Peter Sellers was, and remains, one of Britain's finest comedic geniuses, a member of the legendary Goons (a famous forerunner to Monty Python) and noted character chameleon, able to slip effortlessly into every one of his frequently farcical roles. But what many people fail to recognize is that with said reputation comes an oft-forgotten facet: Sellers was a sensational actor. Because humor seems so inherently a part of a person's makeup, and since laughter can drown out any other critical consideration, few remember how effective Sellers could be outside a joke-filled setting. Granted, he didn't get much of a chance to show it, but the truth is that when driven, he could be as amazing - and difficult - as his equally infamous American counterparts. Case in point - 1973's The Optimists. Taken from Andrew Simmons' noted novel, this story of a strapped street performer who befriends two children was seen as a chance for the commercially questionable Sellers to stretch his performance wings. Indeed, it remains one of his most fully realized turns ever.
Sam is an aging busker who barely meters out a minor living on the streets of London. His music hall days are long gone, and his old mutt Bella can barely work their crowd. If they manage a few coppers after a long day of performing, it makes the journey back to their dilapidated row house near a landfill less depressing. One day, Sam runs into Liz and Mark Ellis, two urchins looking to escape their poverty-stricken home life. While Mom is taking care of their baby sister, and Dad is working overtime in hopes of earning a council flat, the siblings share dreams of a life across the river. Taken by Bella, the duo eventually work their way into Sam's hardened heart. But when they can't afford a stray dog, and their parents won't pay attention to their needs, Liz and Mark ask the old man for help. What he provides will turn them from desperate and sad into something akin to Optimists. Even among the dirt and decay, they may have a future after all.
Teetering back and forth between pathos and painful reality, The Optimists has got to be one of the most unusual efforts in the entire Peter Sellers canon. Avoiding all the comedic crackpotting that symbolized the Method mirth-maker's raison d'être, and painting a very dire portrait of London circa 1973, this slow meditation of life on the fringe's is not without its flaws. Novice director Anthony Simmons is so in love with the polluted, depressing streets of the city's slum district that we can barely tolerate the inferred filth. Even a trip to Hype Park reeks of post-Industrial Revolution rot. Then there's the open faced amateurishness of leads Donna Mullane and John Chaffey. Hired because of their age and appropriateness to the characters in his book, each one is so unaffected in their performance that we can't quite tell if such annoying naturalness is part of Simmons' style. And then there is the ending. Since many of the movie's narrative beats are based wholly on its literary source material, the plot twists are telegraphed upfront and often. This leaves the finale feeling foregone, lacking the emotional punch such a send-off should offer.
Still, for all its slow motion meandering and dead end vignettes, The Optimists is a fine film. It never ventures beyond its small, intimate scope and renders a lot of social commentary out of its two kids, two dogs, and a spry oldster ideal. The narrative form is loose and freewheeling, allowing a lot of realism to simmer up to the surface, and several scenes of Sellers and his costars working the streets seem taken directly from hidden camera interactions with the London populace. While the roles of Mother and Father are rather thankless (they are clearly drawn from the Bickersons' approach to domestic bliss), they definitely help balance out the whimsy inherent in the rest of the story. And just when you think Simmons has no personal panache behind the camera, he comes up with a series of shots during an outing at the apartment complex that illustrates the man's keen eye for composition and silent storytelling. Though its various elements sometimes fail to fully gel, The Optimists does offer enough excellence to keep even the most uneven sequences from spoiling the party.
And then there's Sellers. All that can be said about his hammy, heartbreaking performance is that there is very little of the old Inspector Clouseau in sad Sam Hall. Wearing what appears to be a rather prominent false nose, and graying his receding hairline ever so slightly, the then 47 year old looks in his late 60s. While there is spunk and swagger in his step (and some incredibly adept ukulele/banjo playing as well), this is a man beaten down by the world. Sam seems convinced that good fortune is just a curbside serenade away, and the instances where Sellers breaks out into song are revelatory. While his voice may have its limits, the actor imparts every lyric with the necessary sentimental underpinning. His drunk act can grow grating near the end (alcohol does indeed fuel one's inner asshole), but Sellers never hits a wrong note. That's why, aside from all the maudlin mush and animal-oriented manipulation, The Optimists still works. Without our lead's amazing turn, the film would barely fly. Thanks to Sellers, it soars.
No one expected that these Legend Films pick-ups of forgotten Paramount Titles would get the full blown remaster treatment. Luckily, The Optimists doesn't need much in the way of optical improvement. Sure, the image is a little washed out and worse for wear, but the lack of a pristine print means the industrial malaise of the putrid London backdrop is that much more unsettling and dour. This is one grimy and gritty film, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image helps sell that sense expertly. In fact, one senses a dedicated digital clean-up would ruin some of the film's innate ambience.
Standard old school Mono, modified to fit today's Dolby Digital Stereo dynamic. While there's music here (Oliver!'s Lionel Bart contributed the few Brit wit sing-a-longs), there is no true song and dance numbers. In fact, the character's accents are so thick that it's occasionally hard to understand what they're saying. We get the gist of most of it, but some subtitles would have been nice.
None, sadly, and this is the kind of film that really requires such insights. Anyone looking for more information on this film can look to a recent article by Film Threat's Phil Hall. While he laments the lack of an official DVD release of The Optimists (obviously an out of date complaint at this point), his research is impeccable.
A definite product of its time, it's hard to imagine modern audiences cottoning to this collection of urban nightmares and flights of forced fantasy. After all, without action and adventure and plenty of CGI sparkle, it really isn't a family film, is it? But thanks to an amazing performance by Peter Sellers, who stands as a lamentably underappreciated dramatic actor, and a true sense of a pre-punk "No Future" UK, The Optimists easily earns a Recommended rating. Had it been sharper during its near two hour running time, had Anthony Simmons not indulged in every whim derived directly from his own tome, we'd have a certified classic on our hands. As it stands, this film is a considered cult gem, and further proof that there was more to Peter Sellers than slapstick fights with manservant Kato and gags about "Minkeys". If you want to know the true depth of the man's talents, this intriguing film is a fine place to start.
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