Tuesday, October 19, 2010
As acclaim for him grew, thanks to magical performances in popular films like Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther, Sellers seemed even more intent on self-destruction, choosing either out-and-out terrible projects (The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), Where Does it Hurt? (1972)) or getting involved in projects that deteriorated around him, often due to his own petty jealousies and neuroses (Casino Royale (1967), Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1974)). One of his lesser-known but largest disasters was a pirate adventure shot in 1973 but unreleased until the home video boom of the mid-80s. A little thing that no one likes to call
Ghost in the Noonday Sun.
In Ghost, Sellers plays a reprehensible crewman named “Dick Scratcher”. Now that we’re off with that awful introduction, the movie begins as an homage to silent movies, including interstitials, depicting ship captain Ras Mohammed (a heavily-made up Peter Boyle, top billed but appearing only in this sequence) and his crew burying a great treasure. Scratcher seizes the opportunity to murder the captain and the crew, claiming the treasure for himself. Back on the ship, he vows to return for the treasure at some later date. As some vague “later date” arrives, Scratcher’s memory is failing and he can’t recall the exact location of the treasure or the island. His only chance is that in the hopes that the ghost of Ras Mohammed still haunts the buried chest. So he first sets out to find someone who can see ghosts, even during the day (there; that’s the title for you). He settles on the young cabin boy Jeremiah (Richard Willis) for this task, for no real apparent reason. Meanwhile, the dashing and heroic first mate Pierre Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) wants to see the villainous Scratcher hanged for his crimes. And so begins the battle of wit (singular)!
Midway through, a rival buccaneer named Bill Bombay arrives. He’s played by the film’s co-screenwriter and eventual co-director, Spike Milligan, but things do not noticeably improve. He’s has his own stash of treasure melted down and disguised as cannon balls. Guess what gets used for ammunition during a broadsides battle?
If there’s a good movie to be found in Ghost in the Noonday Sun you’ll need a kid of your own who can see the ghosts that might lead you to it. Very canny and talented director Peter Medak undertook the task of filming Evan (Funeral in Berlin) Jones’ uninspired script. Sellers, at a very low point in his career at the time, having difficulty finding work due to his contentious nature and alcohol abuse, took the role of Scratcher eagerly but quickly lost interest in the project. His ego suffered a blow with the casting of pretty boy Franciosa and Sellers reportedly threw a number of overblown temper tantrums at his co-star’s expense. He also had a habit of calling off “ill”, but was later discovered water-skiing or doing something else recreational. At the end of his rope, Medak and the producers called in Seller’s old friend and collaborator Milligan to exert some control over the persnickety star. And, oh, while he was there, would he mind funnying up the script a bit more? By the end of the film, Milligan was in the director’s chair and Sellers was just as bizarre as ever.
The resulting movie is an overlong and incoherent mess. Lots of slapstick and running around, which is to be expected, peppered with bizarrely funny one-liners and non-sequiturs courtesy of Sellers and Milligan, the bulk of these latter bits, however, are delivered in a non-stop mumbling fashion ala Popeye, making them hard to discern without cranking up the volume.
Scratcher: “We’ll all be murdered in our graves.”
Pierre: “Scratcher, you’ll pay for this!”
Scratcher: “No I won’t. I’m doin’ it for free!”
Scratcher: “Don’t kill me! I’m too young to die!”
Bombay: “Ah, you’re just the right age!”
Scratcher: “By this time tomorrow, we’ll all be rich as… somebody.”
When Sellers and Milligan are together, the movie’s energy picks up. When it’s just Franciosa and Willis, you’ll pray for death… okay, it’s not that bad, but it’s not all that good, either. Shelved for over a decade after completion, it did nothing for the film’s star. Medak emerged unscathed and returned to his brilliant career. Milligan returned to British television and comedian saint-hood but never did break through in the U.S. And Sellers floundered for a few years more before reaching the pinnacle of his career with Being There, shortly before his death in 1980.
Between Sellers’ muttering, the desperately-jumpy edits clawing for cohesion and the overall weak story, Ghost in the Noonday Sun more than justifies its obscure-to-unknown status. If it weren’t for the ravenous VHS market of the mid-80s prompting a limited-release from Virgin Video, Ghost may have never seen the light of Noonday (great… now they have me doing it). This Virgin VHS is, to date, the only release Ghost has ever seen. So if you’re still intrigued, or perhaps, recovering from some sort of taste-removal surgery, or a die-hard Sellers/Milligan fan, don't say you weren't warned.