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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

What's New Pussycat? (1965)


Starring: Peter Sellers, Peter O'Toole, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss and Ursula Andress
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £15.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 02 December 2019

The Geist for the "swinging '60s" is really only half of that decade, the five years between Autumn 1963 and Spring/Summer 1968, when popular youth culture turned on, tuned in and dropped out. To stay hip (i.e. commercial) movie makers had to avoid depicting overt drug use with only sidelong references to head tripping and go headlong into the other half of the getaway: sex.

What’s New Pussycat? began as a Warren Beatty vehicle, its title derived from how the real life lothario answered his phone calls. For an admitted sex addict, it did beat "hello". One can visualize him in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire and the parade of consorts including some surprising names on the international who’s who list. When in town, it seems, the thing to do was… Warren. He was everybody’s poster boy and he hadn’t yet done Bonnie & Clyde (1967).

Woody Allen, then brightest of the bright comedy writers, was attached to write the screenplay. His first. Allen wangled a lead role for himself too. His screen debut. Loathing came fast when Beatty resented Allen hogging too many funny lines for himself until he finally balked and walked.

Allen would get $30,000 to write the script and bagels with lox to perform. He was happy. But only a little while. When Peter Sellers came aboard, Allen saw his prize lines intended for himself being pickpocketed by Dr Strangelove and his virginal screen launch being castrated to walk-ons and walk-offs. He was getting from Sellers what he had given to Beatty. Sauce for the Hollywood gooser, sauce for the Manhattan gambiteer. As Steve Martin would later say, "Cruel Shoes."

Peter O’Toole, likeable and fresh meat from success in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), would take the role crafted for Beatty, a sexaholic seeking help from the erotically frustrated shrink played by Sellers. O’Toole thought he should get top billing. Sellers didn’t. It seems he was right. O’Toole wasn’t bitter and contented himself with his magnetic confidence, something we learned to take for granted later but then did not know after his sole magisterial turn for David Lean. It could have been, we worried, a flash in the pan.

And comedy has been known to be fatal. Think of all the times Marlon Brando tried it. I can think of two and both are too painful to cite here. Like Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead."

Pussycat introduces us to O’Toole the comedian and O’Toole the cocksman. Allen and Sellers are both kama sutra wannabes. O’Toole is their object of abject envy. Movie audiences knew Sellers but not Allen. TV audiences knew him from New York television, mostly late night and didn’t have an inkling he could fill the big frame. Some may have vaguely known he had been the soft spoken high school kid at Sid Caesar’s 1950s round table of gag giants including Neale Simon, Howard Morris, Mel Brooks, Milt Kamen and Carl Reiner and how Reiner had to tell the loud ones to shut up and listen to "the kid." Nobody but nobody dreamed "the kid" could produce, write, direct and star in movies. Who did he think he was? Chaplin?

Clive Donner would direct. Here, at the peak of his respectable career, he would now glissade past the premature ejaculation of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968) to the flaccid floppiness of Alfred the Great (1969) and thereafter be condemned to crouch walk through the circle jerk of series television.

Allen, as we all know now, would go on to triumph until his own sexual life, outed by a stepson and formidable former wife, became such a cause célèbre that his recent film package with Amazon has had to be euthanized (one already finished film shelved because of scandal radioactivity) with a multimillion dollar chase away settlement for him to take the money and run.

Life may be unfair, as both JFK and RFK were wont to say, quoting Shaw, but it’s also ironic. For Allen to enter screen stardom as a horn-dog and exit as joke fodder for Lloyd Kauffman of Troma Team infamy to point out Allen’s (accidental?) use of the premise from Kauffman’s very own beloved blind-movie-director-movie (Terror Firmer (1999) in Allen’s Hollywood Ending (2002) is, well, some kind paradoxical whim wham. Bracingly brilliant, Lloyd went on to say… but with a sobering afterthought "…of course he ****** his daughter." A historic boot in any auteur geezer’s bum. Leave it to Lloyd and his cruel shoes.

What’s New Pussycat? is a needful part of anyone’s home library for the crux in history it represents. No other movie beholds the swinging '60s era while simultaneously bowdlerizing it so well. Couples who shouldn’t be sleeping together but are, sneak away to the Château Chantel on the French coast all at the same time. It’s Molière, in and out bedroom doors. The zaniness slacks in the middle. Sellers started improvising off script which drove Allen bonkers but O’Toole came through the chaos smiling like The Cheshire Cat. He has the sense to let Allen’s dialogue do its genius job: His wife, (Romy Schneider, basically the movie’s straight man) accuses, "We’ve been married thirty seconds and already you look at other women!"

O’Toole: "I had to look at her. She was talking to me. I looked the direction the sound was coming from!"

The slack middle is rescued with a slam bang, Keystone Kops style chase with go carts. Kinetic comedy is never easy and neither Allen or Donner were known for that art of comedic choreography. Unsung hero, second unit director Richard Talmage, gets the credit here. If one watches very closely the crystal clear Eureka 1080p Blu-ray remaster, they can see someone breaking the fourth wall and giving us all the finger.

Richard Burton does a cameo, drunk, but after all he is sitting at a bar. And probably resting between trysts. We can’t not have fun. Allen may not have had bliss but his experience here drove him to do his own films his own way. Sellers cemented his image once and for all as the supreme madman of international screen comedy. O’Toole revealed he could do comedy and, more important, physical comedy. The movie made big bucks and for once the marketeers had fun too. Their tagline says it: "They’re all together again! (For the first time!)"

It’s a failsafe party picture, even for a party of one. It may be as old as your grandparents or even your great grandparents but it’s still funny.


John Huff

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