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An arid technical exercise and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is
on 11 October 2006
With rare exceptions like Frasier or Comme une Image, most supposedly `sophisticated' comedies are usually either too clever by half or not half as clever as they think they are: this definitely falls into the latter category. It may be slightly more articulate, but it still comes down to pratfalls and clichés clumsily dispensed (not to mention an incredibly one-dimensional role for Linda Darnell as the wife whose sole reason for existence seems to be to worship her husband). Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent that despite his confidence in the early part of the film, Rex Harrison is entirely wrong for the part: aside from being so incredibly unsympathetic that he simply alienates you for most of the film, he has absolutely no facility for physical comedy, which renders what could and should have been a great comic setpiece where he accidentally trashes his hotel room far more thoroughly than any rock star ever could even dream of rather tedious and protracted. (Alfred Newman's surprisingly crudely over the top slide-whistle and horn 'comic' underscoring all but stones the scene to death, a surprising lapse of judgment from a great composer in a film revolving around classical music.) In the hands of an actor with a modicum of physical comedy timing it could have been gold, but instead it's almost reduced to a technical exercise.
But the same could be said for much of the film. The idea of having the execution and resolution of Harrison's fantasies dictated by the pace of the music he conducts (Rossini for murder, Wagner for mournful forgiveness, Tchaikovsky for suicide) is inspired, but it results in scenes that feel forced, as if at the mercy of a galley slave master's drumbeat. That the scenes themselves are so predictable doesn't help, as goodwill and admiration gradually gives way to boredom in the second half.
There are, however, two saving graces. One is the scene in private detective Edgar Kennedy's office, where Harrison is furious to discover that the man he has come to castigate is a knowledgeable fan with his own tale of loss. The scene is crudely performed and reads better than it plays, but there's heart and humanity there that's lacking in too much of the rest of the film. But the film's genuine standout moment is the orchestra rehearsal, one of the best pieces of filmed musical performance in the movies, not only showing how the music is constructed but showing the life, character and human soul behind it. The loss of those qualities in the rest of the movie is all the more keenly felt in an increasingly arid and overplayed technical exercise.