Norman Wisdom’s constant pratfalls and general brilliance

Film The Night They Raided Minsky's is one of those forgotten films, at least in the UK, from the late sixties which has fallen through the cracks of film criticism, little spoken of, little written of. Sure, google the title and there are plenty of reviews, but when an otherwise comprehensive film guide like Time Out ignores it and it’s rarely mentioned in retrospectives of the period it feels like a lost gem, the kind of piece, which like it did for me last night, creeps up on you and makes you wonder if, despite the many thousands of films you’ve already seen, you’re still looking in the wrong direction.

Despite its 1920s setting, this fictionalised account of the invention of the striptease during a midnight burlesque show at the titular theatre marinates in the style of late 60s Hollywood (shot in '67 and released in '68). It headlines Brit Ekland and Jason Robards as an Armish innocent who’s hoodwinked into starring in the show with her Bible dancing to embarass the police raid of the title and the comedian who falls for her and wants to save her from the humiliation. The manager of the show, one Billy Minsky is played by Elliot Gould, cigar permanently in hand, and it’s directed by William Friedkin who’d go on to own the early 70s with The Exorcist and The French Connection.

What makes it particularly special, though, is that dropped in the middle is Norman Wisdom as Robards’ pathetic sidekick. This was some time past his work at Rank (which used to turn up on BBC2 on a Saturday aftertoon, ‘Mr Grimsdale’ and all that) when he was working on Broadway. He was cast in Minsky’s after being nominated for Tony for the musical Walking Happy and he secretly steals the film from under Robards’s bowler hat, his emotional break recalling the likes of Chaplin and Keaton in evoking the likeable clown. Whenever he’s on screen it’s him your looking at, as every part of his body is moving and you’re wondering what have happened to his career if this film had been a hit – it was theatre and British tv all the way after this.

A latter day backstage musical set during one fatal night, large chunks of the three shows are reproduced in their entirety and authentically much of it is pretty awful. Most of these films disengage from reality when a dance number scrolls around, aping Busby Berkley, with scientifically precise choreography, outlandish dance manoeuvres and dancers who look like they’ve been developed and manufactured on a production line. Here, the Minsky’s grinding dancers are rarely in time, swishing and blundering about the dance floor and are real women, their figures popping out of too small dresses. It’s a spectacle, but for the wrong reasons, as the audience stoop forward trying to get glance at their flesh.

Similarly, the comic material on stage isn’t that funny and seems that way by design, tired old vaudeville sketches which you’re certain are sure to be eulogised by historians later as the routines give way to the legends of the comics, in which their backstage antics have blotted out the paucity of the material they presented to their audience (who to be fair lapped it up anyway). There’s a desperation to their performances, equivalent of our end of the pier comics in seaside towns at the twilight of their careers, desperately trying to cling on to what they once had, by giving the punters what they remember.

The film is shot in the kind of handheld style familiar of the period, few moments of stillness, plenty of whip-pans, a spirit of experimentation. In one complicated scene, the conversation between Minksy and an investor is played with Gould’s face emerging, when he’s talking, in a hand mirror on the wall behind the other actor’s left shoulder, the flow of the conversation at the whim of the focus puller. Much of the film takes place in the theatre and we’re up on the stage during the show, enjoying the intimate and often desperate communication of the performers which is hidden from the audience. It's clearly influenced by the French New Wave just as Bonnie and Clyde was, though even more complex somehow as the camera takes in far more characters, embraces even greater detail.

The film’s relative obscurity might be explained by its torturous trip to the screen. After an atrocious first cut, Friedkin reportedly disowned the film (from what I can gather he flew to London to shoot The Birthday Party, a Pinter adaptation) and we have cutter Ralph Rosenblum to thank for making the film as good as it is (though it took him ten months). Rosenblum’s contribution is to mimic the freewheeling shooting style in the editing, intercutting, for example, footage from the period with new material whenever a character enters New York’s streets, and offering illustrative snap shots to punctuate the lengthier speeches, such as Denholm Elliot’s decency inspector when Gould is describing to his father (who owns the theatre) the pressures he’s working under.

It’s far from perfect. The treatment of women is deeply suspect, mostly to be ogled at and though there’s some attempt to bolster the girls who work in the theatre by suggesting that they’re well aware of the exploitation and ‘boys will be boys’ the old Hollywood Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque probably presents a more realistic view of women’s role in these kinds of operations. The doe-eyed inert Ekland’s a weak link too; clearly the motive for her cute overload is to make her later embracing of the erotic form of dancing all the more shocking, but despite her luminance she's generally the less impressive addition to a scene. There's no denying that her swan like emergence in the finale is ... imaginative, yet uncomfortable because as the assembled males are clawing to see her naked curves even as oddly, some of their wives look on disapprovingly.

Yet, you’re basically willing to forgive all of that because it’s so damn entertaining. A fight scene in which Wisdom and Robards have gone to a speakeasy to find Eckland is reduced simply to the results of the punches as both actors are flung about the place. When Robards has finally managed to talk Eckland to his room, she says she’ll only sleep with him if God offers a sign just as his fold up bed falls backwards from the wall. The shots of the Amish stereotype which constitutes her father drifting through New York, a disapproving look fixed on his bearded face. Norman Wisdom’s constant prat falls and general brilliance, even in character on stage, his drunken act. He’s the ‘discovery’ and the film’s worth watching just for that.

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