Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Producers (1967)

A classic piece of 1960s madness, The Producers also kick-started the film-directing career of Mel Brooks. Viewed nowadays, it has two perfect lead actors, and a frantic neurotic energy that helps smooth over the bumps in the script.

After a string of Broadway flops, producer Max Bialystock (the incomparable Zero Mostel) is as desperate as he is broke. Just when all hope seems lost, his timid accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) inadvertently comes up with a fool proof money making scheme: find the worst show in the world, raise a huge budget by fraudulently overselling it to your investors, watch it close on first night, then flee to Rio with the leftover cash. However, even with a high kicking, seig heiling, musical about the life of Hitler, they forgot to take into account the questionable taste of the theatre-going public.

Brooks came into movies from a career writing skits for the likes of the legendary Sid Ceaser, and this shows in the script structure. Much of the first 20 minutes takes place in the office of Bialystok, and, consequently, feels a little stagey. In fairness to Brooks, this may be due to budgetary restrictions as much as anything, and after this he does try to expand the feel of the piece into something more cinematic, with montage trip around some of the sights of New York.

The characters and the writing are what really make The Producers work, rather than flashy filmmaking. Based on Brooks’ own experiences of working with Broadway producers, Max is one of the great monstrous comic creations, utterly devoted to nobody but himself, yet, thanks to the writing and Mostel's performance, we can actually begin to understand his desperation at how far he has fallen, to the extent where it is very easy to want him to succeed in his fraudulent endeavours. His charisma is such that it is also possible to see how an innocent yet perfectly intelligent man like Bloom can be corrupted and tempted into a life of crime.

Wilder more than holds his own as Bloom, playing him with enough vulnerability to make him likeable and sympathetic, rather than a one-dimensional shrieking bore, but with a nervous energy and the look of a trapped animal that makes this a hysterical film in both senses of the word. Elsewhere stand-up comedian Dick Shawn almost steals every scene he is in as Lorenzo St Dubois (L.S.D) the perpetually stoned hippy star of the musical, and his scenes have a loose improvised feel, a good contrast to the uptight feel of Bialystock and Bloom.

The rest of the supporting cast of characters are very much a snapshot of the cartoonish comedy caricatures of the era, from groovy flower power hippies, extremely camp gay men, to go-go dancing Swedish blonde secretaries. The Producers also paints a particular picture of New York, a city with a mix of the fancy and funky, a loud vibrant city, full of energy, and full of people of many different shapes, sizes, creeds, colours and persuasions, rich and poor, young and old, many of whom who don't give a damn about other people's sensibilities.

The highlight of the film is the jaw dropping musical set piece that is the opening of Springtime for Hitler. In style, structure and arrangement, the title song is a pitch perfect pastiche of the cheery upbeat Broadway musical, and if nothing else, perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of trying to discuss sensitive, complex subjects with rhyming couplets and chorus lines.