ARMCHAIR CINEPHILE: COMIC CHAMELEON — THE PETER SELLERS COLLECTION 

THE PETER SELLERS COLLECTION (Anchor Bay) THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (Artisan)

Henry Kissinger has been in the news lately, and one natural response to that is to curl up in a fetal ball, hoping he'll go die. Another, more fun response is to remember the immortal Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers' outrageous caricature of the myopic Machiavelli. I choose both, but that's me.

Many Americans only know Sellers through Strangelove and the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau. Last month brought DVD fans seven other ways to get acquainted: the six little-known films in the Peter Sellers Collection (Anchor Bay), five of which are also available on their own, and The Magic Christian (Artisan).

 
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Made in 1969 from a novel by Terry Southern, Christian is a like a relic buried for centuries in an airless vault, which crumbles to dust when exposed to fresh oxygen. If you haven't read the book, you'll be lost completely; if you have, you should understand large chunks, at least. It's a manic, hippie satire in which an obscenely wealthy man amuses himself by pulling pranks on the rest of the world - and many viewers will likely feel they have been targeted. The other films are far more subdued. In fact, modern audiences may be surprised how few outright jokes they contain. A couple of them feature the actor in relatively small roles, and function in the collection mainly to show how adept Sellers was at disguising himself: He's an old alcoholic projectionist in The Smallest Show on Earth, a corrupt politician running an imaginary British colony in Carlton-Browne of the F.O. He even gives a straight dramatic performance in Hoffman.

His most enjoyable character here is in a slightly stiff class satire called I'm All Right Jack: The plot sets industrialists against labor unions, mocking the dishonesty on both sides; Sellers plays a blue-collar communist with a thick accent and a tendency to lecture his "brothers" about Marx and Engels. It's a much more low-key humor than the slapstick which eventually made Clouseau a star, but once you're in sync with the film's tone, it's a delight.

 
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You won't have to work hard to find the mood of Two-Way Stretch, the most accessible film in the box. Sellers is an inmate living the life of Riley; his network of contraband and easily distractible guards would make Colonel Hogan envious. He and his mates are perfectly comfortable, but decide to break out of prison - then sneak back in before they're missed - so they can pull off a heist and have an air-tight alibi. Things don't go exactly as planned.

Looking back on a week of these films, it's hard to get a real handle on what kind of British moviegoers flocked to see them. Their one clear gestalt, in fact, seems to be that Sellers - after playing a criminal, a slimy political manipulator, an arrogant propagandist and a flashy lunatic with deep pockets - was incomparably well prepared to portray Henry Kissinger. •


More by John DeFore

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