Warner Bros. // 1964 // 122 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // February 12th, 2009
The screen's most exciting cast...in the year's most magnificent movie.
If one takes Warner Bros. marketing department at their word, 1964 was apparently not the best year for movies.
When British aristocrat Lord Charles Frinton (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady), forgets his wedding anniversary, he buys his wife Eloise (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim) a brand-new yellow Rolls-Royce to make up for it. He presents the car to his wife on the eve of a very important event in his life -- a horse race that Frinton very badly wants to win. But Frinton's day at the races is tarnished when he discovers that Eloise has not been faithful to him.
Frinton decides to have the car returned, and it is eventually purchased in Italy on a temporary basis by Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott, The Hospital), a gangster who wants to take his bride-to-be Mae (Shirley MacLaine, The Trouble With Harry) to meet his parents, as well as see some historic Italian sights. Mae, however, couldn't be less interested in Italy -- that is, until she meets Stefano (Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge), a handsome photographer/gigolo who treats her like a lady. Faster than you can say "Leaning Tower of Pisa," feelings of amore grow between the two. But with her imminent marriage to Maltese, what future can these lovers have?
1941. The Rolls-Royce is purchased by Mrs. Gerda Millett (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca), a rich American widow who is about to leave Italy for Yugoslavia. Having overheard her plans, freedom fighter Davich (Omar Sharif, Doctor Zhivago) tricks Mrs. Millett into smuggling him across the border into his homeland -- just in time for the Nazi invasion of the country. Before long, Mrs. Millett finds herself helping Davich and his compatriots to form an anti-Nazi guerilla movement in the mountains, using the Rolls-Royce to help transport the fighters.
Anthology films don't tend to be successful as a rule; the presence of different filmmaking talents generally works against the quality of the whole. The Yellow Rolls-Royce, while not a full-out anthology film (it has one screenwriter and director), nonetheless has the same uneven nature of true anthology films like Eros and Paris, Je T'aime. Barely sustained by its slight gimmick over a two-hour runtime, The Yellow Rolls-Royce is a disappointment, especially given the caliber of its international all-star cast.
The film's chief problem is its tonal schizophrenia; each segment begins with moments of levity and comedy, but then sucker-punches the viewer with what is clearly meant to be a melancholy and somber conclusion. The trouble with these endings is that because each segment only offers a finite amount of time to spend with the characters, the impact that the filmmakers are going for just doesn't register. Given the film's thin structural conceit, screenwriter Terence Rattigan (The Browning Version) would probably have been better off going for an out-and-out comedy. The resulting film probably still wouldn't be that great, but it would probably be an improvement over the existing product.
This tonal confusion applies to each segment. In the first, we're expected to feel sympathy for Lord Frinton because of his wife's infidelity. But who is Lord Frinton? We really know nothing about him except that he's a somewhat silly and very rich man who likes horse races. Similarly, we know nothing about Eloise except that she cheats on her husband. Was this couple ever really in love? If so, what led to the dissolution of that love? The whole segment only lasts 34 minutes, and for most of that time, the plot plays out in a very light-hearted manner, and only gets serious toward the very end.
Part two is more of the same. For the beginning of the segment, we see Maltese dragging Mae around Italy. Most of the dialogue is Maltese complaining about Mae and Mae complaining about Italy. Then Stefano comes along, and what could have become a comedic love triangle (although how funny it would have been is anybody's guess) suddenly becomes a mournful, elegiac romance. Mae instantly changes from dumb blonde into wise-beyond-her-years lady, and Stefano goes from smarmy gigolo to heartbroken youth. This is even harder to buy than the ending of part one, because even though part two is longer than its predecessor, there's still not enough time to adequately develop a believable relationship.
Part three is more of the same, although the comedy is tamped down somewhat given the wartime setting. This time, a romantic relationship between Mrs. Millett and Davich is thrown into the mix that, given the two characters' extremely disparate personalities, makes almost no sense. It ends, predictably, with an emotional farewell as Mrs. Millett goes home to America while Davich fights in the mountains.
In a film like The Yellow Rolls-Royce, the writing spreads the characters so thin that it's hard for the actors to make an impression. Rex Harrison is fine as Frinton, whereas Jeanne Moreau is underwhelming as his wife. In the second segment, George C. Scott fails to wring any laughs out of Maltese. Shirley MacLaine does about as well as could be expected as Mae, but Alain Delon is too broad for Stefano despite having the right look. Actually, in this segment, Art Carney, who plays Maltese's driver, comes off the best. He has some great scenes with MacLaine that are probably the best in the film.
For part three, as Davich, Omar Sharif is more or less one note, but again, the script has to take at least some of the blame. As Mrs. Millett, Ingrid Bergman appears to be having fun playing the sassy socialite, and while her antics are generally more annoying than amusing, that actually works for her character.
Warner Home Video's DVD of The Yellow Rolls-Royce boasts a bright and clean transfer that lets Jack Hildyard's lush cinematography shine. The audio is also fine, having little to convey besides dialogue and music (with sound effects such as explosions coming in for part three). The only extra is the film's trailer.
A very forgettable film worth seeing only for its large cast, The Yellow Rolls-Royce is a lemon.
Review content copyright © 2009 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer