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A mixed bag of the trying hard, failing miserably and surprisingly okay
on 23 October 2012
Intended by the Rank Organisation as a replacement for Norman Wisdom when he made noises about leaving the studio, Morecambe and Wise's big screen career never really took off - hardly surprising considering the poor quality of their first two films. Part of the problem was that, despite their TV work showing the influence of screen double acts like Laurel and Hardy, the scripts never really played to their strengths: no extended routines, no amateur dramatics, no comic musical numbers, just characters that could probably be played by most capable comic actors throwing in the odd bit of backchat. Fine as long as the backchat was funny, but too often the scripts were flat and the situations old stock well past their sell by date. But at least this set brings their three features together in one budget package, though ITV Studios have spared almost every expense on mastering the DVDs themselves.
The Intelligence Men is the most Morecambe and Wise of their films: it may play at times like a script intended for Norman Wisdom and Jerry Desmonde, but it's been reworked to allow them plenty of room for comic routines, verbal and physical, a couple of comic dance numbers and Ernie's love of amateur dramatics with his constant disguises while Eric gets to play the cowardly smart Alec. Both stars get to play themselves (or at least their on-stage personas) rather than being shoehorned into different and untried characters and there are some nicely cinematic bits of business, particularly Eric being lured into the right office by following a series of attractive women. The plot is fairly thin, with Eric mistaken for a dead hitman who was really an undercover British secret agent and his MI5 handler Ernie going through a slew of quick change disguises as they try to uncover an assassination plot. Parts of it completely fall flat while others never rise much above the modestly amusing, yet it's the kind of film that's rather better than you remember it being: it's certainly not a patch on the best of their TV work at the BBC, but enough of it works modestly often enough to provide a fair amount of enjoyment.
Unfortunately there's nothing to enjoy about the DVD transfer, with ITV Studios offering a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that's been DNRed to death - the excessive Dolby Noise Reduction often softens the image to near waxwork levels and adds slight and unwelcome blurring to fast movement. You're probably better off recording it off the TV the next time it's on. The only extra is a tatty fullscreen transfer of the original trailer.
Morecambe and Wise's second stab at big screen fame, That Riviera Touch, is easily their worst, seeing them saddled with a stock plot and too few gags as traffic wardens who beat a hasty retreat to the south of France after giving the Queen a parking ticket only to get innocently involved in one-eyed smuggler Paul Stassino's deadly dirty deeds. Cue disappearing corpses, Suzanne Lloyd's appealing femme not-quite-fatale and the inevitable `big' back projection-heavy comic climax (in this case a water skiing and parasailing chase) that doesn't deliver much in the way of laughs or thrills.
While their first film tried to exploit the strengths of their TV routines, there's next to none of that here: no extended routines, no amateur dramatics, only one comic musical number (with Eric miming to Ernie's singing to woo Ms Lloyd) and only a couple of running gags. It's the sort of weak effort that could have been played by most capable comic actors despite the odd modestly amusing moment here and there. It's painless if you're in a forgiving mood, but the material is just too thin to work as a film.
To add to the general half-heartedness of the film itself, ITV Studios' DVD is a poor fullframe transfer that, like their other Morecambe and Wise features, has had far too much Dolby Noise Reduction applied to it, softening the image and adding the odd moment of blurring.
"We were doing quite all right until you opened your big mouth. `Long live the President.'"
"How was I to know they'd just shot him?"
Their final shot at the movies, 1967's The Magnificent Two, is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination but it's certainly a considerable improvement even if it is more mildly amusing than funny. This time they're a pair of down on their luck travelling salesmen trying to sell Action Man figures in the middle of a South America revolution until - as anyone who's ever seen a comedy involving South American politics can guess - Eric's resemblance to the dead figurehead of the revolutionaries sees him catapulted to the presidency where he naturally becomes a target for the people who put him in power.
You can't exactly accuse Rank of stinting on the production values here: South America may have exactly the same vegetation as Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire in the same way that every British country road in a 40s Hollywood film looked just like Coldwater Canyon and the capital city will be familiar to anyone who's seen The Singer Not the Song, but there are surprisingly elaborate and destructive action scenes, as well as a surprisingly high body count for a comedy. The latter starts to make sense when you remember that producer Hugh Stewart was himself a combat photographer who was the uncredited director of the Oscar-winning wartime documentary Desert Victory and was an advisor on Schindler's List because of the footage he shot of the liberation of Belsen. Not that the film is exactly a weighty treatise on the horrors of war: it all ends with the kind of sexist joke involving female soldiers that you'd never get away with today. Bananas it's not, but it has its nostalgic charms as inoffensive rainy day stuff, as pleasant and instantly forgettable as Ron Goodwin's jaunty score.
ITV Studios' DVD is letterboxed, but the print is faded and has had way too much Dolby Noise Reduction applied to it - the cast don't quite leave vapor trails in their wake as they move across the screen, but there's certainly some unwelcome blurring in places. Ironically the picture quality on the theatrical trailer included has none of those problems.