The Peter Sellers Collection
Of the six films in Anchor Bay's welcome "Peter Sellers Collection," Hoffman (1970) may be the one that most attracts aficionados seeking the rarities in Sellers' long and varied career. On the heels of The Magic Christian, Hoffman is one of a cluster of bombs that sank Sellers' bankability until the sublime Being There in '79. The depressive actor begged to have Hoffman destroyed and spoke publicly of how poor it was, so this low-key, melancholy curio received almost zero distribution, not reaching even a New York art house until '82. Although one of Sellers' rare forays into straight drama, by playing a haunted, lonely, dangerously double-natured cad, Sellers may have played himself too closely for anyone's comfort, even his own.
Sellers is Benjamin Hoffman, a middle-aged man obsessed with his young, miniskirted typist, Miss Smith (Sinéad Cusack). A non-entity at the office, he can no longer suppress a lecherous darker self. By blackmailing Miss Smith with evidence against her felonious fiancé, he forces her to spend a week alone with him in his spacious flat and bed. His ostensibly sinister intentions are made clear to the virginal Miss Smith through smug aphorisms dripping with smarmy urbanity ("Please make yourself look as though you want to be fertilized"). The duality between a man's outer shell and the demons quivering underneath drives Hoffman's games-playing. "For the first time in my life, the prisoner within me has escaped," he says. And in a restaurant over escargot: "There are two people in all of us the child in the snapshot and the monster the child grows into." Although the frightened girl is imprisoned to be "two arms, two legs, a head, and what fits in the middle," Hoffman never touches her. As Miss Smith gradually sees that the pitiable, sad-faced man is more child than monster, we're asked to stretch the definition of "romance" to fit a shape that's ugly and misogynistic, a creepy sado-masochistic male fantasy.
Cusack is such a blue-eyed Irish wonder that it's a shame she devoted her talents more to the Royal Shakespeare Company than to a screen career. All the same, Miss Smith's emotional transformation, which we're presumably expected to mirror, is hard to swallow and comes across more as a Stockholm Syndrome breakdown than a tender opening of her eyes and heart. Sellers is somberly fascinating in a role that may have revealed the real man without the masks of a funny voice or comic characterization or facial appliances more successfully than the roles that made him famous.
Ernest Gebler adapted his own novel into this talky and overlong character study. While he seems to have loved the sound of his own typing, Hoffman's epigrammatic screenplay is occasionally striking. Alvin Rakoff's directing starts well as the opening titles, over Matt Monro's "If There Ever Is a Next Time," follow Miss Smith on her trek across London to Hoffman's flat. After that his staid, hemmed-in work fails to sustain the needed momentum throughout what feels like a filmed stage play. Ron Grainer's musical score is insipid and off-putting.
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Anchor Bay's DVD edition delivers a fine print (1.66:1 anamorphic) with good color and detail, though it's sometimes grainy and speckly. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is fine. Extras are the lengthy and hamfisted original trailer, plus a thorough Sellers biography/filmography. Keep-case.