The Forgotten: Folie a Deux

"Who are those guys?"

George Roy Hill doesn't get written up much these days. People either like some of his films or not, but don't usually have much to say about them. In the breadth of subjects and tones he tackled, the former TV director certainly made it hard to perceive an authorial voice, and even his visual style was inconsistent, veering between the flatly televisual and a more nouvelle vague playfulness. Regular collaborator William Goldman praised him as one of the greats precisely because of his versatility, but he seems destined to be recalled for only a couple of movies, and as an able journeyman rather than as a unique artist.

The World of Henry Orient (1964) is a charming oddity. It deals with a fantasy world concocted by two 14-year-old schoolgirls in New York, based around a minor local celebrity, concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), whom they encounter by chance and become obsessed with, inventing a fairy-tale land and a private language in his honor. It's much like the peculiar make-believe kingdom of the girls in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (still his best film, or at any rate the only one with anything like real people in it).

But the movie, glowingly shot on location in widescreen, aspires to lightness and a degree of frivolity, with a little sentiment and cruelty from the adult world, but no homicide. Probably Hill's most successful quasi-comedy if we set Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid aside, it melds a bunch of variously broad and eccentric performance styles and different levels of stylisation versus realism. Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth, as the two leads, attain a striking degree of naturalism and a convincing rapport, while handling complex dialogue that eschews the inarticulacy of teenspeak and mumblecore in favor of glorious screwball rhythm and fluency.

Sellers manages the difficult task of portraying a fake, a would-be Lothario reliant on a bogus Hungarian-French-Italian-whatever accent, with cartoon exaggeration but enough truth that he can interact with natural locations and more restrained actors without sticking out like a 3D thumb. It's always marvelous to me that Sellers could parody smoothies so mercilessly and yet aspire to be just such a creep in reality. Orient is a layer of charm spread thickly but unevenly over a core of panic and desperation, and the psychological acuity of the portrait allows the actor to decorate it with a lot of music hall and Goon Show schtick without losing the plot or the man.

Angela Lansbury strikes a balance between the two extremes posed by the kids and Sellers, as a nasty mom. Tom Bosley as the nice but absent father is absolutely compelling and sympathetic and real, quite a revelation. Paula Prentiss is as funny and inventive as Sellers. Phyllis Thaxter is sweet. Al Lewis kind of overacts, but maybe it's just the way he's assembled.

Hill, making his third feature, is starting to flex his directorial muscles, and though warned to avoid gimmicky by conservative crewmembers, serves up an ebullient slow-motion romp sequence, with his heroines bouncing high in the air (some uncomfortable, to modern eyes, upskirt photography here). Apparently this was inspired neither by Zazie Dans le Metro nor A Hard Day's Night, but by Leni Riefenstahl's famous high dive montage in Olympia.

The source novel was by Nora Johnson and the screenplay co-written with her father, the legendary Nunnally, which explains the comic and dramatic control. Apparently youg Nora and a schoolfriend really did formulate a mad "pash"—for Oscar Levant, causing that renowned neurasthenic some anxious moments, one presumes. Hill's best moment is a concert scene parodying modern classical music (with Elmer Bernstein's help), with a beautifully orchestrated array of reaction shots and spot gags, much of the business improvised with the cast.

John Simon argued that this sequence was anti-intellectual, and he's probably right but I don't care because good cartooning is good cartooning, and a rare thing in the cinema (though more common in the sixties).

A shame I discovered this just after Christmas, because it's quite seasonal, too. 

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Responses

8 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • David Ehrenstein

    It may be “Forgotten” to you, but it’s utterly unforgettable to me. This is an exceedingly accurate picture of New York at that time. Especially teenagers. I went to Communist Martrs High (aka. The High School of Music and Art, Class of 1964) with a girl who ran around in a ratty fur coat exactly like Tippy Walker’s.

    Thepicture beautifully captures female friendship just before the onset of puberty (which arrives in the film’s marvelus last shot0. While Sellers is the nomnal star he ends up a prop for the not ust the girls but Paul Prientiss (marvelous as always) and Angela Lansbury (who’s quite unfraid to play a parental villain full bore) as well.

    Boris Kaufman was the DP. He was also the DP of “L’Atalante” and “Zero de Conduite.”

    Elmer’s score is one of his very best. .

  • Wally

    A long time favorite of mine. It is one of my very favorite Sellers films, probably not so much because of his performance, but just the overall quality of the movie. It really captures the human warmth and innocence of growing up in a gentle way.

  • David Cairns

    But not too gentle! I guess the movie is comparatively well-known by the standards of The Forgotten, but I’d never seen it and Hill is one of those filmmakers highly rated by the public and somewhat ignored by critics, so it seemed a fair candidate for reappraisal. I’m certainly very happy to have finally seen it.

  • Lawrence Chadbourne

    Hi David: This was a favorite film of my brother Eric and myself when we saw on first release, We had lived in New York and revisited briefly in 1963, so it captured as did
    the more well known Breakfast at Tiffany’s a feeling for the beauty of the city in those
    years. You’re right Hill is inconsistent, because while some of us saw an interesting
    critique of US imperialism in the Trumbo-scripted 1966 Hawaii, we were
    disappointed in the popularity of the smirking, smart-ass Butch Cassidy and the merely pleasant The Sting is arguably one of the most overrated movies to win Oscars;
    On the other hand I recently saw the nice Period Of Adjustment,. Nice, but not as good
    as a live local stage version I caught in conjunction.
    It’s too bad sweet Merrie Spaeth grew up to be a player in the infamous Swift Boat
    campaign against Kerry in 2004

  • David Cairns

    Yeah, that’s truly unfortunate — even she seems to regret it, though I wonder what she’s done about that. I can’t help regard Tippy Walker as the one who went on to make something of herself, even if the results have been less rewarded by society.

  • greg x

    Hmm, I wonder if this movie is what led to William Castle’s I Saw What You Did and I Know Who You Are the next year? That or young women stalking older men must have been a much bigger thing back in the mid-fifties than it is today. I’d write it off entirely, expect this sort of sexual dynmic only increased until it finally peaked in the mid-seventies. I guess those baby boom girls put a scare into a lot of older men, the films perhaps acting as a charm to ward off feelings of otherwise questionable attraction.

  • Edgar Soberón Torchia

    Just a correction. The concert music was composed by Ken Lauber, not Elmer Bernstein.

  • David Cairns

    Thanks!

    IMDb has him as conductor and orchestrator of the concert music — do you have definite information that he composed it?

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