In the late-sixties, Ernest Gébler wrote the novel "Hoffman" (published in the U.K. as "Shall I Eat You?") - a deliciously wicked play-within-a-novel concerning a older man whose own failed marriage emboldened his loneliness with a particular breed of warped, acidic wit; dipping into misogyny, ribaldry, fetishism and a love/hate idolatry of the female species. Gébler's Hoffman is an oddball of the highest caliber, and the author's own screen adaptation is remarkably faithful, retaining a good sampling of the often hysterical language that characterizes Benjamin Hoffman - a patient, English "dog face" who wants more than an extended roll in the hay.
Between his "Pink Panther" roles, Peter Sellers picked this completely odd project that never had a chance at the box office. The first words his character says to Janet Smith (Sinead Cusack, daughter of Cyril) likely unnerved his fans, and Hoffman's behaviour - while frequently nutty - no doubt confused the comic actor's audience, much like Jim Carrey frightened people away with his darkly comedic portrayal of 'Chip Douglas' in "Cable Guy."
Anglo-EMI used up to two distinct marketing styles: the poster art (reproduced on the inlay card) sells the film as a typical British sex comedy, popular at the time, using the tagline "Hope never dies in a man with a good dirty mind;" and the sample trailer, that clumsily goes for mystery, using a Q&A narration set to the film's key scenes (including the finale - so watch it last!)
And yet "Hoffman" is very much a successful artistic venture: Gébler's script faithfully recreates the tone of the novel, maintaining a continuous mystery as he chisels away at each character's secret; Sellers gives a beautifully measured performance as man living the fragile fantasy relationship he's been dreaming of for eighteen months; Cusack, in her third of just a few feature films, uses her theatre training to maximize her limited role with various nuances, and wide-eyed perplexity; and though primarily based in television, Alvin Rakoff's direction is assured, bringing out the best qualities from what's essentially an elegantly filmed play.
Most of the action takes place within a rather luxurious flat, and Anchor Bay's transfer is made from a decent widescreen print. Early full screen versions on TV were a bit richer in the colour department, but compromised Gerry Turpin's widescreen cinematography. John Blezard's art direction recreates Hoffman's labyrinthine home, and the DVD transfer shows off the sudden contrasts between brightly lit morning scenes, and the midnight sequences during Ms. Smith's perpetual insomnia.
The mono mix is pretty straightforward, and Ron Grainer's sublime score adds the right sympathy, warmth, and mystery for this most unusual (and a wee bit politically incorrect) gem.
Though he had written several plays and novels, Ernest Gébler is perhaps best known for "The Voyage of the Mayflower," which was made by MGM as "Plymouth Adventure" in 1952, with Spencer Tracy. His marriage to Edna O'Brien and difficult relationship with his sons was recently chronicled in Carlo Gébler's recent autobiography, "Father & I: A Memoir."
An informative Peter Sellers biography covers essential career highlights, and includes a decent filmography. This Anchor Bay title is available alone or as part of The Peter Sellers collection, which includes "Carlton-Brown of the F.O.", "Heavens Above!", "Hoffman," "I'm All Right Jack," "The Smallest Show on Earth," and "Two-Way Stretch."
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan