by RICHARD WINTERS
This wacky film nicely exemplifies the mod, experimental wave of filmmaking that permeated the era of the late ’60s. The story takes place in London and is about a clothing manufacturer’s wife named Harriet Blossom (Shirley MacLaine) who one day calls her husband Robert (Richard Attenborough) while he is at work to tell him that her sewing machine has broken down. Robert sends a lowly assistant named Ambrose Tuttle (James Booth) over to their house to help her fix it. Harriet is a bit bored with life and feels neglected by her husband who is tied up with his job. She not so subtly seduces Ambrose when he comes over and then hides him in the attic, where he soon takes up residence. He comes out only when the husband is away, but the unexplained strange noises that Robert hears and the many close calls make him think he is going insane and lead him to a nervous breakdown.
Director Joseph McGrath’s highly visual style is the real star here. The lighting, editing, camera angles, set design, and costumes are all very creative and imaginative. I also liked the home that was chosen for the setting. It has a nice architectural flair especially the attic and billiards room, which seems to be draped by a large stained glass window. Certain film professors show this movie to their classes as an example of how stylish direction can help accentuate a story as well as deftly define its era. I was disappointed to see that although McGrath is still alive he hasn’t done a film since 1984, which is a shame as it is obvious from this that he is quite gifted.
This is generally considered a vehicle for MacLaine, but to me her performance isn’t interesting. I think she is a first rate actress, but her character is actually the only normal one in the film and she ends up acting like nothing more than an anchor trying to corral all the craziness around her. Booth, as her lover, goes to the other extreme, but doesn’t fare any better. He seems too clownish and is always wearing various disguises and going through different personas, which ends up making the character unrealistic and cartoonish. If anything, out of the three main leads, it is actually Attenborough who does the best. His nervous and confused facial expressions are priceless. The scenes where he comes home from work and to unwind, pretends to be a conductor of a large orchestra while listening to a loud record are amusing.
The colorful supporting cast full of legendary British pros steals the film. Some of them appear just briefly, but they still make a memorable and funny impression. Barry Humphries, playing a male character and not Dame Edna, is good as an art dealer. John Cleese in one of his very first roles is engaging as an argumentative postal clerk. The best however is far and away Freddie Jones as the snippy, suspicious, relentless detective that seemingly will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of Ambrose, who once he moves into Harriet’s attic proceeds to completely drop of society and disappear.
Although generally entertaining the plot really doesn’t go anywhere and seems in a lot of ways to merely be a set-up for a lot of absurdity. What is worse is the fact that this based on a true story that in its own right was very intriguing. In the real-life incident that took place in 1913, a 33 year old woman by the name of Dolly Oesterreich met a 17 year old named Otto Sanhuber. She, like the character in the movie, was a bored wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and took on the young man as her “sex slave” which he readily accepted. To avoid possible suspicion she had him move into their attic, where he remained for five years and despite some close calls was never caught. When the Oesterreichs moved to Los Angeles in 1918 Dolly made sure that their new home had an attic as well and Otto then took up residence there; the deception continued until 1920 when Otto killed the husband.
Of course none of that happens here. In fact, Ambrose is fond of the husband and considers the three to be one big happy “family”, which is offbeat for sure, but not particularly satisfying. Again, this film does have some funny moments. I thought the scene where Robert invents the world’s first inflatable bra only to have the system go awry during an exhibition, which forces the model’s breasts to grow to unbelievable proportions before they all go floating in the air, to be hilarious. Still the end result of this production can best be described as cinematic soufflé. It looks great, but has no substance.
My Rating: 6 out of 10 stars