Design for Dying

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

Two struggling American artists – a writer and a painter – living in a cramped Paris flat, waiting for success and falling in love with the same woman.  Sound familiar?  Well, you’re wrong, ’cause we’re talking about the 1965 Universal comedy THE ART OF LOVE, now on Blu-Ray from the cineastes at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Home Video.

There are more than artistic goals and coital frolicking going on here, as scripted by supporting cast member Carl Reiner, working with Richard Alan Simmons’s and William Sackheim’s tale (who, in turn, seemed to have also “borrowed” more than a mere theme from Mark Twain’s 1893 short story Is He Dead?)But Sir Noel’s basic subject matter aside, there’s lots cowardly lyin’.

Casey Bennett and Paul Sloane are, as indicated, two buddies fighting to make a name for themselves.  Womanizing journalist Casey seems okay with their situation as long as bud Paul keeps giving him a piece of his regular subsidy money, courtesy of his gorgeous, rich America-situated fiancée Laurie.  But Sloane has had it; he’s gonna pack it in, return to the States, settle down and likely work for one of his bride’s pater’s various companies, knocking out cartoony ads.  This throws Bennett into a tizzy.  And here’s the literary juncture where the clever Noel and the Twain shall meet, via a throwaway verbal snap by unscrupulous art dealer Zorgus (too bad you’re not dead, dead artists sell).

Casey suggests Paul commit faux suicide, allow him to move all his canvasses, reap the rewards and then reappear – a victim of amnesia.  How all of this goes magnificently wrong is both sardonically funny and a bit disturbing (for a wacky Sixties romcom), as it involves Nikki, a genuine suicidal, impulsive lady (who falls obsessively for Paul), Sloane’s grieving fiancée (who falls for Casey), a popular “nightclub” where the female attractions live and have…clients and last, but by far not the least, Paul’s jealous nature wreaking vengeance by framing Casey for his “murder.” 

What a merry escapade!

Lavishly coproduced by Ross Hunter and star James Garner’s Cherokee Company, THE ART OF LOVE tends to lean toward the mean-spirited (something that didn’t connect with my eleven-year-old self during the July 4th weekend in 1965, when I first saw it; I, frankly, loved every frame).  Reiner makes sure to put in plenty of schtick tailor-made for costar (and friend/lead of his iconic sitcom) Dick Van Dyke.  The female leads have less to do, except look consistently beautiful, which they, not surprisingly, manage rather well.  Elke Sommer (as Nikki) does her trademark alluring pout throughout while Angie Dickinson is admittedly more or less wasted in a thankless role as Laurie; her running gag is to faint at each newly-revealed narrative outrage (of which there are many).

The director is Norman Jewison, at the end of his studio-contracted assignments (The Cincinnati Kid would be released that fall), and gearing up for his greatest creative period (the next year’s reteaming with Reiner for the smash hit The Russians Are Coming, followed by In the Heat of the Night).

The lush Technicolor photography is by the superb Russell Metty; a nod must be made to Second Unit a.d.s Douglas Green and Wendell Franklin, as the actual Paris backdrops are among the best match-ups I’ve ever seen (the picture was otherwise entirely shot at Universal City).

The remainder of the cast is 1960’s Character Actor Heaven, most notably Ethel Merman as Madame Coco La Fontaine, but also Pierre Olaf, Miiko Taka, Irving Jacobson, Naomi Stevens, Jay Novello, Maurice Marsac, Fifi D’Orsay, Marcel Hillaire, Nan Martin, and Rolfe Sedan. Roger C. Carmel and Leon Belasco get a special acknowledgment as mercenary art dealer Zorgus and his underling (a Parisian take on the Alan Brady/Mel Cooley relationship) while Reiner himself excels as Garner’s nasty defense attorney.  Curiously, the original choice for the pivotal character of Madame La Fontaine (the movie’s European title is At Madame Coco’s) was Mae West, who agreed and was approved by Universal; it was only when the star demanded that she be able to re-write all her own dialog that she was immediately replaced (West’s “comeback,” the less-than-worthy Myra Breckinridge, would have to wait another five years).  As a sign of the times, Reiner’s script has an overabundance of bungling French detectives – to the extent that the insertion of a line about seeing “too many Peter Sellers movies” became necessary.

Back in ’65, a bit that brought the house down was a raggedly-dressed laughing, old, toothless woman, knitting during the trial scene, cackling “Guillotine!”  All of us – adults and kids – got it (I wonder how many would today).  I’m shocked that in looking at the movie now, the gag is repeated at least a half-dozen times.  I guess the suits thought it was funny as well.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE ART OF LOVE looks excellent in this new widescreen 35MM 1080p master (a recent TCM screening used a 16MM full frame print).  The colors mostly replicate the era’s Technicolor palette, with only flesh tones occasionally appearing a tad pale.  A fine, strong audio track, featuring a sprightly Cy Coleman score adds the final touch.  Extras include audio commentary by film critic Peter Tonguette and a wonderful related trailer gallery.

Often in movies about fictional artists, the paintings leave much to be desired; in THE ART OF LOVE, many of Van Dyke’s “works” are quite lovely.  And for good reason; they were created by artist Don Cincone, who curiously received no credit (why do I think that many of the Universal-paid-for canvasses ended up in producer Hunter’s living room?).

A perfect addition to a Sixties/comedy collection, THE ART OF LOVE, almost forgotten, remains a nifty way for Boomers to pass the afternoon; many did so in 1965 (the pic was a year’s end top earner).

THE ART OF LOVE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  CAT# K25022. SRP:  $24.95.

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