Directed by: Blake Edwards
Written by: Blake Edwards (story, screenplay), Tom Waldman (screenplay), Frank Waldman (screenplay)
Starring: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Steve Franken, Herbert Ellis, Gavin MacLeod, Denny Miller
I don't consider the 1960s to have been a great decade for comedy. Aside from Stanley Kubrick's Cold War farce Dr. Strangelove… (1964), Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and the various works of the great Billy Wilder, most of the comedy I've seen from this era has been over-stylish, dated and rather campy. Take, for example, the second Beatles movie, Help! (1965), which deviated so far from the intelligent wit of the first film that I could only stare in a mixture of horror and disbelief (at least the soundtrack was enjoyable). Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther (1963) was my first film from the director, and, though Peter Sellers was, of course, hilarious as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, the film itself was a very uneven affair. So I must confess that I approached The Party (1968) with some trepidation. The theatrical trailer screamed "1960s!" at the top of its voice, and I deduced that the film would be considerably hampered by an out-dated style that diluted whatever comedy there had once been. Perhaps low expectations are a good thing to have, since I instead found myself pleasantly surprised.
Peter Sellers is often held to be among cinema's most accomplished comedians, and I can see no reason why this should not be the case. He was an extraordinary chameleon when the role called for it, and no actor ever milked so many laughs from his manipulation of cultural stereotypes, whether that be his fascist German from Dr. Strangelove…, his bumbling Frenchman from The Pink Panther, his vocabulary-challenged Chinese detective from Murder by Death (1976) or his good-natured Indian from this film. Of course, it takes a few moments for you to accept such a well-known actor as playing an Indian, but, by the film's end, it doesn't seem unusual in the slightest. Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi as an affable and friendly outsider, completely out-of-his-depth at such an upper-class get-together. Despite his occasionally tendency to be rather clumsy, he eventually earns the respect of the other party-goers, especially beautiful actress Michele Monet (Claudine Longet), through his kindness and indomitable sense of fun.
The Party was largely improvised from a rudimentary 56-60 page screenplay, and it really does show. There is nothing exceptional about the dialogue, and, though Bakshi gets one or two memorable catch-phrases ("Birdie Num Num!"), the bulk of the humour is purely visual. There was always going to be a risk in extending a single party throughout a 99-minute running-time, and the end result is rather interesting. Between gags, particularly during the dinner sequence, there is a curious sense of vacuousness, and Edwards indulges in an extended period of idleness that no comedy director today would ever be bold enough to leave intact. In one way, this approach is somewhat reassuring; the director is obviously completely comfortable with what he is doing. On the other hand, you wonder if the story is merely stalling itself, in order to consume enough celluloid to make a respectable feature-length. In any case, despite my adverse expectations, The Party turned out to be an adequately funny and even touching comedy, in no small part due to the magnificent talents of its leading man…whatever nationality he might be.
Currently my #4 film from 1968:
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
2) Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanksi)
3) Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
4) The Party (Blake Edwards)