Review: ‘Undercovers Hero’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

Undercovers Hero is a mess. In the great tradition of messes, its title doesn’t make sense, although it does serve to convey a category of leeringly mutual understanding between filmmaker and filmwatcher, exploiter and exploitee. If the title actually referred to anyone, it would have to be Undercovers Heroines, thereby designating the half-dozen or so filles de joie who service the clientele of a Parisian brothel that is almost a national shrine and who, when history, duty, and coincidence converge to form a ramshackle ménage-à-trois in the France of 1940, turn Free French agents and begin giving their Nazi occupiers sendoffs beyond their wildest expectations. But far from being Undercovers Heroines, Undercovers Hero isn’t even Soft Beds, Hard Battles, the movie that the Boulting brothers (once-beloved auteurs of Private’s Progress, I’m All Right, Jack, etc.) made in 1973. What was surely already a queasy playing-fast-and-loose with both underground legend and the (if we may make so irreverent) conventions of history has been bludgeoned into a new misshape so puerile, so predictable, so facilely dumb that it crushes rather than enhances any hope of healthily satirical payoff.

The ploy: Load this anecdote of boardingschool-sex-jokes-as-history with a running commentary by a disembodied American—and probably Presidential—voice that occasionally suggests LBJ, once or twice JFK, but mostly Richard Milhaus Nixon—a Nixon, moreover, whose unwittingly (and witlessly) sexual metaphors are mingled freely with all manner of Watergate and impeachment references that postdate the time of the film’s original release. It’s all very well to attempt—with a sense of responsibility, and more than a little aesthetic courage and ingenuity—a de-mythologization of recent history, as Lester, most notably, hazarded in How I Won the War. But this film—in its present version, at least—amounts to nothing more than a gross wallow equally contemptible for its indifference to basic competence (like keeping characterizations coherent from one scene to the next) and for its callous nods to the fact that, after all, a lot of people really did get killed during that war (I suspect that someone was engaged to murmur “Black humour, old boy, black humour” whenever one Boulting or the other looked as if he were about to have second—or first—thoughts about the morality of their yoks, as though what Lester were going for, however unsuccessfully, in How I Won the War came easily, and black humor were the inevitable byproduct of any collision between mortality and mirth).

Peter Sellers plays six different roles, which might have injected some salutary jolts into the picture if he’d been permitted to pop up here, there, and everywhere as the movie jostled along, instead of having all the roles announced in the opening credits (“Peter Sellers as Adolf Hitler—I can’t wait!” Yes you can.). He has his moments, unconquerably, and provides most of the minimal pleasure the production affords. For the rest, we must wonder all over again why the Dr. Strangeloves and Return of the Pink Panthers have to be so far apart, and why what lies between has to be so far beneath contempt. Also, Undercovers Hero typifies the sort of cinematic graveyard to which too many momentarily arresting performers must be condemned after a single moment of glory: Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek‘s manic old party girl; Béatrice Romand, the unforgettable Laura of Claire’s Knee; and, as one of the ladies of the house, Hylette Adolph, the girl with the (as one admirably candid reviewer observed at the time) “heartbreakingly beautiful breasts” in Fellini Satyricon. (She still has them and they still are.)

RTJ

UNDERCOVERS HERO
Direction: Roy Boulting. Screenplay: Leo Marks, Roy Boulting. Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor. Production: John Boulting.
The players: Peter Sellers, Lila Kedrova, Béatrice Romand, Rex Stallings, Curt Jurgens.

Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson