By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Lover in the attic.
This wacky film nicely exudes the mod, experimental wave of filmmaking that permeated the era of the late 60’s. The story takes place in London and is about a clothing manufacturer’s wife named Harriet Blossom (Shirley MacLaine) who one day calls her husband Robert (Richard Attenborough) while he is at work to tell him that her sewing machine has broken down. Robert sends his lowly assistant Ambrose Tuttle (James Booth) over to their house to help her fix it. Harriet is a bit bored with life and feels neglected by her husband, so she not so subtly seduces Ambrose and then hides him in the attic where he soon takes up residence. He comes out only when Robert is away, but the unexplained strange noises that Robert hears and the many close calls make him think he is going insane and leads him to a nervous breakdown.
Director Joseph McGrath’s highly visual style is the real star. The lighting, editing, camera angles, set design, and costumes are creative and imaginative. The home that was chosen for the setting has a nice architectural flair especially the attic and billiards room, which seems to be draped by a large stain glass window. Certain film professors show this movie to their classes as an example of how stylish direction can help accentuate a story as well as deftly define its era. I was disappointed to see that although McGrath is still alive he hasn’t done a film since 1984, which is a shame as it is obvious from this that he is quite gifted and I would have liked to see him doing more.
This is generally considered a vehicle for MacLaine, but to me her performance isn’t interesting. I think she is a first rate actress, but her character here is the only normal one in the film and she acts more like an anchor trying to corral the craziness around her. Booth, as her lover, goes to the other extreme, but doesn’t fare any better. He is too clownish and is always wearing various disguises and going through different personas, which makes the character unrealistic and cartoonish. If anything, out of the three main leads, it is actually Attenborough who does the best. His nervous and confused facial expressions are priceless. The scenes were he comes home from work and to ‘unwind’ pretends to be a conductor of a large orchestra while listening to a loud record, is amusing.
The colorful supporting cast though, full of legendary British Pros, is what steals the film. Some of them appear just briefly, but they still make a memorable and funny impression. Barry Humphries, playing a male character and not Dame Edna, is good as an art dealer. John Cleese, in one of his very first roles, is engaging as an argumentative postal clerk. The best however is far and away Freddie Jones as the snippy, suspicious, relentless detective that will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of Ambrose, who once he moves into Harriet’s attic proceeds to completely drop of society and disappear.
Although generally entertaining the plot doesn’t go anywhere and is simply a set-up for a lot of absurdity. What is worse is the fact that this based on a true story that in its own right was very intriguing. In the real-life incident that took place in 1913 a 33 year old woman by the name of Dolly Oesterreich met a 17 year old named Otto Sanhuber. She, like the character in the movie, was a bored wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and took in the young man as her ‘sex slave’, which he readily accepted. To avoid possible suspicion she had him move into their attic, where he remained for five years and despite some close calls was never caught. When the Oesterreich’s moved to Los Angeles in 1918 Dolly made sure that their new home had an attic as well and Otto then took up residence there and the deception continued until 1920 when Otto finally ended up killing the husband.
Of course none of that happens here. In fact Ambrose is fond of the husband and considers the three to be one big happy ‘family’, which is offbeat for sure, but not particularly satisfying. Again, this film does have some funny moments. I thought the scene where Robert invents the world’s first inflatable bra only to have the system go awry during an exhibition, which forces the model’s breasts to grow to unbelievable proportions before they go floating in the air, to be hilarious. Still the end result of this production can best be described as cinematic soufflé.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: September 11, 1968
Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Director: Joseph McGrath