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The seldom-seen (at least in the U.S.) Tiara Tahiti is an engaging light comedy, a modern day escapist fantasy about Englishmen at large in the South Seas. James Mason is delightful as an unscrupulous but charming upper-class rascal, while John Mills plays a businessman uncomfortable in his own skin. It's the first film of TV director William T. (Ted) Kotcheff, who later did the interesting The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, as well as the popular First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's. A few aspects of the film are misjudged but the main story is a relaxed meditation on male insecurity in the English class system.
The show begins in Occupied Germany after the war. Lt. Col. Clifford Southey (John Mills) runs an Army unit smoothly enough until his old associate Capt. Brett Aimsley (James Mason) arrives, to perform a bureaucratic survey of some kind. Southey was a clerk in Aimsley's father's company before the war. Aimsley behaves as if he still "outranks" his superior officer. He undermines Cliff's authority, ignoring his rules and regulations about everything from mess time to gambling. Humiliated, Cliff informs on Brett when the Captain smuggles contraband back to England.
A number of years later, Cliff is a top man in a firm managing a chain of hotels. He heads to Tahiti for the purpose of scouting out a new development in the French colony. But he's unaware that Brett, having been cashiered from the Army and disinherited by his family, is now an expatriate bum living by hits wits and charm in the tropical paradise. Brett's mistress Belle Annie (Rosenda Monteros of The Magnificent Seven) believes Brett's lies about returning with him to Europe; she'd love to become a fashion model. To this end she flirts with the lustful Chong Sing (Herbert Lom), a merchant who gives her free clothing. Brett staves off eviction by the local gendarme (and aspiring novelist) Marcel (Jacques Marins) by critiquing his latest manuscript.
Brett Ainsley proceeds to use his wiles to gain a job as Cliff's local troubleshooter, while Cliff almost immediately reverts to his insecure self. But Brett has also promised the local official Henri Farengue (Claude Dauphin) to do what he can to stop the hotel project, so as to spare Tahiti from hordes of meddlesome tourists. A pair of middle-aged women arrives on Cliff's flight, providing an example of the Americans Henri would like to keep out. Meanwhile, Chong Sing is distressed to learn that Belle Annie intends to leave the island, either with Brett or a muscle-bound American sailor, Joey (Gary Cockrell). The merchant hires a local thug to keep that from happening.
The German-set opening of Tiara Tahiti is a rather clumsy comic mix. Cliff's discomfort with the annoying, prepossessing Brett is not pleasant to see, and reminds us of his role as the tortured C.O. in Tunes of Glory from just a couple of years before. Mills awkwardly addresses the camera as he rehearses his best authoritarian manner, yet is disarmed and flustered when Brett breezes through his office, taking a superior attitude and implying that Cliff is little more than a clerk who thinks he's made good. We discover later on that Cliff Southey has constructed his executive 'style' by borrowing some of the mannerisms of his old "buddy", and even some of Brett's catch phrases. Cliff wins over his subordinates with Brett's old line, "Gentlemen, don't do anything I wouldn't do, which of course leaves you free to do absolutely anything". There's a good comment on the class system in this -- Cliff is a perfectly decent man, but he's wholly insecure when confronted by the class barrier.
Brett Ainsley is the plum role, the source of everything fun in the picture. James Mason plays the carefree drifter beautifully, feeding a constant line of B.S. to the childlike Belle Annie and the malleable gendarme Marcel. He's a little more careful with the Tourism Official Henri, his only ticket to something like security. Brett has a terrific moment patronizing the American tourist ladies, who take him for a native. But he's neither a clown nor a simple conman. Behind all the surface charm, we can tell that Brett regrets not being able to return to England -- he's a more bohemian version of Joseph Conrad's Outcast of the Islands.
Cliff and Brett almost immediately revive their old dispute, a problem that comes to a head when the drunken Cliff foolishly confesses that it was he who betrayed Brett back in 1945. Neither is in shape to fight, but in the morning Belle Annie finds Brett beaten and bloody on the floor of their bungalow. All suspicion falls on Cliff.
The Tahiti-set episodes are a real idyll. Tahiti is still a semi-backwater, a paradise unsoiled by rampant tourism. Brett can just wander into town from his isolated cabana. He reads his London newspaper in a cafe while considering his next move, never letting anyone know how desperate he is to improve his situation.
James Mason makes his complex character seem an effortless construction -- we like this charming knave no matter what he does. The more upstanding and hardworking Cliff isn't anywhere near as likeable. He's limited by his negative self-image and seems doomed to frustration. Claude Dauphin's official and Jacques Marin's cop are amusing, especially when it's poor innocent Cliff that winds up in jail instead of the scoundrel Brett.
In 1962 it was still considered acceptable for white actors to doll up in makeup to play Asians. Herbert Lom's Chong Sing is a very well-done characterization for its time, unlike Mickey Rooney's ill-judged buck-toothed Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany's or the pidgin-English squawking fake Japanese in the Brit Blood Island film series. Lom's work is fairly subtle, but Asian actor progressives won't like seeing Chong Sing play games associated with old stereotypes: hiring a killer and coveting the leading lady. It appears that only handsome Anglo stars can lust after dusky tropical dames with impunity.
This dusky Polynesian-French dame Belle Annie is a hot number, no question. Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros is slim and slinky and looks fantastic in the swimsuits 'on loan' from Chong Sing. In approved tradition she's available to any man who hints that he might take her to London or Paris. Everybody's aware of her charms but her chosen boyfriend while Brett's busy wheeling and dealing is the immature sailor Joey. Movie fans who have heard about "hot" European versions of movies need look no further, as Tiara Tahiti sports a pair of dazzling, racy topless scenes with Ms. Monteros that were presumably never shown in the States. I doubt that Dorothy Lamour would be amused (see disc cover image).
Tiara Tahiti is always amusing but impresses as more of a comic drama than a show with big laughs. The wonderful Roy Kinnear (How I Won the War, Juggernaut) has a nice part in the German section but is directed to play it straight. We're instead charmed by the charismatic, funny James Mason. The movie is a great discovery for Mason's fans; he seems to have never given a bad performance.
VCI Entertainment's DVD of Tiara Tahitiis a good transfer of this colorful comic romp. Cinematographer Otto Heller (Peeping Tom, The Ipcress File, Alfie) captures the breezy tropic light, James Mason's smiling suntan and Rosenda Monteros' flawless Coppertone complexion. As any good South Seas fantasy should, the show makes all of us ask ourselves why we aren't abandoning our daily headaches and heading South to romp in the surf with the playmate of our choice. Responsibility and consequences, I suppose.
VCI's presentation comes with an original UK trailer in excellent shape and a set of alternate "covered up" shots to sanitize the movie for markets unfriendly to casual nudity. Instead of self-censoring the show outright or letting others hack it to bits, the filmmakers shot matching material that would presumably be spliced into the reels affected. An alternate soundtrack for that reel would be necessary, however, as the nudity bridges dialogue scenes. Image Entertainment provided a precedent with their uncensored "Continental" presentation of the 1959 horror film The Flesh and the Fiends. The disc contained an entire second transfer of the alternate official sanitized version of the same picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tiara Tahiti rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.