02/07/2010

The Battle Of The Sexes (1959)


Constance Cummings and Peter Sellers find themselves at odds in Charles Crichton's excellent small business comedy The Battle Of The Sexes. Implausibly and very loosely based on 'The Catbird Seat', a 1942 New Yorker short story by the wit and cartoonist James Thurber, the piece recounts the upheaval endured at a fusty Edinburgh tweed manufacturer, the House of MacPherson, when its aged owner (Ernest Thesiger) dies and passes on the reins to his idiot heir (Robert Morley). The latter brings in ambitious, assertive American business consultant Angela Barrows (Cummings) to help modernise the firm's modest but antiquated set-up, which is still reliant on cottage industry (quite literally, that of the aged highland crofters who weave the fabric). The meek and equally elderly all-male staff, led by abstemious chief accountant Mr Martin (Sellers), soon rebel against her introduction of a proper filing system, electronic adding machines and a malfunctioning intercom system before matters really come to a head with the suggestion of investing in a new factory and abandoning traditional materials in favour of cheaper synthetic fibres (also the cause of much chagrin in Alexander Mackendrick's Ealing caper The Man In The White Suit, 1951). Martin finds himself forced to test his Machiavellian mettle, plotting a murder no one could possibly believe him capable of.



Audiences today are advised not to take this film's apparent sexual politics to heart - it's better to think of it as an ahead-of-its-time satire on the dubious influence wielded by freelance consultants, those self-proclaimed "experts" whom bosses bring in to legitamise the mass sacking of half the workforce in the name of efficiency, rather than as a sexist allegory warning against meddling women in the workplace. The showdown in Cummings' apartment, when a nervous Sellers tries to bump her off through hapless improvisation, is brilliantly choreographed and perhaps owes something to another classic Mackendrick comedy, The Ladykillers (1955). Having a supporting character with the surname Darling (Jameson Clark), which causes embarrassment every time anyone addresses him ("Not you, Darling!"), was a joke almost certainly borrowed by Richard Curtis for the BBC's Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). And perhaps more recently by Gordon Brown at the Treasury. Sellers is at his best in this sort of thing, far more understated and subtle than he can be, while The Battle Of The Sexes is also notable for an early cameo from Donald Pleasence and a hilarious opening scene that dares to make fun of the penchant among Scottish men for wearing tartan mini skirts (sorry, "kilts") by playing the can-can over footage of a troop of marching bagpipers. For a more thoughtful exploration of the culture clash that takes place when progress-minded Americans hit the highlands, go for Bill Forsyth's wry Local Hero (1983), but Crichton's comedy still packs plenty of native charm. 

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