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Only Two Can Play
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,Only Two Can Play

Only Two Can Play

British cinema came alive in the early 1960s with a wave of dramas exploring the hard realities of working-class life. Movies like Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) portrayed underprivileged characters in parts of England very different from the swinging London shown in other pictures. British comedy also got caught up in this movement, and one of the amusing results was Only Two Can Play (1962), which manages to find humor in subjects like low wages, run-down living quarters, and fierce competition for scarce jobs. The picture is a Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat production, directed by Gilliat from a Bryan Forbes screenplay based on That Uncertain Feeling, a novel by Kingsley Amis, who occasionally visited the set to trade jokes and banter with the star, Peter Sellers.

Sellers plays John Lewis, a Welsh library clerk whose dream in life is to earn a bit more money and move his family to a flat that's slightly less dilapidated than the walk-up where they currently reside. Prodded by his wife Jean, he applies for promotion to the post of under-librarian, which puts him into competition with Jenkins, his friend and neighbor. While waiting for the big interview day to arrive, he makes a new acquaintance named Liz Gruffydd-Williams, who's the glamorous spouse of Vernon Gruffydd-Williams, chairman of the library committee. Liz lets John know that she's a desperate housewife who spices up her life with frequent love affairs. John is bored with married life himself, so he has no objections to becoming her next lover, especially since she promises to get him the under-librarian job as a reward. They start trying to consummate their affair, but something goes wildly wrong every time, and to make things even worse, John learns that Jean may be starting an affair of her own with a poet she was once in love with. He even loses his job as dramatic critic at the local newspaper by sneaking out of a performance so he and Liz can have a tryst; he writes a review of the play he never saw, only to discover that nobody saw it, since the theater caught fire and burned down right after he left.

Sellers is best remembered for playing multiple parts in Stanley Kubrick's classics Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and for his zany portrayal of the inept Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. He also excels in more straightforward comic roles, and Only Two Can Play is an excellent example of the subtlety and understatement he can bring to a well-written, flesh-and-blood character. Sellers plays John as a real and believable person, not a two-dimensional clown or exaggerated nincompoop, thus adding dramatic power to the film without diluting its overall tone of genial good humor. It's possible that the deeper layers of John's personality came directly from Sellers's private life, since according to biographer Roger Lewis, this was a period of his career when he chose projects that mirrored his own "struggles and uncertainties." By portraying John's "restlessness and...sense that he is being trapped and worn down," Lewis writes, Sellers expressed his own "fear of boredom, stability, and a settled marriage." Lewis also suggests that the relationship between John and Liz echoed Sellers's infatuation with Sophia Loren while filming The Millionairess (1960) two years earlier. No wonder John comes across as a comic and dramatic character.

Sellers added extra drama to the production behind the scenes as well. He was known for getting severe jitters at the start of his projects, and Only Two Can Play was no exception; according to Mr. Strangelove, a biography by Ed Sikov, he called his friend Kenneth Griffiths, who had signed on to play Jenkins, and said he couldn't do the picture because he didn't know how to play a Welshman convincingly. Griffiths introduced him to a Welsh filmmaker he knew, and Sellers solved his problem by imitating this Welshman's accent throughout the picture. Another crisis arose when Sellers called studio chiefs John and Roy Boulting to complain that Virginia Maskell, playing Jean, was "worse than useless" and would "ruin the film." They told him to think about his acting and let the director worry about the rest of the cast, which Sellers obediently did. He kept nursing grievances about the movie, however, and when he saw the final cut, he disliked it so much that he sold his share of the profits to the Boulting brothers. This was a major mistake, since Only Two Can Play became one of the most successful British films of the '60s, making Sellers's ten-percent share worth vastly more than the modest sum he received for it.

Sellers's complaints about Maskell were entirely off base. As the discontented Jean, increasingly annoyed with John and ready to give him a taste of his own flirtatious medicine, she strikes a marvelous balance between comic exasperation and well-justified anger. Another solid performance comes from Mai Zetterling, who was something of a sex kitten in the '50s and early '60s. She brings out all the sides of Liz's personality, making her at once a high-toned aristocrat, a down-to-earth member of the community, and a frisky seductress. First-rate acting also comes from Griffiths as the other wannabe under-librarian, and from Richard Attenborough, who is hilarious as Probert, the pompous Welsh poet.

Many critics have compared Only Two Can Play with The Seven Year Itch (1955), another comedy about a man who's antsy about his marriage. That's appropriate, but the concern with real working-class issues in Gilliat's film also makes it a close cousin of the proletarian dramas mentioned earlier. As funny as it is, even veering into slapstick farce at times, Only Two Can Play has surprisingly sober undertones that make it one of the more interesting British pictures of its day.

Producer: Leslie Gilliat
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, from the novel That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis
Cinematographer: John Wilcox
Film Editing: Thelma Connell
Art Direction: Albert Witherick
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Peter Sellers (John Lewis), Mai Zetterling (Liz), Virginia Maskell (Jean), Kenneth Griffiths (Jenkins), Raymond Huntley (Vernon), Maudie Edwards (Mrs. Davies), John Le Mesurier (Salter), Graham Stark (Hyman), John Arnatt (Bill), David Davies (Benyon), Meredith Edwards (clergyman), Frederick Piper (Mr. Davies), Eynon Evans (Town Hall clerk), Sheila Manahan (Mrs. Jenkins), Richard Attenborough (Probert).
BW-106m.


by David Sterritt

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