Transitional British Comedy Features Transitional Peter Sellers Role



bos3My varying (and mainly unreliable) internet sources are in slight disagreement over whether the amusingly overblown title above was a 1960 or a 1959 release, but I think the faint confusion actually contributes to the sense that this gentle (and gently subversive) British black comedy could comfortably reside in either decade. Adapted from the 1942 short story “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber, in which a mild-mannered clerk feverishly plots the murder of a female co-worker, the setting is shifted from New York to Edinburgh, and the Americanized idiom of the story title Anglicized to fit the film’s (initially) mock-epic tone, The Battle of the Sexes nicely combines the irreducible wit of the Thurber story and the insular whimsy of Ealing Studios-era British film comedy to arrive on screens at the end of the ’50s and/or the beginning of the ’60s with just enough quiet cleverness for the former and provocative spice for the latter. With the cross-cultural literary and artistic exchange resulting in a quite enjoyable melding of two, as it turns out, complementing comedy styles, this Battle is essentially painless, while also a bit mischievous, screen fun.


A then-34-year-old Peter Sellers stars as bushy white-haired Mr. Martin, the bland and retiring head accountant of a venerable Edinburgh tweed company who finds whiskey and cigarettes just as objectionable as the new-fangled “efficiency” ideas brought to the firm by female American interloper Miss Angela Barrows (played with brassy enthusiasm by Constance Cummings). The old and time-tested ways of the late owner Mr. MacPherson (Ernest Thesinger) have given way to the vague and highly-impressionable “progressive” notions of his ineffectual son, Robert (a delightfully mealy-mouthed Robert Morley), and poor Mr. Martin soon finds his triple decade file-keeping system of heaped business documents and ledger sheets strewn casually about his four man office in jeopardy, replaced by adding machines and intercoms and all manner of “modern” nonsense. As, indeed, the “modern woman” who has disrupted his comfortable ways, and shaken the very foundations of his traditional outlook, a fateful trip to the cinema to view a suggestively-titled potboiler called The Case of the Unknown Killer soon has Mr. Martin planning Miss Barrows’ untimely demise…


Following on his triumphant and tripling roles in The Mouse that Roared, his sensitive and beleaguered portrait of working class shop steward Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack, and his anarchic appearance in the still-influential comedy short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (all 1959), Peter Sellers proves even in this more obscure and less well-known title the depth and variety of his screen characterizations as he was, at this point in his career, well on to screen stardom. His Mr. Martin is a veritable marvel of screen shyness: shuffling, soft-spoken, and perpetually shamefaced, Sellers hilariously imbues each scene with a haziness and hesitancy bordering on apology. (So much so, I feel, that the more dated impressions of underlying misogyny in the proceedings described above are defused by the canniness and sympathy informed by Sellers’ performance – it would take a lot, we feel, for the character to go farcically “over the edge”.) As directed by Charles Crichton (Hue and Cry [1947], The Lavender Hill Mob [1951]), and as photographed by the great Freddie Francis (Room at the Top [1958], The Innocents [1961]), The Battle of the Sexes arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber looking suitably clear-lined and sharp-edged; the perfect visual analogue for the solid and staid world of all the Mr. Martins this Battle of the Sexes so deftly delineates… while also hinting at deeper undercurrents soon to topple it whole.

The images used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality of the Blu-ray.