Tuesday, February 17, 2009


This is another film of which I had only dim childhood memories before the DVD release, mostly of the posh theme music, which turns out to be the work of mondo maestro Riz Ortolani. He knows how to stick a theme in your head, because the opening music was just as I remembered it. Of the story (or stories) I remembered virtually nothing, except for the obvious, that the film was about the adventures of a particular car. But unlike the coat that links the stories of Tales of Manhattan, for instance, the car has no special quality that charms the lives of its owners -- though the manufacturer might disagree.

Anthony Asquith's film of Terence Rattigan's screenplay is an odd collection of star couplings, starting off with Rex Harrison and Jeanne Moreau. He's a diplomat and horseman who's perhaps not as attentive to the wife as he should be, but wants to make up for it by buying her a certain car. She ends up using it for a tryst with her paramour. You might understand Jeanne Moreau straying from "Sexy Rexy," -- but with Edmund Purdom? I've seen The Egyptian and the man is a block of wood. I suppose he may be a pretty block of wood, but I'm not qualified to judge such things. In any event, Rex discovers her and is heartbroken despite his horse winning the big race, and Jeanne is stricken with guilt, for she does love her husband, after all. Harrison ends up sending the car back to the RR showroom because "it displeases me."

After 20,000 miles, including mentioned but unrecorded ownership by a gambling-addicted maharaja, the car ends up in an Italian showroom, where it's purchased by Paolo Maltese, an Italian-american gangster who's come with his moll and his flunky to marry the former in the old country. George C. Scott is the gangster, Shirley MacLaine the moll, Art Carney the worldly-wise flunky, and Alain Delon is a young hustler with a street-photographer racket. The interplay among the Americans is the highlight of the film, and Asquith seems most inspired by filming on location all over Italy. This seems to be the only episode of the film in which characters actually ride in the car on location. Much of the first episode is done on soundstages, but this middle segment, the longest, takes full advantage of the widescreen scenery. Ortolani also seems more energized on his home ground, and with MacLaine as a muse (see also his score for Woman Times Seven). MacLaine is initially bored by the tourist bit despite Scott's belligerent enthusiasm, but when Scott has to speed back home to take care of business, Delon's charms awaken her sensual appreciation of all Italy has to offer -- including a rather fake looking grotto set where Delon woos her most ardently. She and we also learn the difference between immoral and amoral (pronounced "ah-moral") personalities from Carney, whose good work here makes me wonder why we didn't see more of him in movies in this decade.

I nearly forgot about the car. Once again it's used for a romantic tryst, but that big moment might as well have taken place anywhere. The unifying concept of the film is undercut by the lack of any sense of magic, even metaphorically speaking, in the title vehicle. Unless we really are meant to be simply awed by the presence of an actual Rolls Royce automobile on our movie screens, the car has little to contribute and can hardly be called a "character" in any episode. You might at least perceive a common thread in the car being a site of tragicomic trysts, for that's how the second episode turns out, too, but there's little tragic or comic about the final segment.

By 1941, the yellow Rolls has fallen on hard times in Trieste, but can still be banged into shape for use by a famously wealthy American widow, played by Ingrid Bergman. Learning of a coup in neighboring Yugoslavia that has overthrown the pro-Nazi regime, she decides against advice from the American consulate, in the not exactly authoritative form of Wally Cox, to cross the border and pay her respects to the new regime. Bergman's political sympathies are hard to grasp. She seems happy at the change of government in Yugoslavia, but otherwise seems to be a reactionary and a hater of FDR. Reluctantly she allows a Yugoslav national with a shadowy agenda to accompany her. This is the ethnically versatile Omar Sharif, adding a Slovenian, I believe, to his repertoire. He and Bergman are to be a couple, for a time, but there is no chemistry between them. She is radicalized when the Germans dare to bomb her hotel during dinner, forcing them to serve herself from the salad bar. She's also a take-charge person with a humanitarian bent. Her natural impulse is to help the wounded and injured, and that instinct inspires her to use the YRR to ferry Sharif's partisan pals back and forth along dangerous roads. Here I was expecting a heroic demise for the car, if not for the characters, but there is no such consummation, and the film ends with the venerable vehicle arriving in New York for further domestic service.

By its nature The Yellow Rolls Royce is a mixed bag. The middle episode could almost stand alone with a little elaboration, while the first one isn't really bad but seems constrained by its brevity, and the closer is just silly. I would recommend it most enthusiastically to people who like a certain kind of 60s glossiness, including the music. Ortolani got a kind of hit out of the song "Forget Domani," which sounded more familiar to me as an instrumental than with lyrics. Overall, though he lets it rip a little in the middle episode, this is a relatively tepid score, though the theme still has its grandeur. The film as a whole aspires to grandeur but works best when it aspires least.

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