Arabella (1967) ***

Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).

Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of  the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.

But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.  

All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.

Terry-Thomas as a bumptious hotel manager with James Fox looking mysterious.

There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.

But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.

Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up.  It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.  

To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.  

Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

Tamahine (1963) ****

Columbia sold this as if Nancy Kwan was a Bond girl with massive images of the star in a bikini (see above) – the advert in the trade magazine comprised a drop-down A2 pull-out i.e. three times the size of a normal page. But anyone expecting a salacious time would have been in for surprise. For although Kwan swam underwater during the credits (not Helen Mirren style as in The Age of Consent, 1969) and did reveal a naked posterior, you could not have imagined a more innocent, joyous, movie.

Tahitian teenager Tamahine (Nancy Kwan) wreaks havoc on the British stiff upper lip when after the death of her father she is sent to the all-male English public school run by his cousin Poole (Dennis Price), a widower. But it’s not a sex comedy with all the misunderstandings and double entendres that genre normally entails. Instead, it’s a clash of cultures, free love and expression versus prudery and repression. Poole has trouble enough on the female front, his daughter Diana (Justine Lord) inclined to enjoy a gin-soaked afternoon and in the middle of an affair with art master Clove (Derek Nimmo).

The advertising department, however, could not resist the temptation
to stick a double entendre in the poster.

Without mischievous intent, Tamahine causes chaos, assuming an artist’s model would be naked she scandalizes the petrified Clove and egged on by a gaggle of schoolboys whose hormones are off the scale she jams a chamber pot on the school weather vane. The plot, if there is one, is mostly Tamahine fending off suitors, Clove and Poole’s son Richard (John Fraser), and attempting to persuade Poole to take a paternal interest in her well-being.

But mostly it’s about how a sweet-hearted woman struggles to survive in a world where attitudes to sex remain Victorian and in which the avowed aim of education is to build character through manly pursuits such as beating the living daylights out of each other rather than teaching them to express emotion. And certainly the movie takes a more benevolent view of public schools than the later, brutal, If…(1968).

While endorsing free love, Tamahine draws the line at crossing the line in the matter of Richard, whom she deems a relation, no matter how distant. Challenging all conventions, she takes part in sports day.

But the comedy is so gentle and Tamahine so charming that this is best described as a delight. I found myself chuckling throughout and I felt I had just watched a genuine feel-good movie. On paper it certainly doesn’t sound so potentially good, especially when you consider the clichéd portrayals you might expect from the supporting cast, but in reality it exerts an extraordinary appeal.

Hardly off-screen, Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960), in only her fourth film, easily carries the movie as if she scarcely felt the weight of stardom on her shoulders and is a revelation as the imparter of tender wisdom. What aids the film enormously is that Dennis Price and Derek Nimmo play more interesting parts than their movie personas suggest. Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960), in a far cry from his Ealing comedy heyday, dispenses with his wry delivery and cynical demeanor. Unusual for a character actor, his character actually has a story arc and turns what could have been a stereotypical role into a moving performance. Before his strangulated vowels got the better off him, Derek Nimmo (The Liquidator, 1965), too, delivers probably his best performance.

Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969) is good as the rebellious daughter but James Fox offers none of the intensity he brought to the screen a year later in The Servant (1964) and neither does John Fraser (El Cid, 1961) light up the screen. In small parts you can spot Michael Gough (Batman, 1985) and Coral Browne (The Killing of Sister George, 1968).

Full marks to director Philip Leacock (The War Lover, 1962), himself a former public school boy, for not taking the easy way out with loutish comedy but instead crafting a film full of sensitivity and sensibility. Denis Cannan (Why Bother to Knock, 1961) based his screenplay on the Thelma Nicklaus novel.

You might be surprised at the four-star rating and I do confess it is a shade optimistic but it is worth more than three stars. It’s worth taking a moment to examine the whole issue of ratings. You might be asking how can Tamahine be given four stars, the same as The Sleeping Car Murders and a tad below the five-star award given to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. The answer is I compare like with like. If the best films in your opinion must concern social comment or excel technically, then there will be little place in your world for a sheer confection like Tamahine. But if you watch a wide variety of films and recognize those that contain a high enjoyment factor then you will want to draw attention to such. Hence, the rating.

It’s true that sometimes we do want movies to tackle difficult issues or take us into other worlds, but other times there is nothing to beat an old-fashioned good-hearted picture like this.

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