The Party

This article was originally published in Movie no. 17 (Winter 1969 – 70). It is published here with the kind permission of the author.

Nothing to lose—
If we are wise,
We’re not expecting rainbow-coloured skies.

These are lines from the song which Michèle (Claudine Longet) sings halfway through the film and the party; the musicians played it at the start, wordless (as usual in a Blake Edwards film, the music is by the excellent Henry Mancini), and the full version is heard again at the end when Michèle leaves the party with Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers). It’s one of the devices with which Edwards gives unity, both formal and thematic, to what might—very superficially—appear just a series of incidents and gags strung out to feature length. Like Playtime, for instance. So successful is he in giving it such a unity that one wouldn’t think of the film being dangerously episodic at all if it weren’t for the reaction of some critics, a reaction as blind as that given to a previous Sellers comedy with its own organic unity.

That film was able to gain a deserved success because the publicity ensured it was noticed, and the word got around; The Party, a superb comedy treated with inexplicable scorn both by critics and by the industry, unfortunately hasn’t had this benefit. It was sent out as a second feature to Hannibal Brooks in an all-elephant programme.

The elephant here is a late-comer to the party, brought along by the hosts’ teenage daughter and friends. It arrives painted all over with hippie slogans, causes people to faint or fall into water, and, be being scrubbed in a foam-filled swimming pool, is the agent of final chaos. A predictable farcical device, apparently, yet there are two striking and characteristic points about the use Edwards makes of it, unremarkable as they seem in the context of the film. First, the style in which he shoots it: there are no close-ups, no reaction shots. Mrs Clutterbuck’s fall into the pool and the head waiter’s faint are observed coolly, in long static takes. Nor are slogans picked out for us in separate shots, like the slogan on the restaurant wall in Accident. We’re not told to find anything funny. Secondly, he gives the animal a certain dignity —partly by the very fact of not directing it in the style of traditional for cute animals, and partly by Bakshi’s response to its entry: he protests against the flippant way they have painted what in his country is a revered beast. And ‘it feels these things’. The protest is sincere and touching, and the daughter and her friends respect it. The fact that this only leads to further humiliation for the elephant, in the pool, doesn’t detract from this moment and its precisely judged tone, which fits the pattern of the film: people, like the elephant, are repeatedly humiliated but, at some level or some moment, are allowed dignity. Sometimes labeled as a cynical director, Edwards in his best films views people with a sympathy that if not facile. We’re not allowed to forget that ‘they feel these things’.

It was he who scripted Drive a Crooked Road (1954) for Richard Quine. Bakshi in The Party is more closely related, I feel, to the Mickey Rooney character there, and to Jack Lemmonin Edwards’ own Days of Wine and Roses (1962), than to the character Sellers himself played more recently for Edwards in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, strong though the continuity might seem to be between the accident-prone Inspector Clouseau and the accident-prone Indian actor of, in particular, The Party’s long pre-credits sequence. The character grows, and has depth, as Clouseau doesn’t: The Party has a much better performance from Sellers, and incomparably more wit, feeling, and delicacy.

Rooney, in the Quine film, is a timid racing-driver teased by his colleagues about his fear of women, and exploited by a group of criminals who trade on this experience. Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses is a P.R. man, Joe, degraded by his job and making only the most superficial human contacts. Both are terribly vulnerable: when they do meet a woman, we’re made to want desperately that they should succeed. Not spectacular success, average happiness; they’re not in the words of the songs, expecting rainbow-coloured skies. Sellers as Bakshi is, like them, a natural victim, a social ad physical misfit at the Hollywood party to which he’s been mistakenly invited. The rather crude comedy of the pre-credit filming sequence turns increasingly melancholy. Attempting to meet people before dinner, Bakshi is ignored or patronized in a series of scenes which the camera simply observes, unblinkingly: the pace is painfully slow, there are not ellipses and virtually no cuts within scenes. The best way of getting sympathetic identification in the camera is not, contrary to some theories, subjective camerawork but level observation. In Days of Wine and Roses one is continually, by this means, made to feel embarrassed for, and with, Joe, and it’s the same with Bakshi here. And if these two men have an affinity, so has Michèle with Kirsten (Lee Remick). Both are seen by the world as their boss’s property; Michèle has been brought to the party by the producer C.S. Divot, who expects payment in bed for getting her a screen test. Both women have an air of quiet desperation underneath an exterior more assured than the men’s. It seems clear that, without Divot’s patronage, Michèle has no career prospects—the applause for her song was that of yes-men. Though there is not real suggestion of romance, or perhaps because of this, her scenes with Bakshi are very touching. While other patronize or laugh at him, she accepts him for what he is, one of the few uncorrupt people around, and they form an alliance of innocents. Claudine Longet’s performance is a beautiful one.

Joe and Kirsten are more directly and brutally recalled by another couple who come together at the party, the drunk waiter and the drunk lady guest, two more victims. It’s as though Joe and Kirsten were split up into these two couples, embodying their innocence and alcoholism separately. Or, more darkly, as though the second couple are what the innocents really are, or would be in a non-comedy world like that of the earlier film. The waiter is, indeed, Bakshi’s alter ego. At the start they confront each other, dressed in black and in white; they continually meet; the waiter drinks all of Bakshi’s drinks and ‘echoes’ his actions, pressing the control buttons disastrously, meeting the Russian dancers on the narrow stepping stones exactly as Bakshi, early on, had met the musicians. And where Bakshi finds Michèle, the waiter finds the drunken lady: amid the debris of the Clutterbucks’ party, the Dionysiac surroundings of foam and dancing, a second alliance forms:

Nothing to lose—
It might be fun.
No talk of spending lifetimes in the sun.

What this sort of discussion does not convey is the film’s wit, and its elegance. Not only does it, thanks to Lucien Ballard, have some of the handsomest ‘Scope interiors since The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, but it is directed with a comic subtlety which (after A Shot in the Dark) one might have ceased to expect from Edwards. He has refined the long-take style which one recalls from his comedies of the fifties like Strictly For Pleasure and Mr Cory. It is a film totally devoid of reaction shots. Sudden or cumulative bits of comedy are, as in the elephant scenes mentioned earlier, shown in full context with deadpan objectivity. Edwards’s principle is that if a scene isn’t funny, he’s not going to try to make it appear so by his camera style or by actors’ semaphore. Which does not mean being artless, since considerable art has gone into construction and staging. It is a comic technique similar to Preminger’s dramatic one (maybe one shouldn’t by now be surprised at critics’ failure to respond). Marvellous things are constantly happening in the background of shots or in corners. The dinner-party sequence is a masterpiece of timing in which a whole drama between the waiters is played out in the background of the image, half obscured by the diners whom we are watching at the same time. Edwrards’s reverence for Laurel and Hardy is well known, and the sequence is among other things a sustained and worthy homage to their silent short, From Soup to Nuts. The drunk waiter (Steve Franken) derives clearly from the regular Laurel and Hardy drunkard, Arthur Housman. Most importantly, Edwards has Stan Laurel’s understanding of how to ‘anchor’ a gag firmly in story and character—the caviar episode, too long and subtle to set out here, is a consummate example. There is never the feeling that gags are simply being ‘hung on’ a convenient central figure, Bakshi. Nor would it be right to leave the impression of a clever technique being applied, intellectually, to a given content, for the two levels of the film that one has in practice to discuss successively—the people and the style—are really one. When the waiter, far gone, doesn’t attempt to negotiate the stepping stones with a tray of drinks but wades through the pool, the camera records his action unmoving, from behind, not even framing him centrally. A neat ‘understatement’, not insisting on a response, but more than this: the style reflects and conveys the waiter’s calmness, and the party’s failure to be shocked by him, and it induces us to view him with a similar serenity and even respect: we accept the world Edwards has created, and its strange, compelling pattern according to which the powerful, though not deposed, appear ridiculous, and the weak, even in their humiliations, are granted dignity.