Sunday 22 March 2009

The Naked Truth (1957)

Director: Mario Zampi
Stars: Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Peggy Mount, Shirley Eaton and Dennis Price

You know this has to be a very dark British comedy when it opens with a whole slew of people committing or attempting suicide immediately after Dennis Price leaves their homes with a knowing shake of the head and a subtle smile. We soon see the details on the front page of the paper: 'Brilliant Scientist Found Shot', 'Minister Collapses in Commons', 'Famous Authoress in Miracle Escape', 'Explosion Rocks Model's Flat'. Price is Nigel Dennis, the publisher of a scandal sheet called The Naked Truth, also the British title of the film (in the States, it was bowdlerised into Your Past is Showing).

Then we see his business model in action. He goes to see his prospective celebrity clients and explains just how much he knows about things they'd rather not have made public knowledge. He even has copies of the magazine printed up and ready to go so they can see it all in black and white. He makes it clear that there's no need to appeal to his better nature because he doesn't have one and explains the way it works. The price (no pun intended) for silence is $10,000: 'pay up in a fortnight or I'll publish in a month'.

Unfortunately for Nigel Dennis, this is a business model full of risk and sooner or later his clients are going to fight back. We soon meet a bunch of them, all played by faces well known to me and who soon find numerous comedic ways to interact. There's Flora Ransom, played by the great stage actress Peggy Mount, who is an award-winning writer of murder mysteries, even though she seems a little inept. She has a hidden past, and one failed suicide attempt later finds herself eager to test out the plot to The Great Trunk Murders on Mr Dennis.

She ends up in cahoots with three others. There's Shirley Eaton as Melissa Right, a model with a string of boyfriends even though she's engaged to a Texan millionaire. There's Wee Sonny MacGregor, the star of an embarrassing TV variety show called Here's to You, though he's also secretly the landlord of a lot of dubious slum property. When you discover that he's a master of disguise, quick to realise that he can happily bump off Mr Dennis in one of his many other personas, you won't be surprised to find that he's played by Peter Sellers, who ended up in disguises in most of his films. Finally there's the philandering Lord Mayley, played by no less a great comedic aristocrat than Terry-Thomas.

The concept is hilarious and the film lives up to the concept, raising laughs throughout. It's notably clumsy compared to the best Ealing comedies but it wins out through sheer riotous lunatic joy and the fact that the cast is impeccable: pulling Peggy Mount off the stage was a coup and adding in names of the calibre of Sellers, Price and Terry-Thomas can't help but ensure success. Backing them up are other names like Shirley Eaton, Joan Sims, Miles Malleson, Georgina Cookson and more. I couldn't put names to everyone in the cast but I recognised many of them.

The lunacy wins out, however lunatic it gets and however much the truncheons flop and the filing cabinets seem to be lighter than air. Beyond a couple of poor rear projection shots that are still better in black and white than later Hitchcock shots would be in colour, the only real downside is Bill Edwards as a Texan millionaire. I'm used to American actors making bad attempts at English accents; well, here's the reverse. Bill Edwards was Canadian born and unfortunately can't quite manage a Texan accent. This one's for fans of Arsenic and Old Lace more than those Ealing greats with Alec Guinness, but it can't help but raise the day.

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