(The 9th annual DOC NYC ran November 8-15 in New York City. Lead Critic Chris Reed was there so stay tuned for his review and interviews. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month to help keep us going?)
In 1972, rising director Peter Medak – a Hungarian living in England who had just gone to the Cannes Film Festival with his satirical The Ruling Class – ran into an acquaintance, celebrated comic actor Peter Sellers, and the two discussed a movie project on which they could collaborate. Sellers, by this point, had a long list of triumphs to his name, going back to his glorious beginnings in the 1950s on the BBC’s hit radio program The Goon Show to his film work in such cinematic marvels as The Mouse That Roared, The Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove and many more. What young director would not jump at the chance to add a Sellers movie to his résumé? Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be anything but. Now, over 45 years later, Medak returns to the scene of his greatest career disaster to helm the documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a cautionary tale par excellence that is equal parts tragedy and comedy and a thoroughly engaging chronicle of the filmmaking process in all its miserable glory.
The ill-fated movie at the center of the drama, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was never released, though eventually it would find its way to VHS and then DVD. Based on the footage we see, that is probably just as well. A 17th-century pirate comedy, it doesn’t appear particularly funny, though the unfolding catastrophe, as related by Medak and his surviving contemporaries, has elements of high humor. The problems manifested themselves early, from an incomplete script, partly penned by Sellers’ old Goon Show pal Spike Milligan, to a crew and director unprepared for a live shoot at sea. Everyone should have quit before the start of production, as it is hard to overcome the bad omen of the pirate-ship set, itself, sinking upon arrival on location in Cyprus, its drunken captain running it aground. The ultimate kiss of death, however, was the erratic behavior and rapid disaffection of Peter Sellers, who quickly decided he did not want to make the movie, after all, and did all he could to sabotage it.
Indeed, Medak has a clearly complicated relationship with his own feelings for the late star (who died in 1980). On the one hand, Sellers was a genius (if not here), and Medak loved him for it; on the other hand, he dealt Medak a professional setback from which he barely recovered. Medak does not blame Sellers, alone, for all that went wrong – recognizing his own inexperience, lack of proper financing, and numerous other factors, as well – but does see his lead actor’s refusal to play ball as the main reason the movie failed. Watching him wrestle with these painful memories, after so much time has gone by, is poignant and fascinating, a meditation on memory and loss that is a catalyst for us to examine our own pasts, if we are so inclined. Filled with interviews with others who worked with Medak and Sellers, the documentary feels evenhanded, allowing for criticism – and forgiveness – of all parties. Deeply entertaining and profoundly moving, The Ghost of Peter Sellers offers a slice of forgotten movie history that, it turns out, is well worth remembering.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
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