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The Comedians

The Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection

The Comedians (1967) comes with a fine pedigree. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay, the film features some of the best actors working in the year of its creation, including Lillian Gish, James Earl Jones, Paul Ford, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Zakes Mokae, Raymond St. Jacques, Cicely Tyson, and of course Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, more or less the film's raison d'etre. In addition, Henri Decae, a staple of the French new wave, shot the film. Set in Haiti (but shot in Africa), and musing on the mysterious worlds of vodou and the Tonton Macoutes, The Comedians, as did so many of Greene's novels, captures a hot topic in international policy just as it was heating up. Unfortunately, Peter Glenville, a relative nonentity, and the helmer of stodgy British heritage films such as Becket, directed it. The Comedians does have a couple of things to recommend it. The film captures the only time that Burton and Guinness shared the screen. In their first scene together, Burton looks on at Guinness, silent, watchful, drinking him in with a blend of amusement and awe. Ustinov steals the film, as this under-appreciated actor tended to do. And finally there is an essential poignancy to the plot's twist, though it takes a convoluted route to get there, as Burton's character, Brown, pulls a Casablanca and ennobles himself at the last minute. Brown is the owner of a hotel, like Marlon Brando's character in Last Tango in Paris, and is having an affair with the slutty wife (Taylor) of a not-unaware ambassador (Ustinov). Taylor struggles valiantly with both the rather unnecessary German accent imposed on the character and an unenthusiastically developed identity. Finally, at 150 minutes, The Comedians is simply too long for the eventless story it attempts to recount, and director Glenville neglects to elicit suspense, much less drama, out of what should be an explosive situation. The only "exciting" thing is the slaying of a chicken on camera during a vodou ceremony, which should be sure to offend some viewers. The Comedians (the title refers to "acting" on the international stage, not to stand-up comics) was made at the height of Hollywood's crisis of aesthetics, when it seemed to forget how to make movies. While the new classicists such as Coppola and Bogdanovich were honing their craft, and the filmmakers of young companies such as BBS (including Bob Rafelson) were redefining movies and movie audiences, the Old Guard was still chained to ponderous, self-important tales, of which The Comedians is one. Nevertheless Warner Home Entertainment offers up a luscious anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) of this well-meaning film. There is an adequate DD mono track in English and French, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Extras consist solely of the contemporary "making-of" featurette "Comedians in Africa" (10 min.), a full-frame account of why the film was not shot in Haiti, a promotional exercise typical of MGM at the time. Slim-case; available only as part of the "The Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton Film Collection."
—D.K. Holm

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