Peter Sellers would have been 91 years-old on 9 September 2016 and in the 36 years since his death, his reputation as a comic genius has remained solid. His short life has been a gift for biographers both sympathetic and less so, and inspired an epic book by Roger Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which outraged and entranced readers in roughly equal measure. Having been a vital part of the The Goons, Sellers made over 50 films and while some of them were disasters, a good number have also proved to be lasting classics.
The Ladykillers (1955)
Director Alexander Mackendrick
This was Peter Sellers’ first major role in a film, although for once he is not the most exotic creature displayed within. He has to compete for attention with Alec Guinness’s false teeth, Herbert Lom’s fedora, Danny Green’s bulk and the outrageous, seemingly unwitting, scene-stealing of Katie Johnson as the little old lady they are trying to kill. He seems somewhat subdued but this suits his character, a pudgy Cockney spiv, and the fact that he makes a mark at all in such company is a sign of good things to come. Sellers also appears as the voice of Mrs Wilberforce’s parrots. The film itself is, of course, a comic masterpiece written by William Rose and directed by that master of malice Alexander Mackendrick, for whom it served as an effective calling card for Hollywood, even though his sympathies seem to lie more with the woefully inefficient killers than with their not-so-easy target.
I’m All Right Jack (1959)
Director John Boulting
Although Sellers provides some memorable moments in his earlier films, particularly as the obnoxious TV host in The Naked Truth (1957), his first fully realised leading character is Fred Kite, the union leader in the Boulting Brothers’ freewheeling satire about industrial relations in which the bosses are spivs and crooks and the unions are freeloading fools. The satire is very undisciplined and the film ends up in slightly incoherent slapstick. One also gets the feeling that the sympathies of the filmmakers are not altogether unbiased.
However, when Sellers is on screen the film comes together perfectly because Fred Kite, while on some levels a caricature, is believable and weirdly sympathetic. His ridiculous moustache and intellectual pretensions – his love of Russia is summed up by his description “All those cornfields and ballet in the evenings” – are somehow quite touching in their sincerity, as is his displacement from the affections of his wife and daughter by the unwitting tool of management Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael).
Never Let Go (1960)
Director John Guillerman
This is a real oddity in the Sellers filmography, a straight crime thriller in which he plays a serious, villainous role. It’s one of his very few non-comic parts and he’s remarkably effective in it, although the contemporary critical reception was unkind and led him to decide that it wasn’t an experiment he wished to repeat. The seedy London milieu of the film is well captured by John Guillerman and the cast, headed by Richard Todd and Mervyn Johns. But good as they are, it really comes alive when Sellers is on screen as Lionel Meadows, a small-time crook who steals cars. Initially brimming with bonhomie, his turns into nastiness are sudden and startling and, according to his wife at the time, often taken home with him. His specificity is very much in evidence here, right down to the shark grin and the chummy northern accent. As he and Todd begin to switch roles when Meadows falls apart, Sellers never loses sight of the character and remains riveting to watch. The film as a whole remains highly underrated and one of the most interesting British excursions into noir territory.
Only Two Can Play (1962)
Director Sidney Gilliat
One of the last films from Sellers’ British period, Only Two Can Play is an adaptation of the novel That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis and presents one of his most relaxed and attractive performances. He plays John Lewis, an unappreciated Welsh librarian who is caught between his ambitious wife and a glamorous amateur actress. As ever, Sellers loves the opportunity to play with an accent, and right from the start – with a witty monologue about the seven year itch – he has our sympathies. He also seems at home in a part which mainly requires him to appear relatively normal, something which was rarely asked of him. The basic woman-baiting of the book is slightly toned down in the film which, though receiving an X certificate on release for its sex references, is a gentle comedy with a fine cast.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)
Director Stanely Kubrick
Over 50 years later, Dr Strangelove has lost none of its power to provoke, amuse and disturb. Some people, including myself, might even say that it is Stanley Kubrick’s most durable achievement and if it is then that is due to various factors – Terry Southern’s script, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Ken Adam’s production design – but in particular to the wondrous playing of Peter Sellers. After The Mouse That Roared (1959) he developed a reputation for playing multiple parts, one which slightly dogged his career, but on this occasion all three characters are carefully thought-out and integral to the film. He is hilariously funny as President Merkin Muffley, especially in his long phone conversation with the Soviet premier; suitably staunch as British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; and delightfully, if slightly scarily, unhinged as Strangelove, the scientist who has invented the Doomsday Machine and finds the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction to be sexually exciting.
The Party (1968)
Director Blake Edwards
Although its racial stereotyping could make you want to skip over this one, The Party is the most successfully sustained excursion by Sellers and Blake Edwards into pure slapstick. Heavily influenced by silent comedy and the work of Jacques Tati, the film features Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a disaster-prone Indian actor who attends a lavish Hollywood party and proceeds to completely destroy it. Needless to say, Sellers probably found the whole idea of pretending to be an Indian to be hilarious in itself – the Goons were constantly putting on silly racial accents – but fortunately there’s enough going on to make the dated concept less offensive than it perhaps should be. The timing of the comedy is absolutely razor-sharp – my favourite set-piece is the epic encounter between Bakshi and a toilet – and Sellers, in the role of the naive innocent, is rather charming. You might just laugh yourself silly.
Director Alvin Rakoff
Hoffman is a film without much of a reputation, which is a shame because it contains one of Sellers’ most interesting performances. Famously, he considered the end result to be too revealing of his own personality and offered to buy back the negative from EMI. This in itself is fascinating because Hoffman is a troubled, dark character, a man who becomes obsessed with the woman he imprisons in his flat for a weekend for the purposes of blackmail. It’s a complex and enlightening turn, with Sellers appearing gaunt and grim, spitting out misogyny and simmering with suppressed rage. The film falls apart after the first half and never becomes the battle of wills that it promises to be – no reflection on Sinead Cusack’s excellent performance – but it’s full of interesting things. It shows a demon inside Sellers which we now know to have been ever-present in his life and it’s not comfortable to watch.
The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973)
Director Anthony Simmons
This is a film in complete contrast to Hoffman – a charming and generous comedy about an itinerant busker who befriends two children who are battling against the squalor of their poverty-stricken existence. It’s shot with a keen eye for the glamour of urban decay and the kids are refreshingly unaffected in their performances. Sellers is in his element here. Although only 47 when the film was made, he seems a decade or more older and his eyes betray disappointment and a bewilderment at where life has taken him. He seems to relish going back to his childhood, playing the ukulele just like his dad – he always claimed that his father taught George Formby – and singing funny, wistful little ditties. The film isn’t a great one but it is full of pleasures and lovers of London will particularly relish the numerous location sequences.
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)
Director Blake Edwards
Opinions differ as to the best of the five Pink Panther movies that Sellers completed before his death – I refuse to even discuss the necrophiliac excrescence of Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) which was cobbled together from unused footage – but my own preference is for his third. Like all the others, it’s often frustratingly inconsistent and there are scenes which go on far longer than they need to. However, perhaps aware that he had made too many flops for Hollywood’s liking, Sellers really brings his best game to this, embellishing Clouseau with even more verbal confusions than before and adding moments of divine comedy, whether harassing a blind street musician while a robbery is taking place behind him or fending off attacks from his manservant Cato. The supporting cast, including Christopher Plummer, adds to the fun, but the real jewel is a hilarious performance from Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s perpetually hysterical boss beset by misfiring revolvers and exploding cigars.
Being There (1979)
Director Hal Ashby
This was not Peter Sellers’ last completed film – that honour goes to the frankly appalling The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) – but it is such an effective swansong that it should have been. It casts him as Chance, the gardener to an old man who is forced out into the world when his patron dies, inadvertently becoming both a celebrity and a presidential advisor. The role is perfect for Sellers, that blank canvas upon which so many portraits could be painted but never a definitive one, and he underplays Chance to perfection even when those around him, notably Shirley MacLaine, are going over the top. He is often allowed to be funny but the laughs are always at the service of the character and not the result of the indiscipline or boredom which wrecked so many of his films. It helps a lot that he’s directed with a firm hand by Hal Ashby and that he works very well with a strong cast, including an Oscar-winning Melvyn Douglas.