The Battle of the Sexes (1960)
It’s a title that can be applied to more than just this black and white British comedy but it’s one that fits as we see a timid Peter Sellers faced with the arrival of Constance Cummings at the firm he works at in Edinburg, Scotland. A firm that hasn’t changed much in the 35 years that Peter has loyally spent there.
Our story starts in the United States where a board of directors want nothing better than to get the opinionated Constance out of their daily affairs. None more so than Donald Pleasence. It’s decided she’s to be sent abroad to study business practices. Pleasence gets saddled with coming along but he’ll ditch her and fade from our story line. Too bad as he’s always a most welcome presence is any movie.
While she’s headed overseas, Sellers will be called to the deathbed of Ernest Thesiger who is the patriarch of the company. He entrusts Sellers to look after his flighty son, Robert Morley, to ensure the tweed business stays it’s true course and maintain the quality of product that is produced. Morley who has been in the States for an extended period will befriend and fall for Constance on his return trip. When he decides to hire her on to the firm as a consultant in modern business practices, Sellers and the other old chaps at the office are not going to take her new methods in a good cheer and it’s the meek mannered Sellers who is going to turn this comical escapade into a nearly demented black farce.
It’s definitely an old boys club that Constance has found herself hired on to and she quickly refers to the gang as a group of “old gremlins” to Morley and suggests he rid the company of them. Morley is of course childlike and blows with the wind. Meaning he’s listening to his new love on one hand and the elderly Sellers on the other. Peter wants things to remain as they are and just when he appears to be fighting a losing battle, he devilishly uses his mild, milquetoast persona to his advantage by sabotaging many of her ideas and installations throughout the offices of the employees including Morley’s.
Directed by Charles Crichton, a man who’s successes in film range from Dead of Night released in 1945 to the smash hit A Fish Called Wanda in 1988, this sly comedy takes a sudden turn when Sellers decides that the only way to put things as they were is to murder his American counterpart. I’ll be the first to admit I did laugh here on occasion but wasn’t overly impressed with where the script was veering by the third act. On the plus side is the timing of the crucial scenes involved when Sellers is in Constance’s apartment with murder on his mind. Along comes Morley and the laughs pick up their pace. It’s got a Keaton/Lloyd feeling to it with Peter deftly keeping out of sight as the couple go from room to room looking for him.
Sellers, ever the chameleon actor delivers another winning characterization this time out. He’s believable and genuine in his role through the first hour and I’m on his side. Less so in the final 24 minutes when the plot goes sideways. He’s morphed into a villain and it’s Constance I’m feeling sorry for. As much as I enjoyed the film overall I do wish it hadn’t turned dark. The movie was adapted from the short story The Catbird Seat written by James Thurber, perhaps best known as the writer of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As an in joke, there’s even a reference in Battle of the Sexes to a Mr. Mitty. Which brings to mind Seller’s character Martin. It’s not much of a stretch to see him as a Walter Mitty like character himself thru the first hour.
Being released on blu ray by Kino Lorber has allowed me to finally see this title. One of just a handful starring Sellers I’ve yet to see. Hammer fans will be sure to spot two names in the opening credits they’re familiar with. Oscar winner Freddie Francis who went on to a number of Hammer Horrors served here as the cinematographer. Also listed as the editor on the film is Seth Holt. Seth would direct Hammer’s superior Scream of Fear as well as The Nanny and would sadly pass away while helming Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb in 1971.
Miss Constance was by this time nearing the end of her movie career though she would remain busy in television into the 1980’s. She made her film debut back in 1931’s The Criminal Code for Howard Hawks opposite Walter Huston and Boris Karloff.
The title Battle of the Sexes was resurrected once again in 2017 for the bio-comedy that tells the tale of the famed 70’s tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King starring Steve Carrell and Emma Stone. As for the black and white Sellers version, worth a look for us big kids who grew up and remain Peter’s fans to this day.