Peter Sellers was on a remarkable roll by 1964; a household name in the UK via radio’s The Goon Show and a series of hit comedies, he became a global superstar in movies, working with Kubrick on Lolita and Dr Strangelove, and finding an iconic franchise signature role in the Pink Panther movies. Hollywood beckoned, and while star purists might see George Roy Hill’s sentimental drama as a misfire, there’s some vintage Sellers that’s worth digging deep for.
Based on Nora Johnson’s novel, this is a very early 60’s production, well upholstered, but also yearning to depict an adult world; like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it seeks a sweet spot between the sweet and the sordid. Henry Orient (Sellers) is a concert pianist who becomes the object of obsession of two young girls in posho New York; Valerie “Val” Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian “Gil” Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth). The private school girls stalk Orient around the city, even though they can see he has his own disastrous love-life to attend to. The girls’ dad (Tom Bosley) is largely away on business, but his wife Isobel (Angela Lansbury) seeks out Henry Orient and finds herself falling for his unconventional charms…
This isn’t a film that would be made so comfortably today; it’s made clear that Orient has zero interest in the girls, but there’s a few brief moments that explore Isobel’s initial fury when she suspects otherwise. The story is kind of soppy, slightly JD Salinger-esque, but Sellers grabs hold of an unusual role and makes it his own; while some of the speeded-up film is regrettable, there’s are some cherishable set-pieces, notably when Orient plays the piano with a full orchestra, and gets spooked by the girls in the audience.
The story here was apparently based on something with happened to Tony Bennett in real life, but details are sketchy; either way, Henry Orient flopped as a film, and didn’t do that well when adapted as a Broadway musical. The permissive, progressive society overtook such offerings very quickly, but with impressive location work on NYC streets, and a bygone, innocent flavour, The World of Henry Orient offers a jolt of old-fashioned nostalgia that was fading even in 1964.