Here’s the sort of film King, Queen, Knave is – one where a pratfall comes with a sound effect, in case the pratfall wasn’t obvious enough. One where a woman’s breasts seem ready to be fondled, as if fitted with a homing device for wayward hands. One where an attractive woman at a certain point in the evening slips into “something more comfortable”. One where bed springs are noisy.
It’s from 1972, it might be no surprise to hear, and stars David Niven, Gina Lollobrigida and John Moulder-Brown – Niven plays German department store magnate Charles Dreyer, Lollobrigida is his lusty younger wife, Moulder-Brown is Dreyer’s nephew, a gauche and timid young thing thrown into the orbit of his uncle and aunt by the death of his own father, Charles’s brother.
It’s a farce moving in several different directions at once. Direction one: she, liking money and nervous that her husband’s death will cut her off from it, suddenly realises it would be better for her if Charles Dreyer were dead now rather than later. The nephew, from the moment he first glimpses his aunt, realises he’s desperately in lust with her. And, coming from left field, there’s a plotline about the nephew’s neighbour in the crummy building where he lives. Professor Ritter (Mario Adorf), has invented a type of synthetic human skin he will eventually use to help create lifelike robots. Death, sex and artificial human skin, the eternal verities.
The story is by Vladimir Nabokov, it might come as quite a surprise to hear. Or maybe not, since it’s one about inappropriate liaisons (see Lolita). Either way it’s been hacked into service by David Seltzer (who wrote The Omen) and David Shaw (veteran of a thousand TV screenplays) and if they never quite get all the parts to align, the film does have other compensations.
There are a few properly funny scenes, and a couple of instances where both Niven and Lollobrigida, through sheer can-do, squeeze out laughs that aren’t in the script. Both of them are dry and wry and light on their feet, Niven full of savoir faire, Lollobrigida bubbling with intelligence, and they expertly attack the whole thing as if it were a traditional stage farce in which one person exits by Door A while another arrives by Door B.
The director, Jerzy Skolimowski, counterpoints this sophistication and fluid playing with an energy, a frenzy at times, that is the film’s saving. Using a handheld camera (very unusual at the time for this sort of thing), he’s constantly in motion, which also keeps King, Queen, Knave moving. Skolimowski also stages little silent-movie-esque cutaways here and there, sometimes to illustrate what the character is really thinking (Nephew jumping the bones of Aunt, for instance), or sometimes just thrown in there as a little surreal refreshment.
It’s an old-fashioned romp, and absolutely unapologetic about it, and that’s also refreshing. Moulder-Brown in his bottle-bottom specs, and being a handsome fair-haired young man, nudges us in the direction of Ryan O’Neal in bottle-bottom specs in What’s Up Doc, which also came out in 1972. Maybe it was something in the air, or perhaps everyone had been watching Benny Hill on the TV.
Benny Hill was big in Germany, of course, where this film originates – hence Adorf in the cast, and Dreyer’s department store is obviously German as well – and Hill’s puckish playfulness and eternally boyish fascination with sex suffuses the entire project.
The film was a flop, which seems about right, though the cast are engaging and Skolimowski’s inventiveness makes it worth a watch. Niven and Skolimowski had already agreed to make another film after this, The Barbary Light, an adaptation of a Penelope Mortimer story. It never got made. Which, from this end of the telescope, is a bit of a pity.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022