners. Its vision is dark, yet its final effect is surprisingly positive. S.O.B. is an intricately constructed argument, a stylistically forged abstract, absurd world in which the style gradually ekes out some particle of personal meaning from a hip, enveloping chaos.
S.O.B. boasts no heroes. It doesn’t even have a protagonist, or even an individual through whose consciousness our observations can be filtered. We identify with no one. The characters are all types, representing a panoply of relationships between themselves and the business. Not one can be called an artist. They are all articulate spokesmen for their viewpoints, but the only soliloquy on art is given to the rantings of a madman. These are pawns in the malicious scheme of Blake Edwards, who surprisingly seeks not revenge but insight.
Edwards’s screenplay exaggerates only a little, mostly by collapsing a lifetime of horror stories into a single spate of incidents and by pitching the performances just an edge over into caricature.
What differentiates these decidedly flawed characters from one another is a quality of decency, of maintaining some semblance of personal value despite a life of moral compromise. Gradually we learn that not all these selfish people are vicious, that some of them have learned to reserve some particle of integrity if only to preserve some sense of themselves as decent human beings. Edwards doesn’t sentimentalize this redeeming decency; these men have all made their conscious decisions to sell out. But because it is so hard to sustain even a vestigial humanity in a corrupt and venal world. Edwards appreciates the real value of such small victories.
These characters—William Holden’s director, Richard Mulligan’s producer, Robert Preston’s doctor, and Robert Webber’s press agent—carry the burden of Edwards’s search for something positive in the treachery of Hollywood. Preston sums up the theme in a drunken scene at a bar: “There isn’t a man among us with half a conscience who doesn’t keep a hair shirt as part of his permanent wardrobe.” It’s possible to view S.O.B. as a reverse angle on Edwards’s “10”. Where “10” examined the concept of perfection and found it pernicious, discerning positive value in the measure by which every man (and dream) must fall short of expectation, S.O.B. treats with the full measure of man’s venality and corruption, and finds that in this context, even the smallest virtue can be redeeming. Edwards’s comedies are ultimately so moving because they have a cathartic effect. The foibles and quirks of being human are what gives us what little nobility we have. In the pratfall is the seed of human value.
As usual, Edwards uses the appearances of objects to suggest their essence. His comedies are not drawn from character, but situation; these are metaphysical farces. People rarely express their feelings except when drunk. While his work is morally charged, Edwards is singularly unconcerned with issues of good and evil. Edwards doesn’t play God, as comedy directors are wont to do (after all, they do call down plagues of slapstick upon their hapless buffoons). Rather, he implicates himself in the comic quandaries of his characters. He doesn’t exempt himself from the madness of S.O.B. Tellingly, the one great speech about the rush of creative juices comes from the mad producer, whose notion of artistic fervor is to insert perverted sex and nudity into the family’s musical he’s just flopped with. Similarly, the director played by Holden has no interest in artistry or self-expression. He’s an amiable, decent, hedonistic man who long ago decided that he would not expect any personal satisfaction from his work, so he does his job and takes pleasure from his activities outside it, with the young girls and fancy cars and a few good friends. S.O.B. is no jeremiad on the misunderstood and maligned artist. Edwards doesn’t proclaim his commitment to art; instead, he fights the Philistines with the only weapon in his arsenal, his ability to make a work of art.
Behavior represents the only means by which a person can distinguish himself from the maelstrom of meaninglessness. Small things, such as Holden’s gallantry in picking up teenaged hitchhikers, define the sense of self. In the final analysis, S.O.B. suggest there aren’t any grand hopes for human virtue. All one can hope to do is keep the compromises acceptable to one’s core of value, to maintain half a conscience anyway, and hope that along the way one can find a few good, loyal friends who understand. While it’s a bleak conclusion, Edwards so contrasts these small, pyrrhic victories of half-consciences with the childish rampages of characters whose superegos never grew up that we grow to appreciate the weight these blows for decency carry. Just as we must make the best of a harshly indifferent world, so we must strive to find that which is best within ourselves and cherish and protect it. S.O.B. lights a candle against the darkness and brings up the wind to a howling pitch.
Throughout his films, Edwards looks at lovers, and how they cannot quite get together, and at life, and at how hard it is simply to survive. The two problems are inseparable, yet only by the creation of mutual trust and, with it, the recognition that the nature of events is often the caprice of nature can they in some small way be resolved. The world is a hostile place, never more so than when inhabited by an impulse to slapstick, and we must find such particles of personal value and make them stick as we can. We forage and, sometimes, we find. The exhaustion at the end of “10” is not defeat. The struggle is less to hold onto our fantasies than to let go of them, to see the world truly and crazily, and master ourselves by surmounting it. Out of this struggle, Edwards has fashioned some of the funniest and truest work to emerge from the declining years of Hollywood artistry.