Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

rating: *****

the story: A U.S. ambassador inadvertently ends up in a stowaway's bid for asylum.

what it's all about: I'm a big Marlon Brando fan.  I think you can't possibly appreciate movies as a creative medium without being a big Marlon Brando fan.  Not just for a few signature performances (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather), but for the breadth of his career and what he represented and even what he tried to do with the roles he selected.  This was a man of great talent who regularly chose projects that challenged the status quo.  Late in life he gave up the fight; I think he got tired of fighting somewhere in the '70s, probably when he realized Vito Corleone had actually wiped out everything he'd sought to accomplish, rather than made it, and him, relevant again.  So he just started punishing everyone, including himself.  And yet his projects, even at that point, remain fascinating, not as spectacles but because he continued his efforts.  You can't watch something like The Formula and tell me that isn't true.  You can't tell me Apocalypse Now isn't a stinging indictment.  You can't tell me The Island of Doctor Moreau isn't one, either.  That was the whole point.  Sometimes, and really way too often, we let things that are entirely beside the point get in the way of the work itself.  It's no one's business how ornery he became onset, later. 

And even though I only became aware of A Countess from Hong Kong's poor reputation after watching it for the first time, it's no one's business, today, what people have said about it, negatively.  The movie speaks for itself.  It's hilarious.  It's a goddam classic.

It's also the last movie Charlie Chaplin ever directed.  It's a farce, a delicious piece of nonsense.  Maybe I found it so easy to love because of Brando, and maybe it's because the theater experience I have is full of farces.  And I'd consider A Countess from Hong Kong a natural piece of stage theater.  I have no idea if anyone has ever done a stage production of it, but that really, really needs to happen.  If you've never seen Noises Off, a 1992 ensemble comedy featuring John Ritter, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, Michael Caine, and others, you really should.  I caught up with it because I'd seen a college production, and loved that.  In high school I became acquainted with the work of playwright Charlie Schulman (The Ground Zero Club and The Birthday Present, the latter of which I got to act in).  The local theater seemed, at least at the time I was attending regularly thanks to school (and later; I saw a production of The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon, most famous for The Odd Couple, so they certainly kept it up), to specialize in this kind of play.  The blockbuster stage version of The Producers proved it still had mass appeal, too, even if the second film version didn't seem to back that up.  This kind of material is the basis for all sitcoms, too.  I'd suggest part of why we take ourselves too seriously today is because comedy has largely taken a backseat to spectacle, and what comedy there is usually spends all its time being political.  And yet there's nary a Good Morning, Vietnam that's come out of this period. 

Anyway, and it's not really bombshell Sophia Loren in her prime, either.  I caught up with her much later in her career, Grumpier Old Men.  She's one of those exotic beauty prototypes most recently embodied by Sofia Vergara, who inexplicably (and also tellingly) has never been able to capitalize on her Modern Family breakthrough role with success in the movies.  One of her early performances was in the severely underappreciated Big Trouble.  I've also seen Loren in Man of La Mancha (1972), which was another movie easily dismissed because its leads (including Peter O'Toole) weren't particularly known for singing.  It's certainly fun seeing Loren in her prime.

Considering the massive heat the idea of immigration has received in recent years, something like Countess ought to be reexamined on that basis alone, since that's the heart of the story.  Loren's character has ended up marooned in Hong Kong, having ended up exiled during the Russian Revolution.  We tend to think of refugees as the classic "huddled masses yearning to be free," and yet the bulk of them have no class status, they're merely displaced peoples seeking safe harbor.  Countess is certainly a glamorized version, but sometimes (okay, always?) that's exactly what's needed in order for people to understand what's happening.  You can see the success of Black Panther as a cathartic acknowledgment that black peoples have often lacked adequate representation; it's a lightning rod of viewers clumsily acknowledging their own shortcomings if not outright racism, an outlet that makes Africa suddenly relevant to them, even if the movie itself is likely pabulum.

What helps Countess escape such crude analysis?  The fact that it really is classic screwball, a last love letter from Chaplin, and another unexpected left turn from Brando (similar to Guys and Dolls).  And yet as inexplicable as it seems, every single time someone comes to Brando's cabin door and it sends either him or Loren or both of them scrambling for cover, it's gut-busting.  That's classic screwball right there, that's the essence of the art, and the basis for every other element working as well as it does, Brando's exasperation (he does it so subtly you're almost convinced he really is annoyed, which is a fine line few actors can pull off) and of course Loren's increasingly heartbreaking predicament.  Brando had done comedy before (The Teahouse of the August Moon, which seems dreadfully unPC by today's standards; Brando plays Japanese), but he's playing at the behest of a master, and he's fully up to the task.

Chaplin himself merely cameos; his son Sydney has a much bigger role, and although he's already older than his father was at the peak of his fame, and he doesn't sport the classic Tramp mustache, you can easily spot the resemblance, and that's a treat, too.

In short, this is another easily recommended movie.

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