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.

Murder Ahoy! (1964) ***

Agatha Christie tales were in a mostly B-movie limbo in the 1960s, despite Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and would have to wait another decade before glorious all-star resurrection in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In the meantime, audiences made do with Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple in an MGM quartet – all directed by George Pollock – that ended with Murder Ahoy! Rutherford did not enjoy the national treasure status of the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench these days but she had been elevated to late-career fame by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The VIPs (1963). But she never quite made the cinematic impact anticipated after Blithe Spirit (1945) and she was mostly seen in roles that called for eccentricity or determination, characteristics associated with Christie’s second most famous sleuth.

The title had led me to expect a picture set on a liner or a cruise ship. Instead, this being a cheaply-made British black-and-white feature, we are limited to a sojourn on a sail training ship which remains moored at all times. Nonetheless, Rutherford is resplendent in naval attire and disports herself as if she were the captain. Her excuse to get on board is the sudden death of a member of the committee overseeing said ship just before he makes an announcement. Miss Marple relies on a good deal more than Hercule Poirot on little grey cells and through laboratory experiment determines the man died from strychnine poisoning. Among her other hidden talents are signaling mastery and dexterity with a sword and she drops popcorn on corridor floors to warn of imminent arrivals when she invades cabins. The suspects include Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon) at his pompous best, Derek Nimmo (BBC’s Oh, Brother), and William Mervyn while Nicholas Parsons (ITV game show Sale of the Century) makes an appearance as a doctor, described in double entendre fashion as “brisk.”   

The Marple films usually ended up on the bottom half of a double bill in the UK.

Naturally, there is more murder, and the subplots include burglary, secret romance (Joan Benham) and thwarted romance (Norma Foster). However, nothing can deter Miss Marple and she soon puts the world to rights. It’s an engrossing enough little film, the resolution a surprise, and Rutherford has skill and charm enough to almost trademark the role. At one time in the 1960s in the USA the Marple pictures were revived as double bills but generally in Britain treated with less regard. Although you could argue that MGM could have bolstered the standards of production, much of the merit derives from the quaintness and the quintessential English lives portrayed. As a bonus there are moments of well-observed comedy and a very inventive score from Ron Goodwin whose 633 Squadron appeared the same year.   

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