It’s not necessarily all that surprising when you watch a film from more than half a century ago and discover that it has a slightly problematic grasp on gender politics. The Battle of the Sexes, though, is a weird case in that it comes within a whisker of actually feeling quite progressive, as if it isn’t quite sure how it feels. Once you strip away the social commentary, though, the bones are those of an enjoyable Peter Sellers farce.
Sellers is Mr Martin — the accountant for tweed company House of MacPherson. The movie opens with the death of the organisation’s respected boss, followed by the return of his son Robert (Robert Morley), who has been studying abroad. En route, he meets fast-talking American consultant Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings), who has effectively been forced out of her previous, misogynistic boardroom, and she has some ideas about modernising the company.
The film rather tips its hand with its title, as well as with Sam Wanamaker’s decidedly old-fashioned, “come on boys” style of narration. Charitably, the movie could be read as a critique of how fusty old, white men fight back against any sort of feminist progress, but that is rather undercut by the narration’s decision to portray women as malevolent forces. Angela Barrows is simply a woman with some ideas, but The Battle of the Sexes treats her as a malign Lady Macbeth figure.
Sellers is quietly terrific in the lead role, jittering and hunching with every movement, like a man who’s terrified at even the notion of moving out of his very tightly-defined comfort zone. When the movie escalates into some refreshingly dark comedy for its third act, Sellers barely changes his performance register at all — far more unsettling than if he had become a shrieking psychopath.
Cummings is every bit his comedic equal, bulldozing through the film like the American force of nature she’s positioned to be. More than a gender war, the movie is about the battle between dusty British traditions and the blue sky ideas of increasingly globalised business. Cummings is at the centre of this and has the rapid-fire wit of a screwball protagonist as she fires out ideas with a complete lack of tact.
Charles Crichton, best known for Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob, directs with a sort of unfussy efficiency. The stars here are the actors and he’s prepared to let them work, though there’s a delicious ease to the way he helms a late in the day scene of Scooby-Doo uber-farce door play.
Ultimately, there’s a weirdness to The Battle of the Sexes that belies its age. It feels like a movie on the cusp of a more progressive politics, but one that is more interested in making cracks about the manliness of Scotland (“one of the last bastions of male superiority, where the shortest skirts are worn by men”) than in interrogating the patriarchy at place within its corporate world. When it allows Cummings and Sellers to spar though, and takes its dark turn, it’s an enjoyable and fleeting caper.
Dir: Charles Crichton
Scr: Monja Danischewsky
Cast: Peter Sellers, Constance Cummings, Robert Morley, Jameson Clark, Donald Pleasence, Sam Wanamaker
Prd: Monja Danischewsky
DOP: Freddie Francis
Music: Stanley Black
Run time: 84 mins
The Battle of the Sexes is available on a new DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI in the UK now.