Blake Edwards And The Hobgoblin Of Inconsistency

The death of Blake Edwards at the end of 2010, more than fifteen years after his last film work, was a reminder of a gaudy and maddening career which had been in a state of collapse for over a decade before it finished; and also of an undoubted auteur who needed to be rescued from his admirers. Edwards was never a great director; there is far too much mediocrity in his filmography (and from its earliest days) for him to be regarded as the major figure of his devotees’ wild claims. But he was occasionally such a good one that one can’t but wonder quite why he floundered so often, especially as his failures are mostly quite as clearly signed as his successes.

Blake Edwards

This consistency of authorship, coupled with such baffling inconsistency of quality, led to a most curious situation, whereby Edwards’s defenders showed a marked tendency to praise him for his defects as much as his virtues, even saying they were the same thing, and not merely to praise quite minor films in extravagant terms, but even to suggest that the reasons why so many of his films were trivial were the very reasons why we should admire them the more. At the same time, his best films were often undervalued. It was a preposterous situation. Perhaps now it can be challenged.

Why should we admire Edwards? Well, according to Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, it’s because of the inherent nastiness of his flamboyance (Edwards “has got some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films”) and because “the world he celebrates is cold, heartless and inhuman, but the people in it manage to preserve a marginal integrity and individuality.” Hmm… But why should any artist celebrate cold, heartless inhumanity? Sarris is quoted by perhaps the most vociferous of Edwards’s champions, William Luhr and Peter Lehman, not only in a lengthy article in The Velvet Light Trap in 1974, but later in a full-length book. They also define Edwards’s worldview, as they see it: “Concepts of justice simply have no relevance. Those with charm and skill succeed; those without do not, and frequently suffer grossly. ”

For any mature reader, these attempts to show that Edwards is not just talented but important have a most undesirable effect; they describe someone superficial, nasty-minded, amoral and possessed of a superciliousness bordering on the sadistic. At their weakest, Edwards’s films sometimes do bear out such summarising. However, I suggest that the real Blake Edwards is both more complicated and more interesting than that. The preservation of “a marginal integrity and individuality” is indeed one of his major preoccupations. Integrity and individuality are not synonymous, of course, and the perpetual difficulty in his oeuvre lies in his displaying the latter without the former. When both have been maintained, and have interacted, the resulting films have been impressive. When not, the results are anything from infuriating to highly depressing.

When his sympathies are fully engaged, Edwards is a most congenial filmmaker. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his first major international success, treads precariously on a tightrope of sentimentality and whimsy without ever losing balance, a trick made all the neater by its never denying the insufferable side of its heroine, which indeed it rather markedly affirms, and by granting equal sympathy to those characters who suffer because of her. Days of Wine and Roses, a year later, almost entirely avoids becoming a Stanley Kramer sermon by having an eye as warm for its characters as it is cold for the society which entraps them. Both films are flawed (we all know now about Mickey Rooney’s impersonation of a Japanese, whilst Wine and Roses, alas, does succumb to creeping Kramerism just a tidge in those scenes featuring Jack Klugman as the man from Alcoholics Anonymous), but both hinted clearly that a major talent was about to emerge. Which makes Edwards’s subsequent progress in the Sixties all the more baffling, for he gained power and control whilst relinquishing the artistic seriousness for which they could have been so useful.

Peter Sellers in "The Pink Panther"

The Pink Panther, at the start of 1964, is, indeed, a watershed. Its very slightness is significant. The two films mentioned in the previous paragraph had shown that Edwards’s skill as a director of comedy could be usefully adapted—two fundamentally serious films were frequently very funny. So one hoped that his subsequent comedies might have an undertow of seriousness to elevate them above the hack level of pre-fame Edwards films like Operation Petticoat and High Time. The Pink Panther scuttled these hopes at once. Even more regrettably, it gave Edwards a niche to revolve in complacently, instead of making the effort to expand his repertoire. As a matter of record, this first adventure of the maladroit Inspector Clouseau is, whilst no more than mildly diverting, far better than any of the many subsequent ones, and for a significant reason. It is the most human of the series. In fact, it is the only one of the Clouseau films to make any effort at all to present characters with some resemblance to actual human beings. Its sequels are too lazy to be anything more than heartless cartoons.

And Clouseau himself is markedly different from his later incarnations. One can’t but feel for the poor fellow, made to look a fool and a criminal because of his blind adoration of the faithless wife who so ruthlessly cuckolds him. Peter Sellers here has a certain forlorn quality absent from his later performances in the role. The Clouseau who turns up only a few months later in A Shot in the Dark (which was being made even before The Pink Panther had been released) is an arrogant oaf with no wife—there is no mention of the events of the earlier film—and not a hint of pathos. This Clouseau gets laughs chiefly by mangling pronunciation. At least this first sequel has a reasonably well-constructed plot, abstracted at some remove from a play by Marcel Achard in which Clouseau does not appear. But Edwards seems uninterested in it, and he has no interest whatever in the storylines of The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), films of remarkable carelessness which exist only to showcase Seller’s increasingly narcissistic and unfunny performances. The middle one of this dubious trio is, in fact, quite astoundingly shoddy, a collection of skits barely related by any semblance of plot, ruthlessly wasting supporting actors of great merit (one does hope that Colin Blakely and Leonard Rossiter were at least well-paid for their humiliating cameos) and edited with signs of acute desperation visible from the first reel. The long gap separating these films from the first two tells us a story in itself; in 1975, both Edwards and Sellers had been years without a commercial success, and when The Return inexplicably gave them one, they cynically played the formula for all it was worth, thus making it worthless.

The Clouseau series offers blinding proof of how extensively Edwards’s talents were scuppered whenever he settled for playing safe—something he did far too often. Why on earth should he have bothered with so obviously doomed a project as The Great Race (1965) when he had so recently shown himself capable of better things? The Great Race aspires to nothing more than making us laugh. No character bears the slightest resemblance to a real person; no event in it could ever happen anywhere. Given this, the director surely has a positive duty to make the film at least as funny as it can be; if it isn’t, there is no reason on earth why a grown-up should waste a minute watching it. Not only is the film not very funny, it is almost perversely self-destructive. It runs for 163 minutes (the anonymous critic of Playboy summed it up accurately as a “two-ton trifle”) as if to accentuate the thinness of the material, a series of sketches parodying old movies and strung around the plotline of a 1908 round-the-world car race. Good actors are directed to act badly—how painful it is to watch Jack Lemmon rolling his eyes and shouting—whilst the cinematic references are sometimes grotesquely wrong. Though the film is dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” the imitations of their routines, poorly cribbed anyway, are given to the villains of the piece, Lemmon and Peter Falk—whoever heard of an evil Stan and Ollie?

The Great Race began with one of its year’s bigger budgets and ended up costing twice as much, also running steeply over schedule. This might have indicated the infinite capacity for taking pains which is supposed to be the hallmark of genius, but it’s applied to something so small in scope (as small in scope as it is vast in scale), so patently unlikely to have been more than an adequate time-passer even if everything about it had actually worked, that one simply wonders why on earth Edwards bothered. Only a few years later, he carried this maniac fastidiousness to new extremes with Darling Lili (1970), which took over a year to shoot, costing around $24 million (at a time when even very expensive movies rarely cost half that), and losing a fortune. Yet this film, though it must be counted an artistic failure as well as a financial one, is nonetheless an intriguing attempt to combine farce, spectacle, romance and thrills into something emotionally and morally meaningful. Setting himself an immensely difficult task, Edwards does here and there succeed; the film doesn’t work as a whole, quite emphatically it doesn’t, but it fascinates. The love-hate relationship between Julie Andrews (as a German spy of the First World War who poses as a British music-hall star) and Rock Hudson (as the American air ace torn between loving her and catching her) is also an opposition of attitudes, not only between nations and ideologies, but toward life and love.

It’s more than “love and duty.” The anciens régimes of both sides require a fealty to Thanatos; such valuable attributes as courage and loyalty are subverted to the need to serve death and destruction. Friendship can be sacrificed to war’s insatiable appetite for slaughter and love hasn’t got a chance. Though much—far too much—of Darling Lili is farcical, the film has a real pain and the brief shots wounded men in the audiences of Lili’s concerts remind us forcibly of the obscene waste of life that has resulted from the “heroism” commissioned from the central characters by their respective governments. One of Edwards’s critical admirers, the late George Morris, bafflingly referred to the Great War as “the last war in which noble values and ideals still counted” (Film Comment, November-December 1979), but Edwards doesn’t present it as any such thing, thank God. The real nobility and idealism of Darling Lili could hardly be less nostalgic or more radical—in this film, nations don’t matter, land and ideology don’t matter, even courage and duty don’t matter when they’re as unfocused as war makes them. But people and love and freedom do matter. The film makes the fatal mistake of offering us slapstick spectacle instead of black satire, but it is genuinely very cutting about conventional attitudes to war. It suggests that “taking sides” will only dignify war and make it somehow acceptable. Lili and her American major can only find happiness together by ignoring the alleged “issues” and concentrating on each other.

"Darling Lili" - Jeremy Kemp and Julie Andrews

This is why a First World War setting is so apposite—far from being the “noble and idealistic” conflict of George Morris’s grotesque sentimental misconception, it is amongst the most transparently stupid and pointless wars of modern history as well as being one whose utter vileness was immediately obvious. Of course, our knowing this (even if Mr. Morris seemingly didn’t) makes Edwards’s job easier—it would have been harder to be as cutting about war in the context of the second global conflict, a supposedly just war, which is why Richard Lester’s How I Won the War is both aesthetically more daring and morally more admirable. Even so, and for all its compromises and failures as would-be popular entertainment, it was a brave undertaking for Edwards with Vietnam raging and Nixon as President. The film’s pungency about side-taking resolves itself neatly at the end, when it cuts away from Rock and Julie’s onstage embrace to reveal that her former espionage control, an ultra-Junker type played by Jeremy Kemp, is lustily singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in the middle of the working-class British audience.

A similar refusal to respect national or political allegiances informs Edwards’s second film with Julie Andrews (whom he married in 1969), the British-made spy thriller The Tamarind Seed. Dismissed by most critics in 1974, and ignored by the public, this film has several quite obvious faults: Russian characters speak Russian to each other when it’s not important that we know what they’re saying, and English when it is (and one receives a telegram in English from another Russian whilst in Paris); a mere secretary (Andrews) can afford not just a huge flat in a very expensive London residential area, but also a holiday at the biggest and costliest hotel on Barbados; a top Russian mole who has survived innumerable security checks whilst operating at the highest levels of British Intelligence is careless enough to leave dead-giveaway evidence of his perfidy just where the faithless wife who hates him can find it. But this tale of a top-level KGB man who defects, not out of outrage at the Soviet system, or even because his individualism has made things hot for him with his bosses (which it has), but simply because he’s fallen in love with the secretary, does share with Darling Lili a belief that decent human emotional commitment does make a mockery of the hollow ideological posturings that govern all sides in a conflicted world. Neither Judith, the secretary, nor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif), the Russian, could, in the final analysis, care less about political loyalty. Far from believing that “everything is political” (that familiar leftist war-cry of the Seventies), they dare to assert that nothing is—nothing of real, adult importance, anyway.

The espionage of The Tamarind Seed is a vicious game for nasty children. When the Russian mole is identified as Fergus Stephenson, a high-ranking official (Dan O’Herlihy), the British spy chief Loder (Anthony Quayle) decides against having him assassinated—he’ll simply feed him false information until his Russian masters murder him themselves. Right and wrong don’t enter into it. Sverdlov isn’t being edged out of his KGB position because of incompetence but because of his ex-wife’s influence. Indeed, political corruption in the film is constantly linked with corrupt sexual politics. Stephenson may talk about his Marxist ideals, but it’s quite likely he’s also been trapped into treachery by his secret homosexuality. Casual adultery seems part of the lifestyle at the British Embassy—in the film’s slyest joke, Stephenson’s wife establishes herself as a bitch by switching off Foreign Correspondent on TV to engage in loveless copulation—but Stephenson can’t reveal his sexual preferences, of which even the all-knowing Loder is unaware. (The film also hints at class-conflicts and xenophobia—Stephenson’s light Irish accent and Loder’s strongly proletarian Yorkshire one link them as outsiders, loners). The sexual animosity between the Stephensons undoes both of them, for in seeking to disgrace his wife’s lover, Stephenson reveals himself. Edwards sees this emotional treachery as more reprehensible (because less absurd and more directly hurtful) than the political treachery, but his contempt for all of it is clear. He reserves his admiration for his two protagonists, who simply abandon it all—the film’s last shot reunites them in a new country altogether, at the start of their new life together.

Family life seems to hold little interest for Edwards as a filmmaker, but couples turn up in film after film as the centre of his attention. Just as we learn little about the child of the central characters of Days of Wine and Roses, we barely glimpse the offspring of Sally and Felix Farmer, the couple at the centre of S.O.B., whose resemblance to Mr. and Mrs. Edwards extends to having Julie Andrews playing Sally. The teenage son of the Andrews character in 10 appears in only one scene. In Blake Edwards films, it’s often the adults who are childlike. Brief as is the appearance of the derisive 16-year-old in 10, he’s there for good reason—to illustrate the immaturity of the film’s hero, the 42-year-old George Webber (who, being played by the diminutive Dudley Moore, seems even more of an over-age schoolboy). The need for an emotional commitment is as much the subject of 10 as of Lili or Tamarind, and the film’s comic element is less important than the way in which Edwards conveys romantic anguish. George, a successful songwriter, can package romanticism—it’s made him rich—but he hasn’t quite noticed just how romantic he himself is. In a world worshipful of bright surfaces, George has immersed himself in the trappings of success, but is intelligent enough to know he’s still an outsider (as /his size and British accent obliquely hint). He’s enough of a romantic—and child—to swing his Rolls-Royce around and follow the beautiful Jenny Miles (Bo Derek) the minute he first sees her, and to pursue her without knowing who she is, or anything about her. Although her destination is a church (where she’s getting married), he’s sufficiently infatuated to follow her, even as far as her honeymoon destination, Mexico.

But as his “magnificent obsession” brings him ever closer to the object of his middle-aged desire, we realise, as (dimly) does he, that he is simply chasing another Californian surface, not an actual human being. Finally given the chance to make love to his Olympian goddess, he is first made to realise that even a girl as pretty as Jenny can be empty-headed and self-centred and—outside of the bedroom, at any rate—really rather boring; and, secondly, he is then made to acknowledge that such things do matter, and enormously. So, after all, he simply makes his excuses and leaves. 10, which begins on George’s 42nd birthday (an occasion for nervous depression), is about acceptance of the inevitable, the need for good sense, and the discovery of true romanticism in place of a commercialised romantic image. In early middle age, George grows up—something to celebrate.

The fragility of Edwards’s heroes and heroines is something he treats as a considerable virtue in his major films and either mocks or ignores in his minor and unsuccessful ones. The great defect of The Carey Treatment, for instance, is James Coburn’s tiresomely macho performance in the central role (all the more annoying for coming between his two very fine portraits of heroic inadequacy and self-hatred in Leone’s Giu! la testa and Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid). The assertive and unputdownable Dr. Peter Carey seems clearly set up for a fall by the progress of the story; he does clear his friend of a murder charge and he does trap the real killer, but in so doing suffers great physical pain, being run over and suffering so much internal bleeding that his spleen is removed and he’s hospitalised for several days. This should suggest an Hitchcockian purgation to teach this uppity Boston pathologist some humility. Certainly, the concept of the film’s climax, with its odd, ironic reversals (the doctor is sick; the nurse has caused death; he makes her confess by withholding medication; the real villain, her lover, attacks him with a scalpel as he awaits surgery) is vividly Hitchcockian. But, though the dialogue in the final scene (the happy ending reuniting Carey with his girlfriend) is obviously meant to show that he’s changed, so that he’ll now marry the girl when earlier he rejected marriage as outmoded and was generally chauvinistic, Coburn’s acting is as narcissistic and one-note as it has been throughout, and Edwards doesn’t seem to notice, much less care. At film’s end, Dr. Peter Carey has no qualms about the very dubious methods he’s used to solve the mystery. Thus, instead of moving forward as a story by having him come to awareness, the film shrugs off its moral ideas as easily as Edwards avoids any real debate on the topic of abortion, which forms the essence of the plot. This was a pretty contentious issue for a Hollywood film in 1972, but, as things stand, it’s just a gimmick.

At his worst, Edwards shows a coldness which easily turns into mere cynicism. This very coldness has nonetheless been praised by certain of his admirers as a sign of his maturity. Having a reputation as an unemotional craftsman can be useful in the film world, of course, winning a director work even when personal projects fail. But, overall, it seems as if Edwards’s career never quite gained the momentum which might have resulted in a masterpiece, and it is hard not to blame this tendency to avoid full emotional engagement. However, such engagement is, curiously, to be found in the most savage and derisive of all his comedies, the undeniably flawed, sometimes irritating, but superbly outrageous S.O.B., a major flop in 1981 which would surely never have been greenlighted had Edwards not just had a big hit with 10. It is a curious mixture, Edwards at both his angriest and most affectionate, and, of all his out-and-out comedies, it’s the richest and funniest. Nothing and no one is safe from his comic scorn, not even Julie Andrews as a movie star strikingly like herself and called Sally Miles (the same surname, not accidentally, as the beautiful but false icon of 10). Yet, amidst several of his grossest and most dubious jokes, Edwards does find a hearteningly positive note. The Hollywood community of S.O.B. has no values at all, only an abiding passion for power and money, but, within it, the friendship of three not-very-admirable men for a fourth is both touching and genuinely stirring. Even then, though, this fourth man, Sally’s husband Felix Farmer (played by Edwards-lookalike Richard Mulligan), has to die before this friendship is fully demonstrated.

Felix, a producer, has had a flop of Darling Lili proportions with a musical starring his wife, and, in attempting to salvage the movie by re-filming it with a lot more sex, gets into such a tangle with the studio bosses (notably the suavely evil David Blackman), that he gets accidentally killed trying to purloin the negative. For publicity, Blackman and other enemies arrange a massive all-star Hollywood funeral, but his three buddies steal his corpse (replacing it in the coffin with that of a forgotten character actor who’s died whilst jogging) and give Felix a “Viking funeral” at sea. This plot allows for much score-settling—Robert Vaughn, who plays David Blackman, freely admitted that his character was based on Robert Evans, for all that that first name may remind us of Begelman or Picker or Geffen—but some of Edwards’s gibes are cheap shots (Shelley Winters’s duplicitous agent is briefly seen to share her bed with another woman—so what?) and his nostalgia for an old-style studio-machine Hollywood where the producer (like Felix) was king and directors were at best amiable hacks, seems, to say the least, misplaced and unlikely. However, the film’s bad taste is endlessly inventive, and, when Edwards manages to keep it exuberant instead of just sour, it’s tonic. For all its wrath, the film shows considerable broadmindedness—Felix’s three chums (William Holden as his film’s director, Robert Webber as a press agent and Robert Preston as a “Dr. Feelgood” medico) are steeped in Tinseltown corruption and have been for decades, but they know it and acknowledge it, and still retain a real bonhomie, Their final, secret rebellion against Hollywood S.O.B. (Standard Operational Bullshit) is very winning. If Edwards did mean Felix to be a self-portrait, then the implications of the ending—having sacrificed his life for the sake of a movie, Felix literally goes up in smoke, his boat burning away in true Norseman fashion—could hardly be more trenchant.

Many hated the film, of course, and it was the last film of any consequence that Edwards was to make in America. He did have one last success in Europe a year later with the highly inventive, genuinely good-hearted Victor/Victoria. But he was soon running for cover yet again—The Trail of the Pink Panther in 1982 being arguably the feeblest and certainly the most ghoulish Edwards film to that time, a movie that might have been made by, well, David Blackman himself. Two years after Peter Sellers’s death, this film has the gall to present us with a series of outtakes from the previous Clouseau movies, cobbled together with maximal cynicism and showing Sellers at a noticeably wide range of ages and in variable states of health, whilst his director attempts half-heartedly to arrange some sort of plot around them as justification. Seeing the two-years-dead Sellers marooned like a ghost in this shameless exploitation was quite bad enough—but the film also presents us with a visibly dying David Niven in a reprise of his original Pink Panther role, so ill that Rich Little had to dub his lines. Edwards called this a “tribute,” but no one believed him; then he managed to compound his vulgarity and exploitativeness by coming up with another Clouseau movie (The Curse of the Pink Panther, 1983), this time without any Sellers footage, but again featuring the dying Niven, and with Ted Wass playing a sleuth in search of the missing inspector. This rattling of still more bones from the mausoleum was deeply offensive, and a lawsuit brought by Sellers’s widow put both these atrocities into exhibition limbo.

And then … what? There isn’t much to say about The Man Who Loved Women (a remake of the François Truffaut film of barely five years earlier which put its Americanised characters on markedly higher incomes and into glossier surroundings) or the subsequent Micki + Maude, That’s Life, A Fine Mess, Blind Date, Skin Deep, Sunset (another hate letter to Hollywood, one which squandered a moderately interesting plot idea) and Switch. By the end of the 1980s, Edwards had even returned, for the first time in decades, to directing for TV, hoping his telemovies would become pilots to lucrative series. One of them was Peter Gunn (1989), an attempt to revive (with new actors) the 1950s private-eye show that had first made him famous, and moved him into big-budget movies. This hinted at a certain desperation, and it didn’t work, any more than did a sitcom Edwards devised and produced for Julie Andrews, which got cancelled after just six segments.

As he neared his 70s, Edwards’s creative nervousness was palpable. New ideas seemed impossible for him—Switch is a fairly blatant rip-off of Vincente Minnelli’s 1964 flop Goodbye, Charlie—and he finished his cinema career, alas, with a film entitled Son of the Pink Panther. This had Roberto Benigni as a Clouseauesque butterfingers who finally works out who his father was, whilst Claudia Cardinale, from the very first Panther film, played his mother (actually, the character played by Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark). On a positive note, the film did finally find a happy ending for Clouseau’s nemesis, poor Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Having been driven in earlier films to madness, criminality and self-mutilation, Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus now cures himself of all his phobias and marries Claudia, which seems only fair after almost three decades of allegedly hilarious humiliation. In Europe, this film was a straight-to-video job. Edwards did yet more recycling in 1995 by transforming Victor/Victoria into a Broadway musical, his wife still playing her old role, though she was now many years too old for it. It clocked up 734 performances.

In 2004, Blake Edwards won a very popular Special Oscar, and his obituaries were mostly very forgiving. But a survey of his career nonetheless fills one with sadness and regret. Amidst many lovely moments and a few fine films, one finds so many compromises, so much settling for second-best (or worse), and so little pushing and striving for real excellence or innovation. Did he really just want to be a popular hack ho made a lot of money? There’s a rage in most of his best work, well hidden at times, but there, unmissably there. Was it ever turned inward?

Copyright © 2011 by Peter Richards