Monday, April 9, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong Movie Review

As Charlie Chaplin entered the twilight of his life he struggled to get films made the way he was accustomed. Exiled from the United States, he no longer had the playground of his own studio to make films in the painstaking manner that was his style.  Because he was in thrall to a studio that was not his own, he had constraints in terms of budget and time. After leaving the United States for England in 1952 he only made two more films in the next 25 years.

We can possibly blame the quality of his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, on this among several other factors. For Chaplin, A Countess from Hong Kong represented many firsts: first color film; first widescreen film (despite his ridiculing of the format in A King in New York); first comedy not starring himself; first time directing international movie stars. The effect of all these factors is a film that is both not funny as well as technically shoddy.

Marlon Brando plays Ogden Mears, a wealthy millionaire recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to Arabia, who finds himself in the impossible situation of hiding the titular Russian Natascha (Sophia Loren), a stowaway in his ocean liner cabin. As a married man and political figure, the presence of a beautiful young woman in his quarters is potentially embarrassing, so Ogden, in spite of himself, has to keep her squirreled away. This being a light romantic comedy, it’s only a matter of time before they fall in love. Lest you think Ogden a slime for jilting his wife (who turns up late in the film played by Tippi Hedren), a throwaway line early in the film alerts us to their impending divorce.

The biggest impediment to the film’s success as a comedy might just be Brando’s performance. Loren’s performance is lithe and tempestuous, but Brando is a dramatic actor not built for comedy. To see the greatest actor of his day reduced to pratfalls and other shtick just feels embarrassing. There was reportedly a great deal of tension between Brandon and his director. Chaplin’s broad comedy style is anathema to Brando’s reliance on Method acting and he was unable to play the part his way. His comedic timing is way off. His delivery of dialogue and his physical attributes absolutely kill any chance for laughs in his scenes.

Apart from Loren, the two other performances that stand out are Patrick Cargill in the role of Hudson, Ogden’s valet who serves as a marriage of convenience for Natascha to enter America legally, and Chaplin’s son Sydney Chaplin as the straight man Harvey, Ogden’s lawyer and close friend. Sydney Chaplin demonstrated good dramatic acting chops many years earlier in Chaplin’s Limelight as a young composer who falls in love with Claire Bloom. Though his acting credits were few and minor in the intervening years, he shows poise and maturity as an actor. Cargill brings some of the best notes of comedy to the whole film.

But even without the failed attempt at comedic acting from Brando, the film is still poorly edited, with Gordon Hales missing the mark and holding shots too long. The film should be paced much faster. And as for the anamorphic widescreen – this film seems such an odd choice for Chaplin to have switched to that format. Nearly all the action is confined to Ogden’s state room on a ship. Much of the film feels a lot like a stage play (I think the comedy might be well adapted to that medium) so Chaplin never really takes full advantage of the wider palette for staging the action. He might have achieved a better sense of claustrophobia within the cabin by keeping the ratio to the old 16:9 standard.

I wonder if A Countess from Hong Kong might have fared better if Chaplin had made it two decades earlier, when this kind of fleet romantic comedy fluff was more in vogue. At the end of the sixties, films were going through drastic changes. 1967 is often marked as the beginning of the New Hollywood with films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde getting all the press. All in all it’s a rather sad final chapter in the life of a filmmaking genius who was so often ahead of his time, but very oddly reverted to an outdated style for his swan song.

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