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Films: B is for...

Battle of the Sexes

A gand-as-they-come Ealing rip-off from the very short-lived Prometheus FIlms (with Ealing’s Charles Crichton calling the shots), containing lots of good bits without quite troubling the best of the the Peter Sellers canon, and neither is it odd enough on its own terms to really stand out, like Hoffman or The Optimists. The story is pure, almost distilled, Ealing – Ernest Thesiger, old man proprietor of an ancient Edinburgh tweed firm carks it, and his idiot son (Robert Morley) hires fast-talking Yank businesswoman Constance Cummings to revamp the fusty old company into a go-ahead modern concern with a factory and adding machines and abstract objets d’art and all. Sellers, as the fustiest of a fusty crew that includes the sainted Roddy McMillan, sets about to thwart the plans, leading inevitably to a murder attempt. All straight off the Britcom production line, then. (There’s an argument that the Ealing Style had become just as formulaic, at its worst, as the ‘romcom with swearing’ format of every single British comedy film made this century.) What really lifts it: the brilliantly pokey accounts room, with random filing system, frail old Mr Meekie and ‘it’s not a chair, it’s a pair of steps’; Robert Morley being as annoyingly fruity as ever (a plus, you fools, a plus!); the elegantly choreographed murder scene, with knifeplay, secreted scotch bottles and invisible cats present and correct; and of course, one of those understated Sellers performances that got all too rare as his career progressed. The scene where he breaks into the company at night and screws with the files is top drawer silent clowning by anyone’s yardstick, yet it’s all – including the bit where mild-mannered Martin allows himself a triumphant parry at a statue with his umbrella – entirely in character. If Being There was worth an Oscar, this deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s all good stuff, don’t get us wrong. But the ending! Oh, how terrible! With Cummings vanquished and all back to normal, an odd little coda has Sellers spotting her on the street, now convinced she’s mentally unstable, then walking cautiously up behind her to give her a carnation, presumably as some kind of daft peace offering, then bottling it and scurrying off. Not the best ending to a film, granted – it’s very much a case of ‘yes, we see what you we’re *trying* to do there…’ – but presumably deciding that wasn’t ham-fisted enough on its own, the producers stick an American voice-over chuntering on about ‘Mr Martin may have won the battle, but has he lost the war?’ Hellfire, man! That’s no way to end a 1950s British comedy! Anyway, there it is, buggered. So in summary, Battle of the Sexes – it’s just as much of a curate’s egg as you always thought it was. But well worth your time nonetheless.

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