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September 04, 2014

Juggernaut / Forum

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Richard Lester - 1966

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Juggernaut
Richard Lester - 1974
both KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For a brief time, the Fall of 1973, I was working as the Assistant Manager of the Greenwich Theater in New York City. I don't recall all the details, but while a movie was playing inside the theater, a commercial was being shot in the lobby. The commercial featured character actor, Jack Gilford, a face many viewers would recognize even if they don't know the name. During a break from shooting, I went up to Gilford to ask about his experience making A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I am paraphrasing here, but he didn't like the film, and said something to the effect that Richard Lester did not respect the show.

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I have to assume that Gilford was hoping that the film version of Forum would be a bit more like the traditional filming of a Broadway musical. And if you compare two musicals from the previous year that Forum was released, Lester's film more strongly resembles Help! than The Sound of Music. And from my point of view, that's how it should be. The two new Blu-ray releases of Forum and Juggernaut are compelling arguments in favor of the auteur theory as both are projects that Richard Lester originated, but both unmistakably show his hand.

The musical number, "Everybody Ought to have a Maid", in particular, visually resembles the what Lester did in Help! with the song filmed in such a way that the characters will sing part of the song in one location, inside a house, with a jump cut, to Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Michael Hordern and Phil Silvers, suddenly on a rooftop. An apt comparison would be with The Beatles performing "Ticket to Ride".

This is the first time I have seen Forum since its initial theatrical release. Almost fifty years later, the film comes off as more frenetic than funny. Richard Lester's demand for historical realism may be seen in sets and his insistence that Phil Silvers not wear glasses, but is absent from the one scene of Silver's courtesans performing various seductive dances. Aside from the pleasure of watching the main cast, there is Buster Keaton in his last screen performance, with one final pratfall. Also, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics still tickle the mind as well as the ear.

In contrast, Juggernaut is a more conventional film visually. Lester was brought in to direct following the departures of Bryan Forbes and Don Taylor. Where the two filmmakers would have made films that would have probably been more straight forward thrillers, Lester found ways to insert visual and verbal humor. On an ocean liner with seven hidden bombs, one of the subplots involves the ship having faulty gyroscopes, as well as sailing in inclement weather. As a filmmaker who loved the pratfalls of silent comedies, Lester films the crew and passengers slipping and sliding on deck, as well as buffeted about in the passageways.

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That the name of the ship is Britannic sounds close enough to the name of a more famous ship. At one point, the hapless entertainment director of the ship, played by Lester favorite, Roy Kinnear, in preparing for what may be the ship's last party describes it as, "A night to remember", and later tries to reassure passenger Shirley Knight that there are no icebergs. Those who have followed Lester's career might have been amused by a moment in that same scene when what is heard sounds very much like the famous opening, jarring chord for A Hard Day's Night.

This is my return to Juggernaut, forty years after the theatrical release. The scene of Richard Harris and David Hemming trying to defuse their respective bombs still retains tension. One can see the sweat on Harris' nose as he tries to determine which wire is to be cut. A name more meaningful for current viewer is Anthony Hopkins as the London based policeman, whose wife and children are on board the ship. Still, the heart and soul of this film is Kinnear, giving the performance of his career.

Posted by peter at September 4, 2014 07:36 AM