THE COMEDIANS arrived front-loaded for prestige in the autumn of 1967: a timely subject, a can’t lose cast in an exotic setting, with Graham Greene’s screenplay of his own novel, piloted by the director of Becket.
“He doesn’t read Karl Marx, if that’s what you mean. Rebels are not always communists, unless America insists.”
Haiti, the 60s, during the long reign of the legendarily fearsome “Papa Doc” Duvalier. As the impoverished country descends further into the wholesale corruption and brutality of a regime run by a madman, a clutch of characters cross paths and purposes. A disillusioned Brit expat (Richard Burton) seeks to unload his failed hotel, and reckon with the affair he’s been conducting with the wife (Elizabeth Taylor) of a foreign ambassador (Peter Ustinov). New arrivals are a too-chipper ex-soldier (Alec Guinness) trying to pull off an arms sale to the government, and a pitifully naive, older American couple (Paul Ford & Lillian Gish) who want to bring the benefits of vegetarianism to the populace (lucky to eat leaves to survive). Dreams and schemes are dominated by the omnipresent secret police, the dreaded “Tonton Macoute”.
Since filming in Duvalier’s country was a no-go, an ocean hop had the shoot done mostly in the small African coastal country of Benin, then known as Dahomey, which resembled Haiti geographically and culturally and had also been a French colonial state. The overall setting a fit, director Glenville imbued a palpable sense of eerie unease, simmer approaching boil, aided by just-right production design touches, accented by Laurence Rosenthal’s evocative music score. Menace permeates the background: the representation of a venal political entity turned into a nation-strangling personality cult not only was ahead of the curve for 1967 but retains quiet power as a grim warning for the alert, five decades on. It can happen, anywhere.
Burton does well putting across weary, bone-deep cynicism leavened with mordant wit, readily identifiable as a Graham Greene construction. Liz, on the other hand, tends to come over Taylor-made, with an accent that comes and goes—her background is supposed to be German—and the writing for her character is not strong. Ford and Gish puff amusingly as the guileless, gullible Americans—Yanks in Greene-land never come off flattered. Ustinov’s cuckold character is reticent, the actor’s normal gusto therefore absent. Best of the star quintet is Guinness as the pathetic fake ‘Mr. Jones’; after 1960s Tunes Of Glory, it’s his most energetic and compelling performance of the decade.
Backing the veteran stars, the native Haitians are played by actors who’d soon become familiar and successful—James Earl Jones (dignified as a doctor aligned with the resistance to Duvalier), Raymond St. Jacques (imposing as a casually nasty police captain), Roscoe Lee Browne (both charming & smarmy as a journalist), Georg Stanford Brown (unsteady in his first feature, a weak link as a rebel firebrand) and Cicely Tyson (tiny role as a sympathetic prostitute). Among the supporting players, the most vivid impression is made by South African actor Zakes Mokae, chilling as a Tonton thug who enjoys his work.
At the time of release, snide critics shrugged; box-office wise the picture languished at 41st place in ’67, making $7,000,000 in the States. Film is certainly better than its tepid reputation. Deliberately-paced and lengthy at 152 minutes, the actors and atmosphere reward patience. The sudden moments of violence jolt, there’s a jarring voodoo ceremony sequence and the tropic-with-cancer ambience sticks like a sodden polyester shirt, one you packed mistaking sunny weather for healthy climate. With Douta Seck and Gloria Foster.
* For four years, 1963-67, the Taylor-Burton combo, in Cleopatra, The V.I.P.’s, The Sandpiper and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? ,along with solo triumphs for Burton—The Night Of The Iguana and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold— had seduced public or critics, often both, but after the well-received The Taming Of The Shrew early in ’67, feast turned to gluttony which begat famine with successive failures of this movie (undeserved, if understandable) and Doctor Faustus, Reflections In A Golden Eye and Boom!
Burton briefly rallied with Where Eagles Dare and Anne Of The Thousand Days, then the further slide into box-office and critical irrelevance continued unabated for a decade. Over-exposure, over-indulgence and puzzling project picks tarnished careers that had taken twenty years to build.