Henry Kissinger has been in the news lately, and one natural response to that is to curl up in a fetal ball, hoping he'll go die. Another, more fun response is to remember the immortal Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers' outrageous caricature of the myopic Machiavelli. I choose both, but that's me.
Many Americans only know Sellers through Strangelove and the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau. Last month brought DVD fans seven other ways to get acquainted: the six little-known films in the Peter Sellers Collection (Anchor Bay), five of which are also available on their own, and The Magic Christian (Artisan).
Made in 1969 from a novel by Terry Southern, Christian is a like a relic buried for centuries in an airless vault, which crumbles to dust when exposed to fresh oxygen. If you haven't read the book, you'll be lost completely; if you have, you should understand large chunks, at least. It's a manic, hippie satire in which an obscenely wealthy man amuses himself by pulling pranks on the rest of the world - and many viewers will likely feel they have been targeted. The other films are far more subdued. In fact, modern audiences may be surprised how few outright jokes they contain. A couple of them feature the actor in relatively small roles, and function in the collection mainly to show how adept Sellers was at disguising himself: He's an old alcoholic projectionist in The Smallest Show on Earth, a corrupt politician running an imaginary British colony in Carlton-Browne of the F.O. He even gives a straight dramatic performance in Hoffman.
His most enjoyable character here is in a slightly stiff class satire called I'm All Right Jack: The plot sets industrialists against labor unions, mocking the dishonesty on both sides; Sellers plays a blue-collar communist with a thick accent and a tendency to lecture his "brothers" about Marx and Engels. It's a much more low-key humor than the slapstick which eventually made Clouseau a star, but once you're in sync with the film's tone, it's a delight.
You won't have to work hard to find the mood of Two-Way Stretch, the most accessible film in the box. Sellers is an inmate living the life of Riley; his network of contraband and easily distractible guards would make Colonel Hogan envious. He and his mates are perfectly comfortable, but decide to break out of prison - then sneak back in before they're missed - so they can pull off a heist and have an air-tight alibi. Things don't go exactly as planned.
Looking back on a week of these films, it's hard to get a real handle on what kind of British moviegoers flocked to see them. Their one clear gestalt, in fact, seems to be that Sellers - after playing a criminal, a slimy political manipulator, an arrogant propagandist and a flashy lunatic with deep pockets - was incomparably well prepared to portray Henry Kissinger. •