If his outings as Inspector Clouseau are the most iconic efforts in the Peter Sellers canon, and his performances in Dr Strangelove and Being There are his best comic-dramatic work, then After The Fox is the unloved black sheep of the star’s best work. An ingenious debunking of the pretentions of international cinema in 1966, it’s a sunny, clever film that mixes neat character comedy with trenchant satire of the film-making process.
We kick off with a catchy theme song by Burt Bacharach that you’ll never forget; charged with creating something as ear-wormy as Henri Mancini’s Pink Panther theme or What’s New Pussycat, this call-and-response number does the job, complete with a wily animated fox in the titles. After a desert heist, things settle down with a prison scene, in which we see inmate The Fox aka Aldo Vanucci passing bread, wine and cigarettes to his visitors; he’s so smart, his life is better in prison than it would be is outside. The Fox even returns the keys to his cell to the jailer; he’ll only come out when he’s ready. But family matters intervene, and when he seeks to reconnect with his bingo-loving mother and sister Gina (Britt Ekland), the Fox is engaged in a reverse heist, where he’ll smuggle gold bullion ashore in a quaint Italian seaside town under the guise of directing a film. In a post-modern touch that meta-master Italo Calvino would have appreciated, the Fox ventures to Rome’s Cinecitta studios, where he steals cranes, cameras and film from under the nose of Vittorio de Sica, the film-making legend who actually directed this film.
Neil Simon’s script then moves nimbly to chronicle the Fox’s adventures as he hires a fading US star Tony Palmer (Victor Mature), and starts filming in an attempt to disguise his smuggling activity. Of course, the Fox knows nothing about movie-making, and the nonsense directions he provides offer a pitch-perfect parody of the pretentions of Italian neo-realist cinema, drawing sights on Antonioni, Pasolini, Fellini, Rossellini and even De Sica himself. He directs his game cast to do nothing, as a trenchant comment on the meaningless of modern life; it’s worth noting that some of the shooting techniques seen here reflect the way that Italian films were made in the 40’s and 50’s. Of course, the locals are enthused, and follow his wayward instructions with a smile, notably the police captain who endlessly interrupts to get his mug in front of the camera to try out his one and only line; “Good morning!’
The Fox is a master of disguise, and Sellers enjoys a dressing-up box of costumes, from policemen to priests, but he doesn’t mug or overplay in the way that blighted his later films, This is peak Sellers as the vain-glorious auteur Aldo Vanucci, mixing up his light-meter and his megaphone, wheedling and canoodling to great effect. Ekland matches him with ingénue energy as his vain sister, while Mature’s send up of himself is priceless. While the fog-bound car-chase is one of the few scenes referencing The Pink Panther directly, the climax is a real-one off; the Fox, and his friends are arrested, and put on trial, with the film he’s made used as evidence. The film unspools to the stunned courtroom, a recorded ragbag of bloopers, mis-takes and general chaos unfold, a catalogue of amateurism and sheer ineptitude, only to be acclaimed by an in-house film-critic as a masterpiece. After The Fox is a witty rebuke to the excesses of international cinema, and a lush, accomplished comedy that provokes genuine mirth.
The BFI package offers a welcome lockdown interview with the super-glam Ekland, who retains her inimitable spark; ‘I want to challenge Covid’ she explains with some pep as she rues her part in a cancelled play. Otherwise, an insightful commentary by Vic Pratt on Sellers’ development is unwisely combined with a slide-show stills-gallery creating some cognitive dissonance. But who’s complaining? Hopefully this spanking restoration of this wrongly neglected film will cement its reputation as one of the underrated comedies of all time.
After The Fox has a fresh BFI DVD and blu-ray release on 21 September 2020.
Thanks to the BFI for access to this blu-ray.