The Peter Sellers Collection (DVD)
The concept of a DVD box set containing Peter Sellers' lesser-known films is inherently dicey, as there can be a huge gulf in quality between the films for which Sellers is remembered and those for which he is not. Packaged together as "The Peter Sellers Collection," however, these six films provide an excellent representation of the actor's comic gifts and nearly unparalleled ability to disappear into characters. At the set's heart are three slashing social satires Sellers made with twin brothers Roy and John Boulting toward the beginning of his career, films that reveal a remarkable consistency of tone, theme, and structure that admirers might attribute to a strong authorial voice, and detractors to a lazy adherence to formula. In all three movies, a guileless innocent runs into trouble when his attempts to do the right thing put him in conflict with a corrupt establishment interested only in perpetuating the status quo. In the raucous 1959 Cold War satire Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. (exclusive to the box set), the innocent is a British-bred monarch of a decrepit Third World country that becomes a geopolitical hotspot when rumors circulate that Russian spies have been spotted there. Sellers co-stars as the country's unscrupulous Prime Minister, while the delightful Terry-Thomas stars as the title character, a well-bred British diplomat whose ineptitude has global ramifications. The Boulting brothers share Frank Tashlin's satirical take on advertising-saturated modern life as fast, cheap, and perpetually on the brink of chaos, and Carlton-Browne showcases the team's rowdy sensibility to terrific effect. Sellers distinguishes himself in what is unmistakably a supporting role, but delivers a more substantial performance in the Boultings' hit follow-up, 1959's I'm All Right Jack. Beginning as a vehicle for able stooge Ian Carmichael, who plays a well-bred aristocratic dullard sent to work in a weapons factory, Jack becomes a Peter Sellers movie the moment Sellers arrives. The film turned him into a movie star, and it's easy to see why: Playing a middle-aged labor bigwig who combines Marxist values with intellectual upper-class pretensions, Sellers gives a performance that's both hilarious and strangely touching. The last and weakest of the Sellers/Boultings collaborations, 1963's Heavens Above! casts its star as a modest, unfailingly polite vicar accidentally sent to a wealthy parish, where his good deeds unexpectedly produce dire results. The film scores some big laughs and has some nice satirical touches–particularly moments involving a miracle product that advertises itself as the answer to the question "Life Not Worth Living?"–but it never overcomes its thin conception of Sellers' do-gooder protagonist as a cardboard saint. The actor plays a much different character in 1957's beguiling The Smallest Show On Earth, which focuses on the travails of a struggling novelist who inherits a run-down cinema known as "the flea pit." Sellers scored one of his major film breakthroughs playing a geriatric, drunken projectionist whose identity is wrapped up in a cinema seemingly doomed to fade into obsolescence. The funny, charming movie's only real fault is its brevity. Two Way Stretch, from 1960, is similarly brisk but far less memorable. Essentially a smarter, funnier version of Hogan's Heroes, it casts Sellers as a criminal mastermind who isn't about to let anything as minor as incarceration affect his quality of life. A criminal acquaintance offers him the opportunity to break out of jail, steal priceless jewels, and then return to jail before anyone notices. But the proposition is complicated by the arrival of a ruthless guard who disdains the prison's mollycoddling ways. The heist itself comes across as little more than an afterthought, and while it's reasonably diverting, Stretch seems destined to escape viewers' memories almost immediately. Made 10 years later, Hoffman featured Sellers in a rare dramatic role, and he proves surprisingly confident in the part. Largely ignored at the time of its release, the film casts Sellers as a lonely businessman who blackmails a beautiful secretary (Sinéad Cusack, oozing vulnerability) into spending an ostensibly romantic week with him. But what begins as a sleazy business arrangement gradually develops into something different, and while the film's arc may recall Pretty Woman, its unexpectedly perceptive take on the dark side of male sexuality presages the work of Neil LaBute by several decades. Particularly sharp in its observations of men who idealize beautiful women, only to turn into petty misogynists when the objects of their affection fail to live up to their standards, Hoffman captures one of Sellers' most atypical performances, and also one of his best. In a brief biographical sketch that's the only real bonus feature in an otherwise no-frills set, the star complains that many of his early films were treated as "regional pictures" without much hope of crossing over into other lucrative markets. His frustration is understandable, although the films here (particularly the Boulting comedies) are unmistakably British, filled with pampered prisoners, post-empire Cold War hijinks, and labor unions strong enough to bring a country to its knees. But, "regional" or not, I'm All Right Jack, The Smallest Show On Earth, Carlton-Browne, and Hoffman are consistently compelling, and more than worthy of rescue from history's dustbin.