Saturday, February 6, 2016

After the Fox (1966)

With no stage credits to adapt to screen just yet, Simon took a stab at the international caper film, a genre done so well in the 1960s. Here we have Peter Sellers as Aldo Vanucci, or “The Fox,” as he’s known in underworld circles, an Italian criminal mastermind currently in the slammer. His former partners in crime come to visit, informing him of a major gold heist in Cairo, requiring of a skilled accomplice to smuggle the loot into Italy. But he couldn’t be bothered by this folly; more pressing to him is his sister’s recent recreational habits, and so he breaks out that night (using his talent with disguise) and goes to see her and his Bingo-playing mom. The cops on his tail causes mom great distress, and so Aldo resolves to make good for his kin, even if he is on the lam, so he accepts the heist job.

But with one close call too many, Aldo, observing his sister’s infatuation with movie star Tony Powell, hatches a plan to impersonate a film crew, which not only would be untouched by the law but be a good ruse for his operation also. It works well, too: minor snags like not having a filming permit are nothing doing for Aldo – he even gets Powell to star in his “film,” and soon an entire small town gets Hollywood fever, with only Powell’s agent (Martin Balsam) skeptical of the crazy goings-on. The gold-laden barge finally lands, and the cast of thousands happily unloads the bullion onto trucks, including ALL the police. The crooks nearly get away, but Vanucci is placed before the court  - along with thousands of accomplices. The film he made is shown as evidence; clearly a fraud, it nonetheless shows the joie de vivre of its soul-starved cast. Vanucci is sent back to the brink, but he vows to escape once again, which he does.

A splendid, disarmingly delightful comic caper is more than a little inspired by Sellers’ huge hit The Pink Panther (both also UA films), but it stands well enough alone for Simon’s clever script and just the right loopy Italian-film tone (kept up by director Vittorio de Sica, who contributes a cameo). It also has one of my favorite themes: everybody loves the movies, and applying that to some well-crafted suspense presages that done in Ben Affleck’s Argo, made some 40 years later.

And of course, Sellers is pure genius here at the top of my form. Assuming a nearly flawless Italian accent and donning some crafty disguises as his characters is a master impersonator, he carries the film not simply with a great physical performance but also an emotional one – one evoking surprising sympathy for his life on the lam. Favorite scene: Sellers as Vanucci as the fake director Federico Fabrizi, with his entire cast and crew on the beach, needs to stall, so he has his stars do… nothing, and sells it as a profound commentary on non-communication.

Simon work certainly deserves a second look; he has acknowledged that it is “funny in spots” but overall regards it as a critical and commercial bomb, which it was. A troubled production is partially to blame (Sellers’ tumultuous off-screen persona was already becoming legendary), but perhaps it was just a bit too light for the time. By 1966, the public was leaning toward heavier fare that mirrored the turbulent era: works like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Of course, the BO success of Simon’s later play adaptations (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple) belie this, but then again, those are classic works. Fox is not classic, but good.

Rating: ***

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