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Political Humour

by Shawn Stone on April 20, 2011 · 1 comment

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer
Directed by Kevin Billington

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is a true oddity, the kind of deep-from-the-vault item Warner Archive is wont to dredge up. This 1970 flop brought together a host of great comic actors and writers from multiple generations of British comedy, including star and writer Peter Cook, featured players Arthur Lowe (as an executive aptly named Ferret) and Dennis Price, and writers John Cleese and Graham Chapman. One of the last films released under the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts banner, Rimmer was never screened theatrically in the United States, and the U.K. release was botched; it proved, unsurprisingly, a bad idea to hold the release of a political comedy until after national elections.

Cook is the piquantly named title character, a smooth operator who rises through the ranks of an advertising agency that’s a transparent stand-in for Brit society: It’s owned by blithering idiots and populated by fools. Power is Rimmer’s religion and opinion polls his gospel. Tall and thin, Rimmer moves through every scene like a knife through butter; he has more of an air of brimstone about him than Cook’s Satan in the classic Bedazzled.

Soon enough, Rimmer is meddling in national politics. The satire is sharp: The liberal Labor Party is presented as a hollowed-out shell run by preening opportunists, and the Tories are wealthy, racist greedheads happy to exploit any angle, no matter how vile. The press, to a man, are a group of self-satisfied fatheads.

Sound familiar?

Oddly enough, given the dark political content, the most shocking aspect of Rimmer for modern viewers is likely to be its ecstatic lechery; if you were curious about how far Monty Python would like to have taken their occasional sex-themed sketches (the ones featuring real women), here’s the answer. Rimmer was made during the golden age of the mini-dress, and no opportunity is missed to highlight this: The camera positively leers at Ferret’s long-legged secretary (Valerie Leon), who spends her most notable scenes climbing stairs or up a ladder, and at Rimmer’s athlete bride (Vanessa Howard), who plays her big seriocomic scene bouncing about naked and wet.

The image quality on this typically bare-bones Warner Archive release is excellent. And Rimmer is very much a film, not the glorified TV show as its origins might imply; it shows off a variety of locations, from a North Sea oil rig to the actual 10 Downing Street. It has a fine cast, too, with nice roles for Denholm Elliott as an unscrupulous pollster and Harold Pinter as an unctuous TV host.

Even so, it’s an uneven piece of work. Once Rimmer’s political power is assured, about an hour in, the film falls apart. The farce becomes too broad—just as, in Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore shouldn’t have tried to start a war with Canada, Peter Cook should here have resisted including commando raids on Switzerland. The result is that some very good, sadly enduring points about public apathy are lost.

And yet, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer isn’t easily dismissed. It presents a dark vision as fresh the latest edition of the Onion or last night’s Colbert Report.

 

Bargain Bin

This week brings a trio of DVDs remaindered by Paramount Home Video, and found at Big Lots for $3 each. The films date from the mid-1970s, and were made by directors who learned their craft working in TV in the late 1950s and early ’60s: John Frankenheimer, Franklin J. Schaffner and Robert Altman.

When he made the big-budget Black Sunday in 1977, John Frankenheimer’s days as an A-list director were numbered; the film’s failure ended them. This globe-trotting political thriller tracks the efforts of an Israeli agent (Robert Shaw) to stop a Palestinian terrorist attack-by-Goodyear-blimp on the Super Bowl. It plays to the director’s strengths, particularly the mastery of logistics he showed in his 1966 Formula One racing epic, Grand Prix. Frankenheimer juggles four elements in the extended climax: the fans in the stands, the game on the field, the agents looking for the terrorists, and the terrorists trying to commandeer a blimp and ram it into the Orange Bowl. It’s beautifully done, because even though you know it can’t work—Hollywood isn’t gonna kill NFL legends Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, never mind 80,000 all-American fans—it’s riveting. Alas, the three lead characters (played by Shaw, Marthe Keller and Bruce Dern) are thinly written, though Keller has a nice scene where she dresses as a nurse to knock off a patient with a poison-filled syringe. Sound familiar? Quentin Tarantino lifted this bit in Black Sunday for Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Franklin J. Schaffner’s Islands in the Stream (1977), adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, is one of George C. Scott’s last great screen roles. He’s Thomas Hudson, a gloss on Hemingway himself (here a sculptor), a man estranged from his family and living an isolated life in the Bahamas. The film departs significantly from the novel, and the changes are all for the better; themes of reconciliation and loss are explored with sensitivity. Schaffner wasn’t exactly known for subtle imagery, but his grand gestures work and the pacing is perfect; also worth noting is the gorgeous score by Jerry Goldsmith. Like Black Sunday, Paramount’s DVD of Islands in the Stream has no extras—not even a trailer.

Finally, the last item from the cut-out bin is Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), about which I can only say: “Christ. Nashville’s out of print?” (I can also add, “Christ, I paid $30 years ago for my copy, the one I loaned and was never returned.”) Altman’s multicharacter drama, written by Jane Wagner, is a smorgasbord of cinematic riches. The are extras: a featurette, a commentary track by Altman, and the original theatrical trailer. In other words, for Paramount, this could be judged a deluxe package.