By Tony Williams.
Back in 1965 BBC TV screened a documentary introduced by Dirk Bogarde, The Epic that Never Was, an informative analysis of a 1937 failed film version of I, Claudius that would have been directed by Josef von Sternberg starring Charles Laughton in a role that would later be performed by Freddie Jones and Derek Jacobi on later UK TV series such as The Caesars (1968) and the more renowned I, Claudius (1976). The earlier work contained several insightful scenes of what might have been possible had the production overcame its obstacles as well as several others that also revealed that the project was doomed to failure due to collision of discordant elements. After the Fox is no I, Claudius but like the proverbial curate’s egg, it reveals wholesome parts that unfortunately cannot overcome collision of discordant elements never arriving at a coherent whole. Although the film has acquired a cult reputation, this new DVD restoration by Kino Lorber is highly welcome not just to reveal undeniable flaws but also those pleasurable parts that contribute to its enduring reputation.
When initially conceived and developed After the Fox appeared to be a winning number within its contemporary international production context. First envisaged by scenarist Neil Simon as a farcical satire of the contemporary Italian film industry with either Marcello Mastroianni (who had played a film director in Fellini’s 81/2) or Vittorio Gassman (who had both Hollywood and Italian experience) in the leading role, the project ended up in the hands of Peter Sellers as the first, only, and last production of his Brookfield Company, named after his then country estate. Amazingly Sellers persuaded one of the founding fathers of Italian Neo-Realism Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974) who was then known for a series of popular Italian comedies co-starring Mastroianni and Sophia Loren – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1964) and Marriage, Italian Style (1965) – to direct the film. In addition to his Neo-Realism prestige, De Sica had a varied career as actor and director as well as Hollywood and television credentials in productions such as A Farewell to Arms (1958), playing the amorous Count to Kim Novak in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) and as one of The Four Just Men (1960). In addition to his acknowledged British film comedic performances, Sellers had achieved international success in the first two Pink Panther films as well as the hugely successful What’s Up Pussycat? (1965, written and co-starring Woody Allen in his film debut). In fact, After the Fox’s opening credits refer to these previously successful recent films with Bacharach and David theme song using the combined vocal talents of The Hollies (1) and Sellers himself. For all concerned the cinematic prospects appeared heavenly. Yet, as William Blake earlier noted, marriages can be made in hell as well as heaven (2) with ominous unforeseen hazards involving filming and critical reception echoing the line of Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus: “Why this is hell nor am I out of it.”
From Simon’s memoirs, it appears that De Sica viewed the film as much more than a simple farce in terms of the potential it had to show how money corrupts not just those in business but others in the arts. Obviously irritated at the commercial work he had now to undertake (and does not Orson Welles refer to him in his 1958 Viva Italia! essay-documentary as virtually unknown in his home country for his Neo-Realist achievements?) De Sica conceived the project as “also a film within a film within a film” and saw a great opportunity to critique those new directors in the Italian film industry who were mimicking the achievements of Fellini and Rossellini, let alone himself (Simon, 188-189). Thus it comes as no surprise that Sellers’ escaped convict Aldo Vanucci adopts the director pseudonym of Federico Fabrizi to seduce a whole village into making a fake movie to divert attention from the activities of bullion smuggler Okra (Akim Tamiroff) moving his loot into Italy with a faded Hollywood star played by Victor Mature and the local police chief (Lando Buzzanca) as his unwitting accomplices. In one amusing scene De Sica plays himself as a film director trying to make a biblical epic with “John Huston” in the role of Moses, only to find that Vanucci and his accomplices posing as extras have stolen his entire production equipment (3). It is not accidental that Huston was directing The Bible (1966) at this time and playing the role of Noah. Simon later worked on another version of his screenplay with Cesare Zavattini, who spoke no English to Simon’s lack of Italian. The venerated Neo-Realist writer had a more serious perspective than De Sica on the hidden social merits of this project (Sikov, 205-206, 212-214) and linguistic and cultural contradictions continued during the filming, according to Simon (see 238-239), resulting in a very confused final product. (Ironically, this did not affect A Fistful of Dollars  with its leading star and director not know each other’s languages.)
However, After the Fox is worth viewing. Although definitely flawed in conception and realization, it belongs to a past era of cinema where it was possible to take chances, try to overcome confusions and dissensions between directors and actors, and still exhibit a final product that was never contemptible towards its audiences. It reveals a time when mistakes were still allowed before our current malaise of too many executive cooks spoiling potential cinematic gourmet recipes either in pre-production or afterwards. In its present form, After the Fox is a digestible type of entertainment with some amusing ingredients when work once allowance for culinary misconceptions. It may be another version of Robin Wood’s definition of an “incoherent text” but incoherence can be fun if all one looks for is sheer divertissement. If Bette Davis consoles Paul Henreid with having the stars rather than the moon at the end of Now Voyager (1942), audiences may relish some tasty sequences rather than a gourmet meal with caviar in this particular instance.
Despite Sellers performance in a role that demands particular Italian comedic specialties (but have Toto, Buzzanca, Alberto Sordi, and Walter Chiari ever achieved international recognition?), After the Fox amuses by its employment of baroque and excessive aspects of Neapolitan cinematic comedy which De Sica was well versed in during his pre, and post-war career employing not just the talents of Paola Stoppa and Buzzanca but also relatively untrained talents such as Rosanna Brazzi’s wife in the role of Vanucci’s mother and the village people of its chief location, many of whom had never acted before as in the heyday of Neo Realism. That cinematic world has now passed as a definition of Neo-Realism in the film as “No Money!” affirms. Britt Eckland’s role as Vanucci’s sister has received unjust criticism since she aptly performs the type of popular cinematic young leading lady performers especially in her reincarnation as starlet “Gina Romantica”, resembling so many disposable and now forgotten ephemeral actresses of the era. Akim Tamiroff again displays eccentric, grotesque characteristics seen also in his performances in Orson Welles films, and Martin Balsam shows his versatility in portraying the frustrated manager of aging star Tony Powell. Two years before playing The Big Victor in Head (1968), Victor Mature (1913-1999) revealed not only unexpected comic potential unseen before but also a willingness to poke fun at his usual screen image by playing a narcissistic aging star in such a way as to reveal a self-aware performative skill recognizing the way Hollywood had manufactured an image far from his actual personality and one which he knew was entirely false. Hence, his pleasure in parodying the masculine vanity ideology of the Hollywood machine. Semi-retired at the time of production as well as being an earlier version of one of Halsey’s “magnificent strangers” appearing in Italian sword and sandal productions of Hannibal (1959) and The Tartars (1961), the last opposite Orson Welles, Mature delivers the performance of his career far surpassing his male version of Marlene Dietrich – Dr. Omar, “doctor of nothing” in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). By screening one of his earlier films in an Italian cinema Easy Living (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, I see that After the Fox reveals itself as a comic version of Vincente Minelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) that also shows extracts from its fictional character’s screen heyday in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Mature’s noir heyday is also humorously referenced by the two scrupulously clean trench coats contained in his trunk. Used also in the fake film Vanucci directs, they also recall Robert Mitchum’s obviously ad-libbed line in that dreary, aptly titled IRA film A Terrible Beauty (1960), not one of Tay Garnett’s better efforts, when he is seized by his fellow soldiers in “The Movement” costumed in appropriate attire one of whom played by an uncredited T.P.McKenna – “Sometimes I think the I.R.A. was invented by a manufacturer of trench coats to keep up sales”.
Despite its problematic realization, After the Fox does succeed in one scene by dismantling temporarily those boundaries between realism and fantasy that many forms of unscrupulous commercial cinema use on audiences who can easily allow themselves to indulge in seductive deceptions and thus unfortunately confirm the worst aspects of 1970s Screen Theory. Role playing is key to the film as in Vanucci’s various disguises but it does come with a cost. At the film’s climax, Vanucci cannot escape the trap of his final performance that he easily emerged from earlier in the film, and the courtroom sequence showing the embarrassing footage from Fabrizi’s film not only anticipates the final scene of Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vepp (1996), which reveals the supreme example of an “incoherent text”, but also that foreboding concluding sequence of Lindsay Anderson’s penultimate feature Britannia Hospital (1982), where a subdued audience confronts the grim direction their society may be heading towards. In the case of After the Fox, Vanucci/Fabrizi takes responsibility allowing all other defendants including stars, associates, and extras free to consider the foolishness of their actions. “Gina” sees her realistic, grotesque image on screen while Tony Powell will comes to terms with aging (or even retire from the screen, as the real-life Victor Mature did apart from a few minor fun roles). Despite this, a deranged film critic acclaims the footage as a cinematic masterpiece before he is dragged away by the police. One sees him teaching Screen Theory and Postmodernism in some prestigious university in future years, whose employers would be as easily conned as the villagers are by Fabrizi.
After the Fox may have failed in terms of realizing its potential of being a satirical, socially responsible contemporary version of a very different type of Italian Neapolitan comedy, in the manner its various creators intended, while enjoyable traces remain.
Halsey, Brett (2001), The Magnificent Strangers, New York: Universe Books.
Sikov, Ed (2002), Mr. Strangelove, New York: Hyperion.
Simon, Neil (1996), Rewrites: A Memoir, New York: Simon and Schuster.
- If Christopher Marlowe describes Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” in Doctor Faustus. One wonders whether this 1966 film that appeared at the time Graham Nash first met Crosby and Stills also stimulated him to launch another career by leaving The Hollies?
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793).
- One wonders if this is a veiled reference to those American actors active in Italy at the time when many such as Vittorio De Sicca’s daughter and others complained about stealing their jobs according to Brett Halsey during a Los Angeles 19 March 2011 day event on the Italian Western? (I’m indebted for the clarification of this date to Tom Betts) Halsey’s book The Magnificent Strangers is a very good fictionalized account of that era.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).