Thursday, February 27, 2014

Film Review: A Countess From Hong Kong

"A Countess From Hong Kong"  **** (out of ****)

It was with some trepidation I walked into Charlie Chaplin's final film "A Countess From Hong Kong" (1967). For me, that is quite an odd statement. I regard Chaplin as the greatest comedy film-maker of all time. The greatest thing to happen to the movies since the invention of the camera. He is a giant in cinema. A name that should forever be appreciated and respected. His work should never be forgotten.

So why have trepidation about the movie? It has taken a beating from the public and movie critics, who in their infinite "wisdom" disregarded the movie upon its initial release. Though my affection for Chaplin would eventual lead me to the movie. I couldn't hold it off any longer. For better or worst I had to see what the fuss concerning "A Countess From Hong Kong" was all about. Even if it would sadden me to see this great film-maker apparently direct a disaster such as this movie.

There's a reason I am generally suspicious of the American public's taste in movies. "A Countess From Hong Kong" is one of those reasons. I simply find audiences and the critics "over do it". They criticize too easily, they are overly dramatic in their dismissal saying things like "worst movie ever made". "A Countess From Hong Kong" struck me as an enjoyable, light (very light) romance with some wonderful comedic situations. The two lead actors; Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, surprised me in their ability to act in comedy. The movie moved along briskly and I enjoyed the dialogue written by Chaplin which is peppered with subtle jabs and zingers.

Watching "A Countess From Hong Kong" I immediately noticed Chaplin's visual technique in the movie. It is shot in a rather old-fashion style. It is more fitting for a 1920s comedy. It is very much like a bedroom farce, with characters running in and out of bathrooms hiding from jealous spouses. At one point Chaplin even speeds up the camera so the characters appear to be racing to hide. It is an old technique used in silent slapstick comedies. It is peculiar Chaplin decided on this visual style. It is almost as if he didn't know how to work in the sound medium. He had of course made "sound pictures"; "The Great Dictator" (1940), "Limelight" (1952) and "A King In New York" (1957). This style bothers a lot of people. By 1967 no doubt this was an "old-fashion" picture in a "modern world". Film techniques were changing. This was the time of independent cinema. John Cassavettes, "Easy Rider" (1969), "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), storytelling was moving in a new direction.

Despite popular opinion Chaplin's decision to shoot this as an old-fashion, sentimental comedy doesn't bother me at all. The movie was made by Charlie Chaplin. What were audiences expecting? The man made silent films. Were they expecting new, cutting edge, innovative techniques? Did they expect Chaplin to revolutionize cinema and carry it into the 1970s? Was everyone taking acid?

If anything bothers me about "A Countess From Hong Kong" is it that the comedy is played up too much and there is not enough romance. This is surprising. Chaplin was a man often accused of injecting too much pathos into his films. Many have said Chaplin wanted the audience to love him and went to desperate extremes. That is why I love his movies. They go beyond laughs. They make us care about the characters. We do love them. We grow an attachment. What will happen to them. One of my favorite ending scenes from a Chaplin film is "Modern Times" (1936). We see two characters (the Tramp and the Gambit, played by Paulette Goddard) walking into the sunset together. They don't know where the road will lead them but wherever it takes them, they will go together. The song "Smile" (written by Chaplin) plays in the background. It is very emotional. That level of humanity, that warmth is missing here. There aren't enough touches of romance. That is the only valid criticism of the movie in my estimation.

In the movie Marlon Brando plays Ogden Mears, an American diplomat who has hopes of becoming Secretary of State. He is someone who gives speeches on world peace and how mankind needs to unite in this atomic age. It sounds a lot like the real Chaplin who made similar speeches in "The Great Dictator" and "A King In New York". Ogden is in Hong Kong, where we learn several countesses from various countries are living as refugees after the two world wars. One of them is a Russian countess, Natascha (Loren).

On Ogden's trip back to America, he discovers Natascha hiding in his closet as a stow-a-way. She wants to escape to America, even though she has no passport. Ogden would like to avoid a scandal, since he is getting a divorce from his wife, Martha (Tippi Hedren) and wants to keep his name out of the papers. Bringing a stow-a-way into the country will only complicate things for him. Now he must hide her for the remainder of the trip. To help him do this he confides in his friend, Harvey (Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's son).

If this were a straight romance I might understand Chaplin's decision to cast Brando and Loren but the movie has comedic touches. These two people, while major stars, just don't seem correct for comedy. But they both live up to the challenge. I found them humorous in their roles. I can't recall laughing out loud but they seemed to have a natural flair for comedy. Neither actor embarrassed themself. I prefer this movie to another one Brando had released the same year, "Reflections In A Golden Eye" (1967) directed by another giant of cinema, John Huston.

For Chaplin's swan-song this may not be the movie you were expecting from him. He has a brief cameo on-screen as one of the ship's employees, in a scene I didn't like very much. The camera sways back and forth, trying to convey the motion of the ship as it is in chopping water. For a silent film it may have added to the comedic effect, but with sound all Chaplin had to do was use the sound of the waves and cut to it (which he does). It is very well-written and sharp. If I were a movie critic in 1967 I'd defend the movie and call it one of the year's best. The public has really went too far in dismissing this fine picture.