Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1968)

2. Salt and Pepper

After making his feature film debut with “X-15,” Richard Donner returned to television. In-between 1961 and 1968, he directed at least seventy different TV episodes. Among his more notable credits are multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Perry Mason,” and “The Wild Wild West.” I have no idea if Donner was just bidding his time in TV, waiting for feature gigs to come his way, or if TV was his day job and he stumbled into feature films. Considering how randomly selected his first few credits are, I’m inclined to believe the latter. Such as his second theatrical picture, “Salt and Pepper,” a spy themed vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford.

Charlie Salt and Christopher Pepper are two swinging, hip dudes who own a salacious night club in London, frequently the home of call girls and go-go dancers. A haughty police officer named Inspector Crabbe keeps a close eye on them, making sure they aren’t breaking any laws. When a dead girl ends up in their club, Salt and Pepper become more scrutinized. Turns out, the dead girl was a spy for British Intelligence. Salt and Pepper initially want nothing to do with the investigation until they hear there’s a plump monetary award. Soon, the two guys find themselves at the center of a conspiracy activated by a separatist British militia, threatening London with a nuclear warhead.

To quote Adam West, a man who perhaps knows more then me since he was there, the James Bond films were one of three massive pop culture phenomenons in the sixties. (The other two, for the curious, were the Beatles and Batman.) The huge success of Bond spawned countless imitators, parodies, and rip-offs. For one other example: The same year “Salt and Pepper” came out, Sammy’s old friend Dean Martin starred in “The Wrecking Crew,” another Bond parody/imitation. Obviously, the English setting and espionage plot of “Salt and Pepper” recall the Bond series. Yet the film is the shallowest of spoofs, taking very little from its intended target. Mostly, “Salt and Pepper” is an exceptionally silly and not especially clever comedy starring two goofballs.

A joke that “Salt and Pepper” utilizes early and often is that Salt – a product that is usually white – is played by Sammy Davis Jr. who, you might notice, isn’t white. Lawford, who is white as hell, plays Pepper. You see, that’s the kind of cutting edge visual humor you get from this movie. However, the cross-racial bromance can’t help but remind me of one of Richard Donner’s latter, better films. To call “Salt and Pepper” a predecessor to “Lethal Weapon” is astonishingly misleading. Davis and Lawford have an easy-going chemistry with each other that works out alright but they’re no Riggs and Murtaugh. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the connection.

I know that, in the early sixties, Sammy Davis Jr. and his Rat Pack pal were genuine pop culture icons. By the turbulent late sixties, I’d imagine Davis was washed up. Yet, by most accounts, Sammy was still considered hip. From a modern perspective, Davis’ antics in “Salt and Pepper” seem like an old timer doing everything he can to stay relevant in a quickly changing cultural environment. His big musical number has him swinging on-stage with some go-go dancers, jangling on a guitar, dancing inside a psychedelic swirl, and even asking someone to “sock it to him.” The red Nehru jackets Sammy wears throughout seem like another example of this. While Davis is comfortable cracking the sex and drug jokes the script gives him, it’s odd hearing them come out of his mouth.

Peter Lawford is another former Rat Packer, though much less recognizable to modern eyes. In “Salt and Pepper,” Lawford is the slightly more serious one to Sammy’s goofball. I say slightly, as Lawford still cracks silly jokes and gets into slapstick situations. To further emphasize the difference, the film gives Lawford the romantic subplot. New Zealand actress Iiona Rodgers plays Marianne, a regular at the club who constantly flirts with Pepper. He spends the entire first half of the movie trying to get in her pants. When he finally does, he’s so eager that he shoves Davis out of the room. There’s two big problems with this. First off, Lawford seems much older then Rodgers. Secondly, the subplot is terminated suddenly and bluntly immediately afterwards. It’s another example of how disorganized and slap-dash the script is.

It’s sort of a bummer, since Rodgers shows a molecule of chemistry with Lawford. She’s one member of a decent supporting cast, which is one of the better things about “Salt and Pepper.” Michael Bates, who unironically sports a Hitler ‘stache, plays Inspector Crabbe. The script gives Bates some of the broadest physical comedy in the film. Despite this, Bates is game and leaps into the embarrassing material with full relish. Robertson Hare has a mildly amusing small role as a school teacher fond of the club’s call girls. John Le Mesurier and Graham Stark ham it up as the bad guys, providing some mild amusement to the audience.

“Salt and Pepper” is aiming for big belly laughs. In order to achieve this, it resorts to some very dire physical comedy. Throughout the first half, Salt and Pepper repeatedly get locked in rooms. This classifies as a running gag. While visiting a barber shop, a secret passage way opens and tosses the two inside a hidden room. After discovering that a make-up compact found in the club is a time bomb, Salt and Pepper run around manically trying to dispose of it. The sequence goes on long enough that you’d expect the bomb to explode sooner. When it does explode, it takes Inspector Crabbe’s car with it. This same car is destroyed two or three more times. Another obnoxious reoccurring gag has Sammy telling the police a bomb is hidden in the station, causing the cops to panic and flee the building. None of these gags are that funny the first time. The film repeats all of them.

Of all the embarrassing slapstick gags in “Salt and Pepper,” one sequence is especially torturous. It’s also the only scene that directly spoofs a James Bond movie. Salt and Pepper jump into a bizarre clown car, covered in literal bells and whistles. Soon, the bad guys pursue them. The clown car is outfitted with various gadgets. Such as a bullet proof back glass, which looks and functions like a pull-string curtain. This malfunctions repeatedly. The other gadgets include the expected sights of nails and oil slicks. The scene ends with the car splashing into a river, where naturally it floats. Until the bad guys shoots holes in it. Ooh boy, it’s bad. This moment drags on forever, Sammy and Lawford sitting in front of unconvincing screen shots all the while. It’s monstrously unfunny.

Despite being an excruciatingly broad comedy, “Salt and Pepper” still ends with a Bond-style attack on the bad guy’s base. The comedy piles up a surprisingly high body count. After joking around for ninety minutes, Sammy and Lawford are blowing away enemy soldiers. They utilize machine guns, swords, maces, and grenades to dispose of villains. Seeing the protagonists of a goofball comedy suddenly killing terrorists is a bit startling. Weirder still, “Salt and Pepper” doesn’t cut back on the slapstick. A suit of armor comes to life to help Sammy defeat a baddy. Every murder is punctuate with a one-liner and an eye roll. An old fashion cannon is implemented at the very end, a moment that could’ve classified as a cartoony gag if it didn’t lead to more death. It help pushes “Salt and Pepper” out of the realm of simply slapdash and into the area of truly off-putting.

“Salt and Pepper” is a complete mess but not totally without amusing moments. An early gag, where Davis has to disguise a dead body as alive, got a chuckle out of me. Another mildly amusing, and surely politically incorrect, moment has Sammy confused by the British meaning of the word “fag.” A reveal that a submarine is actually land locked is a nicely absurd moment, the kind of goofiness the movie needed more of. Crabbe, completely unawares, barely escape being stabbed in the back. He only notices he was attacked when he sees the back of jacket split down the middle. If these sound like weak gags, that’s what passes for decent jokes in “Salt and Pepper.”

As lame as the movie is, at least it’s less boring then “X-15.” Unlike that film, with its stationary direction, the camera moves a bit in “Salt and Pepper.” Donner utilizes some crash zooms and jump cuts. A decently directed moment has a bathtub bursting into flames, where the focus is on the faucet. As bad as the chase scenes are, at least they have an okay sense of motion to them. This seems to hint at Donner’s future career as an action director. It’s not a lot but it’s still an improvement.

When “Salt and Pepper” finally ends, instead of flashing the usual “The End” up on the screen, the movie instead uses the phrases “It’s Over.” Even the movie is exhausted with its own bullshit by the end. It’s hard to imagine a lame duck flick like “Salt and Pepper” becoming success. Yet clearly it did decent business, as a sequel entitled “One More Time” came along two years later. “One More Time” was directed by Jerry Lewis and featured cameos from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. That last factoid almost makes me want to see it. Somehow, I think I’ll be able to resist the temptation. “Salt and Pepper” still shows Richard Donner many years away from his days as a blockbuster filmmaker. [Grade: C-]

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