Monday, March 04, 2013

Films of Michael Caine: Noises Off

Cast: Carol Burnett (Dotty Otley and Mrs Clackett), Michael Caine (Lloyd Fellowes), Denholm Elliott (Selsdon Mowbray and The Burglar), Julie Hagerty (Poppy Taylor), Marilu Henner (Belinda Blair and Flavia Brent), Mark Linn-Baker (Timm Allgood), Christopher Reeve (Frederick Dallas and Philip Brent), John Ritter (Garry Lejeune and Roger Tramplemain), Nicollette Sheridan (Brooke Ashton and Vicki).

Crew: Peter Bogdanovich (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Marty Kaplan (writer), Tim Suhrstedt (cinematography), Lisa Day (editor), Norman Newberry (production designer).

Synopsis: British sex farce Nothing On is having its opening night on Broadway in New York. Director Lloyd Fellowes flees the theatre, convinced the show will be a disaster. He remembers all the problems that plagued the show during six months on tour – from the dress rehearsal in Iowa, to a disastrous matinee in Miami and the final horror of a crazed performance in Cleveland. The cast is filled with temperamental actors who hate themselves, each other and have endless romantic intrigues. To Lloyd’s amazement, the show is a hit…


Michael Frayn’s stage farce Noises Off had been a smash hit, running for five years in London’s West End and almost as long on Broadway. The film rights were acquired by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, but the stage-bound story defied an easy conversion to celluloid. Director Peter Bogdanovich was been double Oscar-nominated for his work on The Last Picture Show (1971), but had grown up in the theatre. He persuaded producer Frank Marshall to let him make a movie version of Noises Off. ‘Nobody could figure out how to do it as a movie,’ Marshall said in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1992, ‘but Peter thought he knew how.’

‘With a play everybody usually starts to discuss how to change things, but I wanted to do the opposite,’ Bogdanovich told the Sunday Times, ‘to preserve as much as possible, especially everything that had worked in the theatre.’ He discovered extra sequences had been added to Frayn’s original script over the years. Bogdanovich hired the London show’s assistant director to help select the best version of the play.

The film’s director and producer hand-picked the main cast, with Caine chosen as long-suffering stage director Lloyd Fellowes. ‘Michael Caine was very much who we wanted for that part,’ Bogdanovich said. ‘I’ve always wanted to work with Michael, and now that I have, I want to work with him again! He told me he didn’t think he’d ever had so much dialogue in a picture in his life.’ Normally a film equates to one minute of screen time for each page of script. The director wanted Noises Off to maintain its pace and shot 225 pages of script at a rate of only 25 seconds per page.

Bogdanovich rehearsed the cast for five weeks before shooting began, a rare luxury for any film. The picture was made predominantly on sets at Universal Studios in Los Angeles during 1991. The production reunited Caine with two old friends – Christopher Reeve, his co-star from Deathtrap (1982), and British actor Denholm Elliott. Caine and Elliott had shared memorable scenes in Alfie (1966) and both starred in the gritty war drama Too Late the Hero (1970).

Noises Off was released in America as a PG-13 in March 1992. Despite strong reviews, the movie took less than $2.5 million at the box office, opening against the smash hit erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992). It reached British cinemas three months later, with a 12 rating, but grossed just over $150,000. The movie was rush-released on video in November 1992 and deleted six months later. Noises Off was released on DVD in 2004.

In his autobiography Caine describes the film as an honourable failure: ‘The play was brilliant and we kept very close to it, and the actors could not have been better … all the ingredients for a wonderful film. The people who saw it loved it, but we could not get the general public into the cinemas.’

Reviews: ‘Noises Off is not so much a bad film as one which should probably never have been made at all … it simply doesn’t feel like cinema.’ – The Guardian
‘If ever a play was designed not to be filmed, that play is Noises Off … it positively reeks of greasepaint.’ – Sunday Express

Verdict: This version of Noises Off is often hysterically funny, but only despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, rather than because of them. Frayn’s source material is so strong the farce shines through all attempts by Bogdanovich to put his own stamp on it. The film’s pointless framing sequence and feeble happy ending dull the play’s lustre and hold back the laughs for too long. At least the director has the good sense not to tamper with ninety per cent of the original and that’s enough to keep the laughs coming thick and fast. Caine shows his usual gift for comedy. Frankly, Bogdanovich would have been better off just filming a performance of the play.

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