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Though Peter Lawford's good standing in the Frank Sinatra-led "Rat Pack" was a thing of the past by 1968, he and Sammy Davis, Jr. remained sufficiently bonded to pursue a co-starring, co-produced project that would tap the sub-genre of spy spoofs that were so prevalent in the era, from fellow Rat Pack alum Dean Martin's Matt Helm series to the James Coburn-headlined Flint films. The result, Salt & Pepper (1968), is expectedly burdened with its middle-aged stars' efforts to vest it with Swinging-London hipness, but there are sufficient entertaining elements to render the film worth a look.
The screenplay crafted by British film comedy vet Michael Pertwee (It Started in Naples , The Mouse on the Moon , A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum ) respectively casts Davis and Lawford as Charles Salt and Christopher Pepper, best friends and co-owners of the eponymous gambling club that's currently Soho's trendiest nightspot. Encroaching on the booze, broads and good times, however, is the small matter of a double murder of an unidentified man and woman on the premises, for which the bobbies initially finger Charlie and Chris. After the pair's release, they tip to the fact that the female victim was a member of the British Secret Service, and they discover a diary that had been in her possession naming four individuals targeted for assassination.
The too-curious entrepreneurs take it upon themselves to do their own amateur sleuthing, and they find themselves on a corpse-laden trail leading to an outrageous scheme to overthrow the British government via nuclear blackmail. The slapstick snowballs as the duo race to undo the conspiracy and rescue the empire. Salt & Pepper represented an early venture into feature direction for Richard Donner; while handling the proceedings competently enough, he'd ultimately return to episodic TV until the success of The Omen (1976) vaulted him to the A-list. The film does have its share of worthwhile supporting performances as well, notably Michael Bates as the police inspector that the pair run afoul of and John Le Mesurier as the traitorous mastermind.
Davis took substantial flak from cultural critics from his heyday through the present over the subservient posture he took in the Rat Pack's stage and screen efforts. However, as an African-American performer with a significant mainstream profile in an era when Jim Crow was very much alive and well, he frequently had to endure racist slurs and threats of the vilest stripe, and he never forgot how the Pack had his back, the perception of a hostile element of the paying public be damned. Reflecting on his November 1960 wedding to Swedish actress May Britt in his 1989 memoir Why Me?, Davis recalled that for Sinatra "to state, 'This is my friend and in your ear if you don't like it,' means putting in jeopardy everything he'd worked for, lost and regained, and must fight to hold on to. It was not a minor thing for Frank to be my best man, nor for Peter and Pat, the President's sister and brother-in-law, to be in the wedding party."
In the 1988 memoir The Peter Lawford Story, Patricia Seaton, the actor's fourth and last wife, recounted how Lawford "was disgusted as he explained to me that racial prejudice was so great that when he and the others went gambling, Peter had to take Sammy's money and play for him as Sammy directed. It was a combination of bigoted paternalism and irrational fear, yet whatever the cause, the result was great pain and daily humiliation... [Peter] simply accepted Sammy as he would anyone, disregarding so superficial a matter as the color of his skin, yet playing along with the charade of gambling for him. It was the only way they could function while in Las Vegas."
Salt & Pepper did well enough for Davis and Lawford to reprise their roles two years later, in One More Time (1970). Notable chiefly for being Jerry Lewis' sole non-starring directing assignment, the sequel, despite the return of Salt and Pepper, couldn't keep the critical and box-office response from being bland, and the era of the Rat Pack films would go dormant for a decade until Davis and Martin joined the ensemble of the Burt Reynolds car comedy The Cannonball Run (1981). Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine were also on hand for Cannonball Run II (1984), the last film on both Sinatra and Martin's resumes.
Producer: Milton Ebbins
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Michael Pertwee
Cinematography: Ken Higgins
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: John Dankworth
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Cast: Sammy Davis, Jr. (Charles Salt), Peter Lawford (Christopher Pepper), Michael Bates (Inspector Crabbe), Ilona Rodgers (Marianne Renaud), John Le Mesurier (Col. Woodstock), Graham Stark (Sgt. Walters), Ernest Clark (Col. Balsom), Jeanne Roland (Mai Ling), Robert Dorning (Club secretary), Robertson Hare (Dove).
by Jay Steinberg