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The Lens: A serious look at Blake Edwards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2010 - Blake Edwards has never been an easy filmmaker to pin down. With his first major successes, the TV series “Peter Gunn” and the much loved 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote's “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” he was seen as an outsider, an independent writer-director breaking free of the crumbling Hollywood studio traditions: Andrew Sarris, summing up Edwards in his 1968 reference book “The American Cinema,” called him “a new breed, post-Hitler, post-Freud, post-sick-joke, with all the sticky sentimentality of electronic music.”

A little over a decade later, when the studios really had crumbled (and more than one writer would cite Edwards' 1970 “Darling Lili” as the film that lead the wrecking crew), after he had hit bottom, abandoned Hollywood and then resurfaced, phoenix-like, to resurrect the “Pink Panther” franchise and re-established himself as a major auteur with “10,” “S.O.B.” and “Victor/Victoria,” Edwards seemed like the last champion of a mature mise-en-scene, a director with an impeccable sense of camera space and widescreen composition. Just as the MTV era introduced the idea of film editing as a grab-bag of techniques for short attention spans, Edwards became (along with the up-and-coming Clint Eastwood) the last classicist.

It's been 16 years since Edwards' last film, the unsuccessful “Son of the Pink Panther,” and 20 years since the last major critical study of his work was published. A central premise to Sam Wasson's recently published “A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards” (Wesleyan University Press, 368 pp, $30) is that the director is a neglected and underappreciated artist in need of critical revival. (I'm not entirely unbiased on the issue, having named one of my sons Blake the year “Victor/Victoria” was released. Coincidence? You decide.)

Wasson's approach to Edwards' work is based on the concept of the “splurch” (a term he borrows from Mack Sennett, who used the expression in his autobiography), a careful plan of construction in which the gags and the plot of a movie are all of a piece, the slapstick growing out of the story and in turn moving the plot along. There may be hundreds of actors who have taken a tumble down a hill, been stung by a bee or crashed their cars, but when Dudley Moore suffers these things in “10,”  they're integral parts of the story, crucial steps in his mid-life crisis.

Wasson, who has a second book on the making of “Breakfast at Tiffany's” coming out this year, provides a thorough survey of Edwards' career (though strangely ignoring his work for television - even the influential “Peter Gunn” series) placed within a biographical context. Despite early success as a director, Edwards' bristled under the studio system, thriving on a sense of antagonism against Hollywood's standard operating procedures. Many of his best films, like “S.O.B.” and “The Party,” reveal Edwards' tendency to bite the studio hand that fed him.

Much of Wasson's book consists of detailed readings of Edwards' work, although he's not particularly interested in those (like the neglected “The Tamarind Seed”) which don't fit his splurch formula. Curiously, he's also not much of a fan of the Panther  series, aside from the first two entries, even though the revival of Inspector Clouseau in the 1970s provided Edwards with his greatest successes and gave United Artists a franchise that nearly rivaled James Bond and Rocky Balboa. Despite this, his discussion of the Clouseau film offers insight into the way the character transforms in the final Sellers films and even finds something of interest to say about Edwards' failed efforts to revive the series after Sellers' death.

Wasson's book is opinionated, detailed and occasionally prone to purely subjective interpretations, especially of Edwards' later work (I think he underestimates “That's Life” and “The Man Who Loved Women,” but his views on “Sunset” have convinced me to give that film another look). This is old-fashioned auteurist criticism of a type rarely seen these days, based on careful and sympathetic viewing of a substantial body of work. If you've ever laughed at Peter Sellers' distress looking for a restroom in “The Party” or Richard Mulligan's deadpan suicide attempts in “S.O.B.” or the elaborate wide-screen sight gags in “Victor/Victoria,” Wasson can tell you why.

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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