Today: February 20, 2024

The Coen Brothers are filmmakers who love to put new spins on old formulas.

Coen Brothers are filmmakers who love to put new spins on old formulas.

Blood Simple (1984) was their close,
claustrophobic take on the ‘50s thriller. Miller’s
Crossing (1990)
saw them tackle the hard boiled-gangster genre. With it’s
machine-gun dialogue and dizzying
plot, it’s a film that dazzled and delighted in equal measure. However
it was Fargo (1996) – a tale of
‘homespun’ American murder – that
confirmed their status as the darlings of the neo-noir. (As well as adding the
word “snippy” to the lexicon.) However, let’s not forget films like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski,
Hudsucker Proxy
and O’ Brother Where
Art Thou?

The Coens have an undeniable affection for
screwball comedy and they like to paint it big and bold. Gambit, which opens
this week, is their return to the genre.
With its period feel and schoolboy humour, the story is a knowing nod to
Ealing and the British farces of the
‘40s and ‘50s. There’s also hint of Cary
crime capers such as To Catch
A Thief (1955)
and Charade (1963).
Which is not that surprising when you consider that Gambit is about the attempt
of a bumbling art curator, Harry Dean (played
by Colin Firth) to sell his
insufferable boss, Lord Shabandar (Alan
a fake Monet. Cameron Diaz
plays PJ Puznowski, a chicken plucker turned rodeo star who, along with Tom Courtney’s art forger, gets cajoled
into the caper.

Long before its release, the film had been
tagged as a ‘remake’ of a 1966 Shirley
and Michael Caine
vehicle of the same name, but just how does it compare to the original? Colin
Firth: “I don’t think it is a remake. I don’t flinch at the idea of that but
… I think once you’re past the initial conceit, that there’s a heist … I
don’t think it connects much … We’ve used the heist and we’ve used the names
of a few of the characters … and one line of dialogue which I stole and gave
to Cameron. [It’s where she says] ‘You have nice eyes for a guy who never
smiles’ because I thought that was a nice moment in the old film. But it’s not
only different in the style but in genre.”

In fact, Gambit is very different from both the
‘original’ and Director Michael
other movies, which often have quite a dark, melancholic streak.
So what attracted him to the Coen’s script? Michael Hoffman: “I made a comedy
called Soap Dish eleven years ago
and … and I think I wanted to make another … I’ve always been interested in
Brechtian comedy in the theatre and interested in the technical challenge of it
when I used to act … and that’s what I was drawn to … [but] I guess, if
there was a melancholic note to be struck, it’s in Harry Dean and his struggle
to maintain his dignity. I liked that about the story a lot … [Harry] being able to admit to himself
that he’s not going to be exactly who he wants to be but somehow, through his
connection to PJ, he finds a way to be more of who he wants to be. You always
have to find a thread of some connection and that was where I found it.”

With a Coen Brothers’ story, there’s always a
point at which you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and with Gambit,
it’s Tom Courtney’s voice over, which conjures up memories of the Stranger’s
introduction to The Big Lebowski, and tells us immediately that we’re in the
Coen-Verse. Cameron Diaz:
“Definitely. We step right into it. The story, the words, the rhythm, the
broadness of the farce. All of it is very much their signature … it was a lot
of fun because you know that you could take those characters and make them
broad and make them big.”

With the scene set and the cast gathered, Harry
Dean’s con soon starts to unravel … along with his dignity. For Colin, this
meant walking through the Savoy in his boxer shorts. Did he feel self conscious
about that? “Yes, of course. It was appalling! … I had to wait on standby to
make an entrance at the lift doors and the Savoy, understandably, had not taken
it upon themselves to advise every single one of their guests that there was a
comedy being filmed and a man without his trousers in the lobby. So guests
would be on their way out and the doors would open and they’d see a somewhat
over familiar English actor standing there with his trousers off for no
apparent reason in the corridor. Self conscious? Yes.”

Male nudity – in all its forms – is always good
for a laugh and the Coen’s didn’t spare Alan Rickman any embarrassment either.
The Harry Potter actor plays
bullying tycoon, Lord Shabandar, whose character is a naturist. Alan Rickman:
“It said ‘he takes all his clothes off’ there in the script … and I was
frozen with alarm that this was happening at this point in my life anyway…
Then I looked to my right and there was a room full of extras in the next
office [which had] completely
transparent walls [so] … I’ve no sympathy with [Colin’s] problem.” And if the
outspoken, wild haired Shabandar seems strangely familiar then that’s because
Alan’s inspiration came from someone very close to home. “I think the words Boris Johnson slipped out of my mouth
at one point. And Toad Of Toad Hall
– a mixture of the two. In fact, they’re almost one and the same.”

If the risk of revealing his saveloy to the
hoy-poloy at the Savoy gave Colin Firth the fears, though, it was something
altogether more primal that left him beside himself with terror. That something
was a lion called Major who, according to his Wrangler was “pretty tame for a
lion.” As Michael Hoffman explains: “Colin was standing in front of this copy
of a Rousseau painting of a lion
eating somebody and this lion got fascinated by the painting. I mean seriously
fascinated … at which point Steve (the Wrangler) said … I don’t know if I
have complete control of this cat right now. And it’s like five feet from
Colin!” So how did Firth deal with his revelation? “That was not expressed to
me at the time!” he says in alarm. “Protective measures don’t include things
like guns or metal doors. There’s just a little, rather unconvincing filament
about two feet above the ground which is apparently enough to deter the lion!
But it’s really just between you and this enormous beast, which is a gorgeous
thing to watch in motion, as long as it’s only interested in the little bits of
flesh being deposited around. And there was a particular moment when it seemed
to loose interest in those little bits of flesh and take an interest in me. It
was pretty startling to be suddenly focussed on for that moment. It must have
lasted a nanosecond and there was not very much danger but … it was the eye
contact when I nearly lost control of some essential muscles.”

opens in UK cinemas on 21st November.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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