NEVER LET GO
Director: John Guillermin
Cast: Richard Todd, Peter Sellers, Adam Faith, Elizabeth Sellars, Carol White
(Independent Artists, 1960) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 7 June 2005 (MGM)
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We can thank the upcoming remake of The Pink Panther for MGM’s recent release of some nearly forgotten Peter Sellers movies from their archives. Among these are the British comedy The Naked Truth and crime thriller Never Let Go, where Sellers takes a rare dramatic turn as a villain. Both show the comedian’s transition from radio to big screen stardom.
In 1957, when The Naked Truth was made, Seller’s radio program The Goon Show was at the height of its popularity and he was getting consistent film work in supporting comic roles. At the time he was primarily known as a master of many voices, so it’s not surprising that he plays ace mimic and variety show host Wee Sonny MacGregor. He’s one of four celebrities being blackmailed by tabloid reporter Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) to keep detrimental stories out of print. Led by politician Lord Mayley (funny flighty Terry-Thomas), the four plot to have Dennis assassinated.
This premise promises a rollicking satire of celebrity culture, but the comedy is so eager-to-please that darker elements seem horribly out of place, as if Bob Hope picked up an STD on the Road to Bali. The movie opens with an odd montage showing an author committing suicide for fear of Dennis’s poisoned pen (it contains one good joke as she must finish her cup of tea before throwing herself out a window). The main comic set pieces center on the group’s elaborate attempts to have Dennis killed, but the action is stiffly blocked and the comedians never let loose their physical comedy (something Terry-Thomas seems especially eager to do).
Perhaps an injection of anarchy could have improved Sellers’ performance. Whereas in later films, most notably Dr. Strangelove, Sellers would become one of the few film actors who could take on numerous roles and be funny in all of them, in the The Naked Truth, his skills are seriously underdeveloped. MacGregor dons various disguises in order to foil Dennis: an Irishman looking to buy a bomb from the IRA (hardy har har?), a dock inspector sabotaging Dennis’s houseboat, and a policeman. However, Sellers doesn’t bring anything to the characters besides a mustache and costumes, no defining tics, only bland attempts at physical comedy. At one point, bored with the action, I closed my eyes, and just listening to Sellers’ voice, I was amazed at the precision and subtlety of his dialects. It was obvious where his strengths still lay.
Let down by The Naked Truth, I was pleasantly surprised by Never Let Go, a pulpy British noir. The dialogue is crisp and brutal, the camera angles and lighting as severe as anything shot by John Alton, and the narrative tensions adequately frayed by the squealing horns of John Barry’s big jazz score. Its macho pessimism approaches camp, just enough to convey self-aware amusement but not undermine the story.
In the lingering poverty of post-War Britain, Richard Todd plays optimistic but ineffectual soap and shampoo salesman John Cummings. His job becomes even harder when his new car is stolen. The theft triggers an unraveling of Cummings’ life and he channels his desperate energy towards retrieving his stolen vehicle, tracing it to a car thief ring run by Lionel Meadows (Sellers). As Cummings attempts to destroy Meadow’s business and livelihood, the two get locked into a bitter battle for survival.
Sellers looks self-conscious, as if he can’t help satirizing the conventions of his role. With his chipmunk cheeks and a subversive gleam in his eyes, he doesn’t quite inhabit this cruel, small-time crime boss. What surprised me was how, besides a few unconvincing close-ups, Sellers exploits his comedic remove to make Meadows a terrifying offbeat villain. Using his legitimate garage business as a front, Meadows seems an honest businessman at first, and Sellers creates a calm-before-the-storm tension between this persona and later violent outbursts. (The film contains several shockingly violent fight scenes.)
His performance fits in perfectly to the overall portrayal of Cummings and Meadows as temperamentally opposite, but similarly desperate men fighting to assert their manhood. Cummings is an honest businessman, but a failure, who needs to learn how to be as cutthroat as Meadows to succeed. Despite his role as the lead heavy, it’s one of the few performances where Sellers fits in and plays off the cast, instead of standing apart as an attention-grabbing star.
That Sellers could make such progress in his on-screen acting abilities over the three year course between Naked Truth and Never Let Go may not have seemed significant at the time. These late ‘50s films have since been overshadowed by Sellers’ first major multiple comic performances in The Mouse That Roared (1959), and he would gain international notice after the release of Lolita in 1962. But these early films are still worthy of attention, Never for being great entertainment, and both for showing Sellers honing his personae. Soon enough, he’d conjure the right mix of belly laughs, character specificity, and malice hat elevated Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and Being There.