Director Anthony Asquith and playwright/screenwriter Terence Rattigan knew upper crust British society from the inside out. Asquith's father had been Prime Minister of the UK in the early 20th century, and Rattigan was a diplomat's son. The two forged a long and largely successful collaboration, with Asquith bringing two of Rattigan's best known plays, The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, to the screen. The two brought big budget soap opera to the screen with 1963's The V.I.P.s, a sort of Grand Hotel at Heathrow airport (in fact the film is also known as Hotel International), with various glamorous folk, and the occasional comedy relief (Margaret Rutherford in her Oscar winning role) trying to outwait the fog and various personal trials. A year later they brought the same all-star ethos to a more unique property, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, a triptych of stories built around the eponymous car whose ownership passes to three disparate people over the course of several decades.
Perhaps because of their intimate knowledge of the British ruling class, there's an air of authenticity, if also stodginess, to the first episode, featuring Rex Harrison as a diplomat and Jeanne Moreau as his wife who is enjoying a dalliance with Edmund Purdom. Harrison buys the Rolls as a belated anniversary gift for Moreau, setting the car off on a multi-decade journey of its own. Harrison isn't quite as diffident as he usually was at this stage in his career, and manages to craft a detached, yet completely sympathetic and surprisingly vulnerable, character. Moreau, perhaps because she's working in English, is halting at times, but manages to convey some nuance with an almost silent film technique of sideways glances and other furtive looks. It's fun to see Edmund Purdom finally out of the historical costume melodramas like The Egyptian that first brought him to fame, and he, in fact, is the most compelling character, if far from the most likable, in this brief opening episode.
We then find ourselves some years later in Italy, where gangster George C. Scott buys the slightly used vehicle to impress his moll, Shirley MacLaine. Art Carney is literally along for the ride as Scott's henchman and MacLaine's chauffeur, and Alain Delon enters the picture as an enterprising photographer who strikes up a fleeting romance with MacLaine when Scott leaves to kill a rival gangster. It's somewhat strange that this should be the longest of the three segments of The Yellow Rolls Royce, as it's obviously the furthest from Rattigan and Asquith's personal experience (or at least one would hope). There's an air of artificiality that hangs over this central episode even more than the two bookends (the entire film is not exactly a model of cinema verite, but most people are going to know that going in). Scott does OK as the gangster, and MacLaine is not exactly stretching in a floozy role that seemed to mark a lot of her late 1950s through late 1960s work. Carney, much like supporting actor Purdom in the first go-'round, is by far the best thing here, bringing his down to earth simplicity to an underwritten role. Delon is fine as the putative love interest for MacLaine, who shows her that she needn't settle for someone of Scott's bullying tendencies. It's high gloss fluff, with perfectly made up tears streaking MacLaine's face in the climactic showdown with Delon and then Scott.
What really sets the central episode apart is the absolutely stunning location photography in Italy. This is no mere second unit stuff--that's obviously, for example, MacLaine, Scott and Carney standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (though there are some brief rear projection shots, mostly of Carney driving the car). While the hidden sea cavern into which Delon lures MacLaine is obviously a soundstage, the bulk of this episode features one lovely location after another, well filmed by Asquith and DP Jack Hildyard. If only the story could support the incredible visuals.
Last up is perhaps the oddest coupling of the film, Ingrid Bergman as a feisty expatriate American finding herself in Yugoslavia in 1941 just as the Nazis are invading. She hooks up with freedom fighter Omar Sharif, who convinces her to drive him and his fellow underground operatives into the occupied territory. Of course love ensues, as patently bizarre as it seems between Bergman and Sharif. This is prime Rattigan, with a mismatched pair playing out their amorous intrigues against world shaking events. While this segment also features some lovely location shots, it's less of a travelogue than the MacLaine-Scott segment, choosing instead to focus largely on the personal story, despite the occasional strafing attack of Nazi warplanes.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce is an interesting, if never emotionally compelling, film. First of all the central conceit of focusing on an object as it passes from owner to owner (something utilized over the years in such disparate pieces as TV movie The Gun, to the Oscar winning The Red Violin, to Susan Vreeland's novel The Girl in Hyacinth Blue) is a fascinating diversionary technique that never completely distracts us from the fact that none of these stories is very involving. That said, The Yellow Rolls-Royce is mid-1960s star power, and international star power at that, at its finest, with the sheen of craftsmanship that M-G-M's imprimatur guaranteed a decade or two earlier. The film is more or less a series of tableaux, luscious and perfectly arranged, but emotionally distant and at times more than a bit silly.
The film benefits from an immensely enjoyable score by Riz Ortolani, highlighted by a regal theme for the Rolls itself and one of the greatest mid-1960s song to not receive an Oscar nomination, Forget Domani. Hildyard's cinematography is up to his usual exceptional standards, with sweeping shots of gorgeous vistas and a typical Hollywood aura surrounding the main stars. The Yellow Rolls-Royce really never goes anywhere, despite its title car traveling thousands of miles through three very different owners. Still and all, it's a glamorous journey. Like a lot of trips, it may be best to ignore the tourists and simply concentrate on the scenery.
Labels: comedy, drama, romance, war