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Two-Way Stretch

Although perhaps best know for his iconic roles in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the trio of Pink Panther films (1963, 1975, 1976), the variety of roles in Peter Sellers’ career is pretty breath-taking. Playing everyone from idiots to evil geniuses, romantic leads to comedic sidekicks and cops to robbers, Sellers was a masterful actor who never failed to completely inhabit his roles, regardless of the general quality (or, occasionally, lack thereof) of the actual films. For my money, my favorite period in Sellers’ career has always been the late ’50s/early ’60s. This era produced a series of films that rank as not only my favorite Sellers’ films but also some of my favorite films, in general: Carlton Browne of the F.O. (1959), The Mouse That Roared (1959), Lolita (1962), The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) and Heavens Above! (1963). Fitting neatly into this batch is one of Sellers’ lightest, funniest films: Two Way Stretch (1960).

Dodger Lane (Sellers), Jelly Knight (David Lodge) and Lennie “The Dip” Price are cellmates who seem to have it better than the actual warden: they sneak gourmet food in via a basket through their cell window, drink booze, wear robes, gamble in the prison’s gardens and teach safe-cracking classes to the other inmates in-between “surprise” inspections that are anything but. They’ve also only got a few days left on their respective sentences, meaning that the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than ever. Why, Dodger may even decide to do right and marry his long-suffering girlfriend: the sky’s the limit!

Enter their former partner (and reason for imprisonment) Soapy Stevens (Wilfrid Hyde White), however, and things begin to get a bit more complicated. Soapy, disguised as a vicar, comes to see his former gang with a new job: steal two million quid in diamonds from a visiting maharaja. All they’ll need to do is break out of prison, steal the jewels, break back into prison and walk out free men a few days later. What could possibly go wrong? The boys find out when kindly Chief Prison Officer Jenkins (George Woodbridge) suddenly retires and is replaced by their former nemesis, “Sour” Crout (Lionel Jeffries). With the clock ticking, Dodger, Jelly and Lennie must out-maneuver Crout, out-think Soapy and outwit the British military, all while the sweet smell of freedom constantly reminds them of the odds.

Two Way Stretch is the kind of quick-paced, dialogue-heavy, near-slapstick comedy that the British film industry seemed to specialize in the ’50s and ’60s but it’s easily one of the finest examples of its kind. Not only is the dialogue rich and full of some truly witty bon mots (one of my favorites is the bit where Soapy, disguised as a vicar, turns down the Warden’s offer of a cigarette: “No, thank you: one of the sins I can refuse.”) but there are some wonderfully absurd moments sprinkled throughout the film. A one point, the guys need to send a message via carrier pigeon: the obstinate bird takes the message, flies to the ground and proceeds to walk to its destination. Dodger’s girlfriend flirts with a guard during visiting time, distracting him and allowing ever other prisoner and guest in the room to frantically exchange contraband, mostly by throwing it through the air. At one point, the guys trick Crout into detonating an inordinately large cache of dynamite. Rather than blow him to bits, the explosion merely renders him sooty, tattered and pissed off, ala Daffy Duck. There’s a wonderful sense of cartoon anarchy to the proceedings that’s both breathless and lots of fun.

Sellers, obviously, does a magnificent job but he’s ably supported by a very capable cast, especially the wonderful Lionel Jeffries as the eternally apoplectic Chief P.O. Crout. Any scene that he shares with Sellers is worth the rental, alone, but throw in Wilfrid Hyde White’s deliciously slimy Soapy and Sellers is left with no shortage of folks to riff off/with. Truth be told, there isn’t really a dud in the bunch: this is definitely an example of a good ensemble cast helping to elevate the material.

The script’s quite good and the heist itself is well-executed, if sped through a bit too quickly. In fact, my biggest overall complaint would have to be that the film’s relatively short running time (under 80 minutes) doesn’t leave much room to linger on any one scene/gag/event. In the end, however, perhaps this is to the film’s immense benefit: nothing outlasts its welcome and I was hard-pressed to find much that struck me as tedious or unnecessary.

Nevertheless, despite my desire for more, I really can’t fault what’s here. Sellers is completely charming, in a performance that definitely strikes me as one of his best “rogue” roles, the film is consistently (and genuinely) funny and everything culminates in a near-perfect ending that allows the film to have its cake and eat it, too. If you’re a fan of Peter Sellers, British comedies or heist films, Two Way Stretch should scratch your itch.

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