Peter Sellers (and part of Constance Cummings) in The Battle of the Sexes (1960)

From James Thurber’s America to Peter Sellers’ Scotland: ‘The Battle of the Sexes’

A sexual strategy for Yankee mechanization.

James Thurber’s 1942 story “The Catbird Seat” is one of the crueler classics in the American canon. It’s a revenge story in which a mild-mannered accountant, one of the army of faceless and unimaginative cogs organized into the corporate wheels, decides to kill an efficiency expert whose decisions are causing lay-offs and streamlined procedures that threaten his dull world. Since the expert is a woman, there’s an inevitable sense of the sexist fear of women in the previously male domain of the workplace. From the accountant’s point of view, she’s presented as an interloper of annoying mannerisms and phrases, like her use of “catbird seat”.

This story is filmed more or less faithfully while being transferred to Edinburgh: “A man’s world, a world in which the shortest skirts are worn by man” declares the narrator (Sam Wanamaker). In the clothing firm called MacPherson Tweeds, the cloth is hand-woven by families in the Hebrides and nothing has changed since the company was founded by the current owner’s grandfather. The latest MacPherson (Robert Morley) falls under the spell of outgoing American consultant Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings), who begins modernizing and updating the systems of filing, accounting and manufacture.

Perceiving her as a radical of noise and automation, Mr. Martin (Peter Sellers) embarks on a plan — stolen from a movie he watches — to perform the perfect murder. This leads to the comic highlight, in which his various attempts echo the best-laid plans of Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). The film ends as the story does, but softens the blow with a little more sentiment.

Although its title bluntly reduces the battle along gender lines, the story’s updates and transferences make two other battles equally clear: between America and the Old World, and between the modern and traditional. The woman is seen not only as female, but as specifically American and modern, therefore loud and sharp and efficient and up to date — none of which are welcome to a hidebound, hierarchical, all-male, old-fashioned institution, although she’s clearly making herself pleasant to MacPherson.

Thanks to the narration and the reaction of supporting players like Donald Pleasence, the movie pushes most heavily on the misogynist theme. The irony is that while the divorced Mrs. Barrows might be a fish out of water, many of her ideas (like the intercom and adding machines) aren’t unreasonable. Her push to innovate machine-made synthetic fibers is treated as a crass sacrilege, but she’s only bringing news of the outside world that would probably increase production and profits (at the expense of built-to-last quality). She does represent a conundrum.

As played by Cummings (who appeared in previous films by writer-producer Monja Danischewsky), she’s not completely unsympathetic, especially during the last act. Played by a British actress, Mrs. Barrows is depicted as a peculiarly American species of loud, opinionated, self-confident woman, and the film plays upon fears that she’s taking over the world. While it’s convenient for the narrative to associate these things with the feminine in order to personalize the story, the American ways of production feared by the film don’t originate in gender roles, and the movie is really playing to local English (or Scots) resentments of new-fangled Yanks and their brash success. The sexual alibi is a sneaking strategy to make it “universal”, i.e., playable in American theaters.

Danischewsky, whose family fled the Russian Revolution, worked for Ealing and other British studios. His career shows a trend for writing and/or producing comedies with a streak of anti-authoritarian rebellion (Whiskey Galore in 1949, Rockets Galore in 1957), undermining of middle class life (Meet Mr. Lucifer, a 1953 comedy on the evil of television), or a focus on outright crooks (the 1964 heist film Topkapi).

Made by the independent Bryanston Films, The Battle of the Sexes is right in line with these films, and also with director Charles Crichton’s own themes. His most famous Ealing comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), is also about a meek and unassuming clerk who quietly becomes a criminal mastermind, while 1958’s Law and Disorder pits a resolute career criminal (Michael Redgrave) against a judge (Morley). The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) follows a community’s effort to preserved its quaint traditions in the face of the efficient and dehumanized modern world. Finally, Crichton’s output has a streak of cruelty, most obvious in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Crichton directs in a quietly beautiful style. Never has stuffy claustrophobia looked so sharp and smooth, as shot by Freddie Francis and edited by Seth Holt, who would both be directing horror films by the end of the decade. Also in the film are Scottish actor James Clark and, in a cameo as the dying elder MacPherson, Ernest Thesiger of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray offers a great-looking print without extras.

RATING 5 / 10