Monday, April 27, 2020

Peter Sellers and Neil Simon? It's After the Fox!

The Fox masquerades as a director.
Imagine Peter Sellers starring in a comedy written by Neil Simon and directed by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves)! A talented trio, to be sure--but also a seemingly unlikely one. And yet they teamed up in 1966 to make the Italian comedy After the Fox.

It's almost two movies in one, with the first half being devoted to the life of master criminal Aldo Vanucci--better known as The Fox. After a clever escape from prison, Vanucci tries to make amends with his mother and teenage sister (Britt Ekland). Mother Vanucci is upset that her son spends all his time in prison without taking care of his dear mother. Meanwhile, Vanucci fears that his sister Gina has become a streetwalker. Actually, she's just trying to break into the movies! With the police hot on his trail, the master criminal indulges in a lot of disguises and accents (which plays to Peter Sellers' strength).

After the Fox goes off in a different direction when a fellow thief contacts Vanucci and wants him to smuggle 300 bars of gold bullion into Italy. Vanucci hatches a brilliant idea: He will make a movie and incorporate the unloading of the gold into the plot. He convinces a fading American actor (Victor Mature) to star in The Gold of Cairo and casts Gina as the female lead.

Victor Mature as an aging star.
While the first half of After the Fox is mildly amusing, the second half evolves into a sharp satire of the movie business. Victor Mature is splendid as Tony Powell, a has-been movie star who spurns an offer to play a 64-year-old sheriff in a Western because the character is too old. When his agent (Martin Balsam) points out that Tony is in his sixties, the actor exclaims: "I don't want to be sixty, I want to be forty!"

Sellers also excels as the thief playing the part of a movie director. Tossing around terms like neorealism, he appeals to Tony's vanity as well as an entire village's desire to be immortalized in a movie. His initial plan is to just film the unloading of the gold from the ship. However, when the ship's arrival is delayed, he has to start shooting a motion picture. With no script, he decides to make a movie about two beautiful people doing nothing. As he explains to Tony: "We have a great opportunity to make a wonderful comment about the lack of communication in our society." It's a concept that Tony thinks is brilliant (as does a film critic in a later scene).

A dark-haired Britt Ekland as Gina.
One suspects that Neil Simon's intent was to satirize the artistic filmmakers who dominated international cinema in the 1960s, such as Godard, Renais, and Antonioni. It was Simon's first screenplay after making a splash on Broadway with Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. De Sica insisted that Simon work with his frequent collaborator Cesare Zavattini. The result is that--whether intentional or not--Sellers' director seems to be a larger-than-life portrait of De Sica. I think that's one of the reason that After the Fox has acquired a cult reputation over the years.

Of course, it also has a ridiculous--but mind-numbingly catchy--title tune written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The Hollies and Peter Sellers perform it over the credits and it start with these lyrics:
    Who is the fox?
    (I am the fox)
    Who are you?
    (I am me)
    Who is me?
    (Me is a thief)
    You'll bring your poor, poor mother grief.

Incidentally, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland were married when they made After the Fox. He insisted that she be cast as Vanucci's sister Gina. It was the second of three movies starring the couple, with the others being Carol for Another Christmas (1964) and The Bobo (1967). They divorced in 1968 after a four-year marriage that produced a daughter named Victoria.

4 comments:

  1. As you know from my comment on twitter, Rick, this is one of my all time favorite movies. It is, to my mind, screechingly funny. I laughed so hard at some scenes, I was almost insensible. Ha. I get that way sometimes. Victor Mature's oddly endearing performance as an over the hill matinee idol IS splendid, you're right.. I think he deserved as Oscar nomination. I really do. But comedy rarely gets rewarded. At any rate, there are some scenes in this film that are among the funniest in comedy movie history. No, I don't think I exaggerate. All due, of course, to Peter Sellers' all encompassing grasp of the absurd - that was his genius - he embraced absurdity. (Carabinieri! Carabinieri!) OMG! SO funny.

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  2. I came across this one Saturday afternoon with no clue what had come my way. The satire tickled my funny bone and Vic, whom I already admired, went another notch up the admiration totem pole.

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  3. An underrated Sellers classic, probably because it had such a troubled production and was the start of his decline in popularity with filmmakers and box office. Victor Mature definitely steals the whole thing, but when Sellers becomes the excitable European like filmmaker, he is a joy to watch. Neil Simon is also one of my favourite writers, which helps, and who wouldn't be charmed by the title sequence and song. Somehow, it's not as strong as his earlier Clouseau portrayals in that golden Sellers period just before, being slightly more manic perhaps, but I still really like the set up and pace.

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  4. Where has this film been all my life? I know I'll love it.

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