In this Vittoria De Sica comedy, criminal mastermind Aldo “The Fox” Vanucci (Peter Sellers) escapes from prison and takes part in a record-setting gold smuggling operation. He whips up a scheme to pull off his part of the caper in plain sight, and with the unwitting help of an entire Italian village, by pretending he’s making a movie about a gold heist. Inspired by his sister Gina’s (Britt Ekland) dreams of being a movie star, and after witnessing the mass hysteria over, and police protection of, Hollywood star Tony Powell (Victor Mature), Vanucci poses as the director of neo-realist (“that means no money”) pictures named Federico Fabrizi, and hires Tony to star in his movie, The Gold of Cairo.
As Tony’s agent (Martin Balsam) warns him, there’s no script, no plot, nobody knows who Fabrizi is, and the whole project smells. But Tony is an aging, vain, insecure “internationally handsome” actor in denial and lots of hair dye, who balks at playing the father roles he’s being offered in Hollywood. He’s easy pickings for Vanucci’s phony flattery and beams, with that dazzling Mature smile, at the idea of perpetuating his studly, romantic, trench-coated image opposite the hottest new Italian starlet, Gina Romantica (actually Gina Vanucci).
This movie is a showcase for Sellers’ comedy genius, but Mature steals it with his amiable, preening-peacock, dense-beefcake performance, a role he came out of retirement for. He craves, and pesters people for, compliments on his youthful looks, excellent teeth, and steely washboard abs. Fabrizi, stalling for time until the gold shipment arrives, improvises some ridiculously arty, endless scenes where Tony must dramatically stare, run, shun, hesitate and embrace Gina. Fabrizi gives Tony ridiculously vague, cliched direction like, act nothing to convey lack of communication, run as if outrunning yourself, etc. Mature is totally game and hilarious as he takes Tony from baffled to eureka moment, calling the directions brilliant and obediently, fully committing to acting them out (even jogging clear around the village for that last one). During the climactic chase when Tony’s car is stranded on train tracks, he wails about being too young to die (great cap to all the gags about his youth obsession) and once the danger passes, is quick to flash that grin and point out how brave he was.
This screenplay, Neil Simon’s first, comments on egos, charlatans, false fronts and selling out needed for crime or movie-making. Vanucci, a born con-man with a fabulous repertoire of accents, uniforms and disguises for his scams, needn’t change a thing to join in the make-believe of the silver screen. He escapes prison twice by impersonating a doctor, finally losing himself in the disguise. Acting is considered by some as disrespectful as prostitution, but do they ever flock to the shoots and brag about having a relative in the business. Vanucci steals De Sica’s equipment (the director makes a fun cameo) under cover of a sandstorm scene in his latest desert epic. His Egyptian “connection,” Okra (Akim Tamiroff) has a bombshell accomplice (Maria Grazia Buccella) he uses like a ventriloquist’s dummy to avoid being seen chatting with fellow crooks; it’s a jarring sight and another fun take on performance, illusion and deception, when this siren speaks with Tamiroff’s raspy voice.
When a messy cut of Fabrizi’s “film” is shown in court as evidence that his shoot was a sham, it ironically captures several truths: Tony’s over the hill, Gina’s not much of a thespian, the villagers and police were eager to ignore all the warning signs for their brush with celebrity and moment in the spotlight. Leave it to the film critic in the courtroom to proclaim the film a masterwork of a primitive genius.
This zany movie-within-a-movie is part of The Classic Movie Blog Association’s fall blogathon, Hollywood on Hollywood. Please click here to read much more!