A Very Different Idiot

Leslie Nielson passed away on the 28th of November last year, aged 84 following a career which lasted well over 50 years. As a form of tribute, I took a look at two films featuring him at work.

The Naked Gun (1988) is probably Nielson’s most iconic film. It sees him reprise the role of Lieutenant Frank Drebin who he played in the short-lived (but hilarious) TV series Police Squad! (1982). Just like the series, this is a deeply silly film, but in a very good way. It is hilarious, and it shows that comedy can be brilliantly made and silly, without being cringe-worthy, or crass. Unfortunately there has been a decline in this style of film-making over recent years and I think Nielsen recognises the value of these type of movies. I think that possibly explains some of the role choices he made in his later years, featuring in films such as Scary Movie 3 (2003), Superhero Movie (2008) and Stan Helsing (2009). These type of films are currently the ones continuing the legacy of The Naked Gun, but unfortunately doing it in a generally crass and unfunny way. I think Nielsen was aiming to recapture some of the silliness seen in this film, and bring it to a whole new audience by appearing in these films.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the spoof film, given the output over the last decade. But a film such as The Naked Gun shows how witty and downright hilarious this sub-genre can be. In fact I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much as this. It is not economical with the joke rate, the gags come one straight after another, or even multiple onscreen at the same time. The parody elements of the film, and its beautiful distinct lack of subtlety are laid bare in the opening scene. A spoof on James Bond films, it sees Nielsen’s Frank Drebin taking out a boardroom of master villains (and what a crew they are, including Yasser Arafat, Gaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini among others). From there, it really does not let up for it’s snappy 90-odd minute duration. Most of the film is a hilarious spoof on the crime film genre. Frank Drebin is a hilariously deluded cop who seems not to quite grasp the world around him. The faux voiceover and police dialogue that Nielsen delivers, enhances the mock noir stylings of the film, which are also boosted by some cracking Double Indemnity (1944) references. The film refuses to trade in one kind of joke. Instead it bombards the viewer with witty wordplay, over the top slapstick, parody and visual gags, all of which work well. The film is a little more risqué then I recall as well. It features the line “nice beaver”, one of the best wee jokes ever committed to film and a condom joke which is hands down the stupidest joke I have ever seen.

The performances in this are all really good. O.J. Simpson features in a moderate supporting role and shows a surprising adroitness for physical slapstick. As Drebin’s love interest, Priscilla Presley is also surprisingly good, handling the comedic and more ‘straight’ elements of her role with equal aplomb. Nielsen is the film’s focal point and star though. He plays the character of Frank Drebin brilliantly. Despite the character’s silliness he plays it pretty straight and the film is much funnier as a result. Definitely preferable than if he had of overplayed it, which would be a definite temptation in a role such as this. You can see that like the film more generally, Nielsen’s performance was quite influential. I see a lot of Will Ferrel in Frank Drebin.

This is a cavalcade of smile-inducing stupidity. I don’t like to hoist my opinions on others because reactions to films are such a personal thing. But I don’t really see how anyone could not enjoy this. It’s one of the most joyous film viewing experiences I have had in a long time. The best way I can describe it is that it gave me the same kind of joyous contentment I get when watching Buster Keaton films (but with more belly laughs). Go watch it.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Whilst most of Nielson’s fame can be attributed to his days as a snowy haired comic from the 80s and 90s, his career began much earlier than that. Probably the most well-remembered of these early roles is as Commander John Adams in The Forbidden Planet (1956). This early sci-fi classic is famously based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Whilst there are some obvious plot similarities, I think it draws more on the works of Freud than Shakespeare’s play. However if you are unfamiliar with, or simply don’t care for either of the above, you will still get something out of this film.

The main thing you might get out of it are the incredible special effects, which I think hold up even today. An early example of this is the crew disappearing as their ship enters hyperdrive. I find it strange that the film is not openly talked about as a highpoint of effects wizardry today, because the effects are clearly technologically advanced and surely ultra-influential. The giant creatures of the subconscious are rendered using some innovative light effects and to see Nielson and his men’s gunfire bouncing off these semi-visible beings is a sight to behold. These massive beings create a real sense of danger for the men who have flown on a reconnaissance mission to a far-off planet, where many years before an envoy from Earth was presumed lost. The tale takes place in a future where humans have conquered and colonised outer space. When they arrive, this platoon of men led by Nielsen’s commander find the only survivors of the earlier expedition are the strange Dr Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, and his smokin’ hot daughter Alta, played by Anne Francis. They are of course supported by undoubtedly the film’s most iconic character, Robbie the Robot. Morbius is strangely unhappy to see newcomers from his home planet, whilst Captain Adams is insistent that they have a job to do and are not going anywhere. Things become more complicated when Alta captures the eye of pretty much all the men on the planet and starts encouraging them not too subtly (not exactly helped by one unscrupulous crew member who tells the naïve Alta she needs to kiss to maintain peak physical condition). The secrets that Morbius is so keen to hide are slowly revealed, placing Adams’ and his crew in profound danger. Can they escape the planet in time? You will have to watch, for once I’m not going to spoil things for you. The film works best when engaging (or I guess possibly creating) sci-fi conventions, rather than focusing on the underdrawn romance that is bubbling along.

It is quite strange seeing Nielson as a strapping, clean-cut young man when so used to seeing him under such different circumstances. The film though, orbits around his performance and it is really very good, proving he is not a mere clown but a man capable of carrying much weightier material. On this evidence it is a shame that he did not get the opportunity to do so more often. It is clearly no coincidence that his character shares a name with the second president of the United States, and in many ways the actor manages to convey the gravitas and upright standing that role is meant to encompass. He is a brave leader, respected by his men and not afraid to make the tough decisions. Reading that description back it is not a role I would have credited Leslie Nielson with being able to pull off, but I was wrong. Narratively the film juggles a number of somewhat strange, disparate subtexts. The enemy here is not hideous aliens or comets, but man’s subconscious and the horrors it brings; surely suggestive of some of the horrors man perpetuated in the 20th century, both against his fellow human beings and his planet. Then there are also the occasional hanging homage to Christianity, such as when one of the crew exclaims sincerely that “the Lord sure made some beautiful worlds.” Like many films, these subtexts can be ignored or explored as much as a particular viewer is willing. But they are piled on, with themes of overt environmentalism and even incest popping up. Possibly just as innovative and interesting to a modern audience as the special effects, is the film’s somewhat trippy soundtrack. It was rendered using pretty much solely electronic means, groundbreaking at the time, and produces a wondrous array of buzzes, beeps and screeches that enhance the action and enhances the feeling of a dangerous, deep space environment. In fact technically the film is generally pretty incredible. The set-design brilliantly evokes a far-off, otherworldliness, as well as some large-scale, subterranean, industrial lairs which put the hidden hideouts of any James Bond (or Austin Powers) villain to shame.

Whilst this film does hold some of the trappings many sci-fi films of this vintage do for viewers of this era, cheesy dialogue chief among them, The Forbidden Planet easily rises above them. The film’s conclusion does risk drowning in a sea of Freudian jargon, but manages to stay afloat so to speak. In the end what we are left with is an expertly (and ahead of its time) cautionary tale about the danger humanity poses to itself and anything else that may or may not exist in the universe.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 36/1001

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