❉ Watched today, the film Peter Sellers tried to ban makes for disturbing viewing, writes Mark Cunliffe.
“Night thoughts, Saturday October the 3rd. Every girl is a flower garden…with a compost heap at the bottom. And many a noble man has had to drown his dwarf wife in a zinc bath or strangle an idiot girl on a muddy common in order to draw attention to himself. Reality betrays us all”
Hoffman is a 1970 ‘comedy’ about a middle-aged man whose obsession with an attractive young work colleague leads him to blackmail her into spending the week with him. That it proved a box office flop is perhaps no surprise. I don’t think it’s just because billing it as a comedy was perhaps false advertising either (these days the term ‘dramady’ would be used and audiences would be more familiar with such a style) I think the reason Hoffman alienated viewers is clear to see; for women it perhaps confirmed their suspicions about men. For men it perhaps spoke a little too truthfully about the things we try to hide. Its release to Blu-ray by the excellent Indicator Powerhouse label earlier this year may bring it a new audience, but I wonder if it will bring it fans? Even its director, Alvin Ralkoff, is pessimistic in an interview he gives that’s one of the extras on the disc; arguing that the film’s themes are just too politically incorrect to make for comfortable viewing. Watched today, Hoffman is definitely a #metoo movie.
Its star is Peter Sellers, who has fascinated me since childhood. It was his Pink Panther films in which he starred as the hilariously inept Inspector Clouseau that probably put him on my radar and I find them very funny. From there I discovered The Goon Show (and would get tapes bought for me for Christmas and birthdays) and a raft of other films. I even had a video that was a compilation of his many screen appearances (tellingly, only one brief scene from Hoffman was included; the moment where he teaches his twenty-one-year-old co-star Sinéad Cusack how to play ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano). But my fascination didn’t end there and, because I was a strange child, I became fascinated by his complex personality too and I was soon reading everything I could about him, including biographies by Graham Stark and his son Michael Sellers and eventually Roger Lewis’ sobering book, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
The key to understanding Sellers’ chameleon-like talents is the tragic fact that he felt he had no personality or identity of his own, that it had become lost behind the funny voices. Stories such as his emotional breakdown at the end of trip down memory lane with some fellow ex servicemen (“Whatever happened to LAC Sellers?” he is said to have sobbed at the recollections of his pre-fame existence), his fear of stepping onto the stage of the chat show Parkinson as himself, because he claimed there was no Peter Sellers (he opted instead to arrive dressed as a Gestapo officer and perform an impromptu comedy routine before being coaxed into the interview itself), and this comment on (of all things) The Muppet Show, “I could never be myself. You see, there is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”; a seemingly glib comment that reveals a little too much about the emptiness within him.
This emptiness haunted his private life and was rarely seen on screen, as so many productions relied upon his gifted comic abilities and mimicry. But that’s not to say that some of his film performances hinted at the man behind the mask. His decision to play his role in the 1967 spoof Bond adventure Casino Royale dead straight as part of his desire to convince as a romantic comedy lead proved to be a mistake he soon turned tail and ran from – literally, leaving the film mid-shoot and refusing to complete his part – perhaps because it highlighted the vacancy behind his eyes. This was a lesson he failed to learn when, just three years later, he took the titular role here. So aghast was Sellers at what he believe it revealed about him personally that he fell into a deep depression after filming concluded and petitioned his friend Bryan Forbes, the then head of EMI, to not only ban the film from being released but also to let him buy back the negatives so that he could destroy them to put an end to the film and secure his secrets in one fell swoop. Though Sellers didn’t get his wish, the film – which he subsequently dismissed as a disaster to anyone who would listen – wasn’t screened in New York for over a decade (and after Sellers’ death) which suggests that perhaps he did have some influence in burying the film to some extent.
Rather like those cultures who believe having their photograph taken somehow robs them off their spirit, Sellers was terrified at the thought that the void he believed lay at his core was now captured and committed forever to celluloid. I can certainly understand why Sellers feared what he brought to the screen here, because there’s just nowhere for him to hide. Granted his inauthentic, much cultivated RP accent is on display, but the rest of him is arguably the purest Sellers – the emptiness he tried to disguise laid bare. Not only that, there’s the fact that, as I alluded to at the start of this review, the misogyny that exists in man is also revealed for all to see. For someone as self-loathing as Sellers, the repercussions of that must have felt even greater to him.
As Hoffman, Sellers is the epitome of misogyny; the kind of man who idolises women, yet hates them too because they destroy his fantasies when they reveal they are human just like him (“Reality betrays us all” indeed). Once the object of his desires, the seemingly porcelain doll like Miss Smith (Cusack – and it’s telling that he only ever refers to her as ‘Miss Smith’ because to use her Christian name would, he admits, identify her as a person to him), does just this with her litany of all too common, human ailments and her overall inability to see things his way, he is quick to dismiss them as ‘idiots’.
He goes on to share caustic, disturbing thoughts about them into his dictaphone (see the quote at the head of this review) and ultimately describes them, as one memorable line puts it, as ”Fallopian tubes with teeth’‘. It’s an ugly, candid display of woman-hating misanthropy, but perhaps not as ugly as his enamoured state; which sees him stalk after Miss Smith like a vampire, proclaiming that her youth is wasted on her, using metaphors that refer to her as something to be devoured, and literally sniffing at her clothes and hair. “Please make yourself look as if you want to be fertilized,” he (would-be) purrs at one point.
It’s repellent and nakedly lustful behaviour that lays a portentous tone of potential violence upon the proceedings, which is further enhanced by the mystery Miss Smith slowly uncovers surrounding his previous marriage. Whilst the events of Hoffman never actually stray into the realms of horror or thriller, the fear and apprehension that underpins every moment makes it as disturbing a watch as any from those genres.
Essentially a two-hander in the main between Sellers and Cusack, Hoffman was adapted by Ernest Gébler from his own novel, Shall I Eat You Now?, which itself had been based on the 1967 TV play Call Me Daddy starring Donald Pleasence and Judy Cornwell. Like that play, the film is directed by Alvin Rakoff and he pitches the battle of wits between his two stars perfectly, all set to a fitting and intriguing score from Ron Grainer. Whilst the ending is a little unconvincing, especially in relation to Miss Smith’s character and motivations, the film remains strong thanks to Sellers’ incredible performance in the lead role. Ultimately, it’s hard to truly hate the character of Hoffman, but it’s just as hard to pity or sympathise with him too.
Whilst many will say Sellers only ever really played it straight in films like the Brit Noir Never Let Go and the POW flick The Blockhouse (also released by Indicator/Powerhouse, and more of that anon) I actually think he gives his best dramatic performance here – it’s just a shame that Sellers himself could not find peace with what it revealed.
❉ ‘Hoffman’ (Limited Edition Blu-ray) was released via Powerhouse Films/Indicator Series, 17 January 2022. Cat. No. PHILTD206. BBFC cert: 15. REGION A/B. EAN: 5060697921168. RRP £15.99. Click here to buy.
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.
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