(1978) Comedy (Warner Brothers) George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Morley, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Phillippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Luigi Proletti, Stefano Satta Flores, Madge Ryan, Frank Windsor, Peter Sallis, Tim Barlow, John Le Mesurier, Joss Ackland, Jean Gaven, Jacques Marin, Jacques Balutin, Jean Paredes, Michael Chow, Anita Graham Directed by Ted Kotcheff
I think all of us have soft spots for certain movies that may or may not deserve them. It’s not that the movie is particularly bad or good, it’s just that we associate a memory with them, or the movie has for some reason stuck with us for years or even decades after having seen it.
So it is for me with this light and fluffy confection, based on a much darker novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons (although there are plenty of dark moments in the movie as well). The concept is this; Max Vandeveer (Morley), the world’s pre-eminent food critic, has recently released an article for his magazine The Epicurist detailing all the elements of the ultimate meal in the world. The elements of the meal include pigeon en croute, the specialty of Louis Kohner (Cassel); Lobster Thermidor, the specialty of Fausto Zoppi (Satta Flores), pressed duck, the specialty of Moulineu (Noiret) and for desert, Le Bombe Richelieu, the specialty of Natasha O’Brien (Bisset).
Vandeveer is acerbic and sometimes rude, although he has lived the high life long enough to have acquired a certain amount of elegance. He has also acquired a goodly number of health problems from a lifetime of eating the world’s richest foods and the morbidly obese critic has been told by his doctors that if he doesn’t adjust his diet to healthier options, he won’t last long. Vandeveer chooses to ignore the advice, although his devoted assistant Beecham (Ryan) does her level best to keep him on the straight and narrow.
O’Brien is a particular favorite of Vandeveer, and he has not only been a patron for her career but holds a personal affection for her. He is less sanguine about her ex-husband, Robby Ross (Segal), an American fast food entrepreneur known with some derision as the Taco King. He is in the midst of organizing a new fast food chain specializing in omelets to be called “H. Dumpty.” Vandeveer despises him and everything he stands for.
He happens to be in London working on a deal for this new project at the same time his ex-wife is assisting in preparing a state dinner for the Queen, along with Kohner. After she has a one-night stand with him, Kohner turns up murdered – stuffed into a 450 degree oven. Not a pretty sight.
Afterwards, the other chefs on the list of Vandeveer’s world’s most fabulous meal start turning up dead, killed in gruesome fashion that recalls the preparation for their signature dish. With O’Brien on the list with a target on her back – and also under suspicion for being the perpetrator because of her romantic relationships with the first two – the Taco King and the high-end pastry chef must become detectives and figure out who is killing these great chefs before Natasha ends up as the last victim of a twisted murderer.
Kotcheff, whose pedigree includes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was never an innovative director but he was always a solid one; he knows how to keep the pace quick and how to balance between mystery and black comedy without having one overwhelm the other. The adaptation was written by Peter Wilson, who 15 years earlier had written the screenplay for the Aubrey Hepburn classic Charade. The dialogue is clever, urbane and full of witticisms.
Segal is here to play the ugly American and he is so successful that he actually at times is like fingernails on a chalkboard. This isn’t to say that Segal is an annoying actor – his career boasts some really fine performances – but here the character is meant to be somewhat annoying albeit with a heart of gold. However, some modern viewers might find him a little hard to stomach if you’ll forgive the awful pun.
Not so with Robert Morley. He was one of the world’s great character actors and this is the type of part that was perfect for him. Nobody ever played the pompous Brit like he did and he was so good in this role that Heinz recruited him to act as the character in a series of advertisements for their line of soups at the time. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy/Musical but not for an Oscar although Roger Ebert mused he would be in his review of the film.
The movie is definitely a product of the late 70s, and in its day was reasonably popular although box office figures for the film are unavailable; the movie was evidently popular enough to inspire the authors of the original book it was based on to write a sequel.
These days it’s fairly hard to find. It rarely plays on cable or broadcast TV although it does occasionally; it has not yet made it to Blu-Ray although it remains in print on DVD (and you can also find VHS copies of it if you look hard enough). This is the ultimate in disposable entertainment, carrying elements of Murder on the Orient Express along with 70s-era black comedy. While some of the murders are gruesome, the gore is pretty tame by modern standards, or even the standards of its own time.
It hearkens back to an era when great chefs were dignified and considered national treasures, a far cry from this era of celebrity chefs who are more like rock stars. The style of cooking here (the dishes were all provided by the legendary Paul Bocuse) is certainly much heavier than it is in this health-conscious age. They really don’t make meals like this anymore, but watching it may make you wish that they did.
WHY RENT THIS: Irreverent. Morley is delightful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and cheesy. Segal can be grating.
FAMILY VALUES: Comic violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel the movie was based on, recipes were given for each specialty dish.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: The movie is not available for streaming at present. However, DVD copies of the movie may be purchased at Amazon or Best Buy in the United States. For readers outside the US, check your local online DVD retailers or local DVD or electronics shops.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!