Monday, 25 May 2009

Movie Review - Penelope (1966)

Penelope is a 1966 comedy that I'd never heard of and seems pretty obscure, but having watched it I can say with confidence that it's well worth the effort to find. It stars Natalie Wood as Penelope Elcott, the young wife of a banker who's become more interested in banking than her. She is seeing a psychiatrist (Dr Gregory Mannix - Dick Shawn) who has fallen in love with her but is exasperated with her continuing kleptomania, which becomes manifest further when she decides to rob her husband's bank! Add in a young Peter Falk as Lieutenant Horatio Bixbee, a couple of fraudsters who get their hands on the clothes that the crime was committed in, and an old friend of Penelope's husband who hasn't stopped trying to get him.

For the first hour it's an engagingly silly and entertaining film, never particularly brilliant but always watchable. A lot of the dialogue is quite clever and Dick Shawn is very good as the troubled psychiatrist, while Peter Falk's detective is also funny on several occasions. Ian Bannen is fine as James Elcott, Penelope's husband, though with so many whacky characters and situations around him he plays an abnormally normal type of person. None of the cast really disappoint, and Natalie Wood is perfect as the scatty yet somehow charming Penelope. I find that characters like Penelope often end up being more annoying than anything else, but not in this case. It's never quite clear just how much of the chaos she causes is intentional, and I think that's part of the magic of this film - things happen, but the reason they happen isn't always of any real importance.
Director Arthur Hiller keeps things moving along at a cracking pace and George Wells' screenplay from Howard Fast is full of wit. The sets are nicely designed and somehow the colourful backdrops lend both authenticity and a surreal atmosphere to the proceedings - don't ask me how, they just do! There are a few completely surreal moments, such as when Penelope is thinking back to the beginnings of her kleptomania (her encounter with an anthropologist is particularly bizarre), and these are often very funny.

It's not until the final half-hour that the film really reaches the stars though... a plot twist that you've seen through most of the film is turned on its head by not one but two excellent plot twists that turn the whole thing on its head. The last section of this film could properly be described as utterly inspired chaos - while the rest of the film had me grinning frequently, there were some hilarious moments nearer the end and some genuine belly laughs.

The music isn't brilliant but it's fun and suits the music perfectly - and of interest to film buffs, it was composed by a certain "Johnny Williams" - more famous now as John, of course. The music and in fact everything else about the film is very evocative of the sixties - no surprise really considering that's when it was made - and for someone like myself who was born after the sixties, is a very interesting time portal as well as a good film. For those who lived through the sixties, I can imagine it would be quite a nostalgic experience.

All in all a decent film to begin with, improving all the time and containing a brilliant last half hour, and Natalie Wood's captivating performance alone would make this worth watching. With the added bonus of a gateway to the 60s and a chance to see / hear some of the earlier work of Peter Falk / John Williams, it's definitely worth searching for.

Related Links

Peter Falk: The Princess Bride
Dick Shawn: The Producers

Not be be confused with Penelope (2008) starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy

CaptainD - Movie Reviews Blog

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