Sometimes it is very hard to say goodbye, more often than not a short wave, or fleeting glimpse stays in the memory longer than a heartfelt hug or a protracted chat. In terms of signing off of your film career, Peter Sellers had left the perfect goodbye with the last shots of Being There. As Chance, the ethereal butler-cum-oracle, walks across that lake it’s as if Sellers himself is passing over to the other side and bidding us farewell from his long and rocky film career. Sadly for him Chance was not to be his last role. In fact the last image we would see on film of Peter Sellers was to be potentially the least poignnt image you could ever possibly conjure, even if you tried very hard.
Being There had been a critical hit, Sellers was Oscar nominated (losing to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer) and enjoying acclaim once again. The trouble was his health was betraying him and another heart attack was always around the corner – which was always accentuated by his excessive drug use. Another thing that seemingly deserted him throughout the 1970s was his eye for a good project. He had been let down time and time again by such blind vanity projects as The Prisoner of Zenda and had fallen back into the safety net of the Pink Panther franchise – which was also becoming tired and bloated by the time “Revenge” was released in 1978 with Clouseau a million miles away from the mild bumbling detective we first met in the 1963 original.
For his next, and sadly to be final, project, Sellers wanted to go back to his Goon-ish roots. He wanted a silly project that would feel like an old school reunion for his comedy senses. What he ended up with was a sadly poignant piece of tragedy, dressed up as a whacky comedy, surely not what he intended. In fact if you treat The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu-Manchu as some sort of psychological study, rather than a comedy, you may enjoy it for what it actually is; a man having a nervous breakdown mixed with an existential crisis and filming every moment. Sellers injected too much of himself into this film and that is perhaps the biggest reason it failed. In fact the only reason Sellers got this pet project off of the ground at all was due to the success of the recent Pink Panther revival, despite the fact that in-between Panther movies Sellers had once again littered his CV with detritus. In fact, true to form, after Fu-Manchu Sellers was set to direct a new Pink Panther film, which he had also written (The Romance of the Pink Panther, cutting Blake Edwards completely out of the picture), which would have undoubtably been a hit and would perhaps have swept this mess under the carpet. However we are left with this final piece of his legacy, a total mess.
Sellers once again plays more than one part, a trick that seventeen years before in Dr. Strangelove reached its zenith, but was now seeming like a tired parlour trick on a rainy Sunday.
The film opens with Sellers “yellowed-up” as Fu-Manchu celebrating his 168th birthday by drinking his elixir vitae (which prolongs his life), however the elixir is dropped by one of his servants, an embarrassed looking Burt Kwouk with whom he shares a joke about his face seeming familiar (hilarious), whereupon Fu-Manchu declares that he will have to send his men to seek out the ingredients to make a new batch. There then follows an opening title sequence that feels dated for 1980. We then meet the other part that Sellers plays, the hero of the piece, Nayland Smith. An ex-agent that spends his time mowing a lawn under constant sprinkled downpour, and telling anyone who’ll listen that his best friend these days is a lawnmower. A confused, sombre mad-man, that some would say best reflected Sellers personality at that time better than any character he played before. Smith constantly reflects on the past, burdens others with his severe eccentricity and seems totally disconnected from the real world, something Sellers obviously plugged into the character as a reference to his own deeply troubled and broken psyche, particularly at that time.
As with any Sellers project this one was beset with problems off of the screen. Directors came and went (three in total with Sellers ended up directing the film himself) and the usual health problems stalled production – at one point Sellers had yet another heart attack with put everything on hold for many weeks. When he returned he insisted that many scenes be reshot.
There is an awkward and tired air surrounding the humour in the film, everything seems laboured and haphazard. Each joke (or attempt at a joke) feels forced, telegraphed or desperately unfunny. It all feels incredibly poignant and like the death nail of British comedy from that golden bygone era. In fact it feels very reminiscent of the last Carry-On film in which the same feeling of broken formula was prevalent throughout. Sellers looks very old and tired (he died before it was even released) John Le Mesurier appears and seems old and tired and David Tomlinson seems old and tired. Everyone involved (apart from Sellers) seems deeply embarrassed by it all and in some cases never worked again. In fact the only person to come out of the film with any credit was Helen Mirren, who seemed game and up for a laugh.
The final scene in the film basically sums up everything that was going in Sellers mind at that time, it is almost like he is talking to himself. Fu and Smith have a final showdown in which Fu declares that Smith was the only worthy adversary he ever had they can recapture the good old days by taking the elixir and becoming young again. Sellers obviously felt that by putting on a funny voice and dressing up that he could recapture the glory days, but they were long gone. The wit he once had had obviously long deserted him, and the hunger to make people laugh had also exited stage right. This was to be his swan song (apart from a few Barclays ads) and it was to be the worst kind.
While we reflect on a moment of poignancy, what happens next is bizarre in the extreme. Smith is left to ponder as to whether to take the elixir (which Fu has already taken and is now once again young and virile) and is questioned as to “What on Earth’s going on Nayland?”Smith simply says, “I’m not entirely sure” while looking lost and confused. Fu reappears and sings us out with a questionable faux-rock number called “Rock A Fu”. We then get a few moments of Smith still looking confused while the song plays out and we end on a freeze frame of Sellers’ Fu-Manchu miming to a rather poor song. As endings go it isn’t a classic. In fact it surely smacks of a lack of any clear idea of what to do with the film. That is the last moment of Sellers on film we are left with. Not Chance on that lake, walking on the water as Sellers slipped off into the unknown. Instead we are left with Sellers dressed up in “yellow-face” in an Elvis costume miming to a terrible song.
Upon its release it was universally panned by critics. Sellers didn’t live to see just how mauled the film was, which is probably a good thing for him. At least it will never be remade.
Originally posted 2014-02-04 14:26:35. Republished by Blog Post Promoter