Monday, March 25, 2019

A Countess from Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin, 1967)

Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong certainly encapsulates the recurring quandary of engaging with an auteur’s late work, persistently raising the question of how to distinguish a knowingly backward-looking, honed-down classicism from mere outdatedness, artistic fatigue and irrelevance. In this case the evidence for the latter position is fairly extensive: the film contains long stretches that appear intended to function as screwball comedy (Marlon Brando’s Ogden is hiding a stowaway, Sophia Loren’s Natascha, in his cruise ship cabin, triggering endless outbursts of running and flapping around in response to knocks on the door) but in practice just die on the screen, the victim of flat staging and pacing and unengaged acting; a romance develops between Ogden and Natascha, but if this wasn’t spelled out in the dialogue, we likely wouldn’t be able to tell from anything that’s visible on the screen (the lack of chemistry between the stars is overwhelming). It’s probably most interesting in the brief bits of business that one can imagine a younger Chaplin reserving for himself: an extended sequence in which Ogden’s butler Hudson (Patrick Cargill) prepares for bed while dizzy from Natascha’s presence in the same room; the diversionary sleight of hand exercised on another passenger who’s on the prowl for Natascha. There’s something stubbornly admirable too about the extent of the film’s artificiality: the external shots are so few and for the most part so indifferently integrated that one wishes Chaplin had dispensed with them altogether. In the end, the film feels stubborn to the point of solipsism, treating the Hudson character with significant callousness, dumping the key emotional and financial negotiation between Ogden and his wife (Tippi Hedren) in mid-stream, and ending on a most stiffly and formally conceived romantic reunion (“Shut up and deal,” it isn’t). The occasional evocation of “world peace” and political unease is surely counterproductive in reminding us that the film is indeed set on this specific planet in the 1960’s, rather than in the sealed-off, timeless studio world for which it appears to pine.

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