12 APRIL 1975, Page 27


Gambles, gambols

Kenneth Robinson

The Gambier Director: Karel Reisz Stars: James Caan, Jacqueline Brooks, Lauren Hutton 'X' Universal (120 minutes). Monty Python and the Holy Grail Directors: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones Stars: Monty Python team 'A' Casino (95 minutes).

The Four Musketeers Director: Richard Lester Stars: Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Frank Finlay, Faye Dunaway `A' Carlton (110 minutes).

Once again let me begin with highlights from the week's films.

In The Gambler James Caan beats up a :black brothel-keeper to provoke one of the inmates to stab him. The film ends with him bleeding into a wash-basin, wearing a vicious wound and a satisfied smirk.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail John Cleese has both arms cut off. As he spurts blood from the stumps his legs are chopped off as well. With only a head and a dismembered trunk he challenges his attacker to come back for more.

In The Four Musketeers one of the four catches fire in a blazing building and lies on his back roaring with pain as the audience is convulsed with laughter.

Another good week, as you see, for the sadistic viewer. But I'm joking, of course. Or at least the Python team is. And so are the four musketeers. I've never seen so much carnage designed purely for light entertainment. The Gambler is not, of course, funny in its violence. Though I imagine that a wry sort of smile is expected from us when James Caan goes out to collect his scar in Harlem. In doing this he is inflicting a kind of rough justice on himself. To save his own skin he has corrupted a young black boy in the college where he teaches. And to make amends he has to go through the extraordinary business of offering himSelf as a victim of the blacks.

At least that's the way I received the message. And a pretty silly message it is too. But then the hero of the piece is pretty silly in everything he does, Right from the start he is seen to be a compulsive gambler. Immediately after losing 44,000 dollars on the gaming tables he has to stop at a street basketball game and lose another fifty dollars on an impulsive bet. From then on his background is nicely sketched in. We see him teaching the Dostoevsky bit about two and two making five, among students who clearly like him. We see him scrounging the money he owes from his mother. And we learn that he has a rich grandfather who could, presumably, rescue him from any more really bad debts. Once all this is established the film becomes tedious. The teacher gambles, wins, gambles, loses, gambles again — he is threatened with violence from bookmakers and gaming houses, escapes from them, is threatened again.

One reason why the story loses its grip is that compulsive gambling is almost as boring to watch as congenital madness. There seems no motive for it, and even when the gambler explains here that he needs uncertainty and fear he is neither convincing nor even remotely interesting. In fact his confession sounds no more convincing than a lot of the classy stuff we hear him quoting in his college lectures, whether it's D. H. Lawrence on the American fear of inventiveness or somebody else on George Washington's fear of I've-forgottenwhat.

There are some equally classy' allusions in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A peasant argues with King Arthur, doubting his claim to supremacy in 'an autonomous commune.' There are lots of lines like this — straight from an endof-term rag, you might suppose. What really worries me is that Margaret Hinxman said in Saturday's Daily Mail that she was `still giggling.' I'm sure she never giggled in her days with the Sunday Telegraph. Maybe she is just getting in the mood of her new readership of televiewers. And what an audience they make, these fugitives from television. I watched them pouring into the cinema the other afternoon, looking absolutely convinced that they were going to enjoy themselves. It was a terrifying sight. I wondered at first how they would stand up to the experience of seeing small-box comedy presented without the built-in studio laughter that is such a help when you're watching at home. Within a few seconds it was clear that everything was going to be all right. There were some easy jokes in the opening credit titles, and once the audience had got the idea that nothing was going to be too difficult they reacted with bellylaughs to every signal that a joke was being made.

I was once told by a BBC producer that the OK Thing to Say about the Python team was: "They may be immature, they may be derivative; they may be amateur, but at least they are honest."

This time they certainly have been honest. They promised a search for the Holy Grail and that is what they gave us. Hour after hour after hour of it. Or so it seems. One critic tells me that here, instead of the usual Python rag-bag, we have a sustained theme. I really don't see any virtue in that. Admittedly one third of the film is nearly quite funny, but I was delighted when it veered away from the theme twice; once for a few seconds of Intermission with a ghastly electronic organ, and the other when a typical TV-for-schools lecturer got mixed up with the action.

Talking of electronic organs, a gorgeous primitive organ with a spiral lift turns up on a field of war

in Richard Lester's The Four Musketeers. I enjoyed the film enormously — partly because the ori

ginal novel is such a diabolical work. It is littered, .in my translation anyway, with phrases that give away its author's desperation to fill each part of his serialised story with as much padding as possible. The most memorable phrase in the whole book tells us that "The day dawned, quickened eventually into afternoon and at last gave way to evening and thus to nightfall."

There is nothing of the feeling of that passage in Richard Lester's satirical (yes, it's time that word was allowed to come back) treatment. And in the best Lester tradition, it is not only satirical but ingenuous, fast-moving and immensely good to look at. I like the film because it makes impudent entertainment out of something that could have been horribly portentous. I know it's the thing to ask if Mr Lester ought to have mixed up high-speed comedydeaths with realistically-savage killings. But I don't think I shall ask the question myself. After so much mass-murder in the cinema it's nice to see again the Bang-BangYou're-Dead-So-Are-You style of film-making.

Anyway this is the film of the week I would like to see again. Which just shows what a horrible philistine I am becoming. Can I never find a Message for you in the cinema. I promise to go on not even trying.