Blake Edwards, the Genius Without Quality Control

I think Blake Edwards, who just died at the age of 88, was one of the most talented writer-directors of his generation — a guy with a unique point of view, a great eye (particularly when it came to long uninterrupted takes, which he used brilliantly) and an ability to handle comedy, drama and suspense. His talents were similar to Billy Wilder’s, except that he had more visual flair than Wilder and a particular love of music, which is why he worked so closely with Henry Mancini and why some of the best scenes in his films are musical numbers. Edwards was also a relatively early example of a movie writer who figured out how to expand into television — though he had come to movies after a long stint in radio, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch — without hurting his movie career. His most famous TV creation was of course Peter Gunn (with the famous Mancini theme). He wrote and directed this episode here:

If you go through Edwards’ filmography, you find a lot of movies with great or memorable scenes. He made only a few movies that don’t have at least something good in them; his John Ritter vehicle Skin Deep has the famous scene with the glow-in-the-dark condoms, and even a truly hideous, crass, and awful movie like Curse of the Pink Panther has a pretty funny scene with a surprise guest. And that’s not even getting into his good movies, which range from the first two Clouseau films to the depressing TV play adaptation Days of Wine and Roses to the underrated thriller The Tamarind Seed (which has a gorgeous score by John Barry, providing one of the few non-Mancini scores for an Edwards movie) to S.O.B., the most memorable expression of Old Hollywood’s bitterness about the changes the U.S. movie industry underwent in the ’70s, also featuring a Robert Preston performance that is so good that it ranks among my top 10 supporting turns in movie history.

And then, the trouble is, along with the good scenes in bad movies, you get the bad scenes in good movies. And there are lots of them. I’m not a big fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it’s sort of emblematic: one of the most popular and beloved movies of his career, and every so often it’s interrupted by Mickey Rooney as a Japanese guy. Who thought this was a good idea? Edwards presumably did, just as he thought random acts of bad slapstick were good ideas in many of his movies, just as he thought Loretta Swit’s shrieking character was a good idea in S.O.B., just as he thought the boring parts of The Party were a good idea along with the good parts, just as he thought it was a good idea to fill out Return of the Pink Panther with endless non-Clouseau scenes involving characters we couldn’t care less about. There just aren’t many Edwards movies that are great from beginning to end. More typical is The Great Race, where great stuff alternated with bad stuff seemingly at random for 150 minutes. The good stuff mostly involves Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Treg Brown’s sound effects and the catchphrase “Push the Button, Max!” The bad stuff involves most of the jokes about feminism.

I don’t know why his movies are so uneven. Maybe he just didn’t have the kind of quality control that comes with collaboration; when he didn’t produce and write on his own, he usually worked with co-writers and producers who would do what he told them. And there may have been a sense of self-doubt involved, particularly after a string of flops in the late ’60s and a number of early ’70s films that were re-cut by the studio (including the Wild Bunch-ish Western Wild Rovers, which I sometimes enjoy more than The Wild Bunch). His most famous failure of nerve was with Victor/Victoria, where he added a plot twist midway through the movie that completely cops out on the story’s sexual politics, and makes the whole movie less good than it should have been.

But nearly all his movies, good and bad and both, have fine moments, and nearly all of them are great to look at. Edwards used wide-screen Panavision for almost every movie he made after 1963, and no one has ever used the ‘Scope frame better than he did, . Most of today’s filmmakers use that screen format, but they tend to use it just for a sort of generic wideness; they don’t really compose for it, with some memorable exceptions like Wes Anderson. Edwards composed shots for widescreen, carefully placing the characters in the frame, in the foreground and background, and letting scenes play out with as little cutting (or even camera movement) as possible. He made the composition and the people did the work for him, like a painter.


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