Charles Chaplin’s final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, was initially drubbed for lacking the inspiration of his earlier masterpieces. Andrew Sarris analyzed this assault by “critics” as their self-serving “power play” and called the unfairly maligned film “the quintessence of everything Chaplin has ever felt.” But even Sarris, while praising one scene for being “as comically exhilarating as anything Chaplin has ever done,” found the film “far from Chaplin’s past peaks.” I don’t know. Even with its use of widescreen and color, I consider it a masterpiece.
The great moment to which Sarris refers involves a U.S. dignitary’s valet in bed, completely concealed by the blanket he is under. Chaplin himself may have replaced the actor playing Hudson (Patrick Cargill, a hoot) for this fantastic moment. At the very least, Chaplin is slyly nudging us to realize that he is thoroughly invested in this explosion of slapstick that sets the bed in hilarious motion.
Marlon Brando deftly plays Ogden Stewart, a U.S. diplomat whose shipboard suite Natascha, a white Russian emigré-turned-prostitute, invades as stowaway, generating, for her to be hidden, an explosive riot of opened and closed doors, including rushed movements and the attendant sounds. In one of her best performances, Sophia Loren surpasses Brando, whose Ogden, after considerable resistance, falls in love with her Natascha. Chaplin himself charmingly plays an innocently intrusive crew member, while Tippi Hedren is wonderful as Martha, Ogden’s wife. The lightly sentimental score, which captures the vulnerability and suspense of the central romance, is Chaplin’s.
The ship’s destination is the United States, which barred his re-entry after Chaplin had made Limelight in Britain, his birth country, fifteen years earlier. All his ache is invested in Natascha’s attempt to make it into America sans passport or visa.
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