In 1970, comic legend Peter Sellers fell into a depressive state after the shooting of underrated drama Hoffman. Attempting to buy back the film’s prints so he could destroy them, Sellers was seemingly troubled by how much of his real vulnerable self was left on screen. The titular character – a lonely, insecure and psychologically unstable man – meant Sellers’ had to confront himself. “He couldn’t rely on mimicry”, producer Ben Arbeid said, “and he went through the torture of not knowing who Hoffman was because he didn’t know who he was”.
Despite Sellers’ attempts to bury the film, it was released in 1970 to a poor box office reception and has faded into obscurity in the years since. It’s a shame, because this fascinating film contains the comedy legend’s finest – and certainly straightest – performance. While many would look to Being There for an indication of Sellers’ dramatic talents, his work here is all the more compelling, and disturbing, for how true to himself it was.
Hoffman sees Sellers in the dark and sinister titular role of a bachelor who obsesses over his secretary Miss Smith (Sinéad Cusack). When Hoffman discovers Miss Smith’s boyfriend (Jeremy Bulloch) has been cooking the books at work, he blackmails her into spending a week with him. Their time together reveals the tragic and disturbed man behind the bachelor facade.
Here is a film that compels solely off the strength of its performance. A character study through-and-through, Hoffman is a slow-burner that lingers on every disturbing moment for maximum impact with Sellers delivering a tour-de-force performance as his character goes from frightening to tragic.
Director Alvin Rakoff says Sellers originally wanted to play the role comically, with an Austrian accent – something akin to Dr. Strangelove. The director persuaded him to play it straight, but Sellers ultimately went too far “the other way — his Hoffman is dark and slow. I kept trying to get Peter to do it faster but he wouldn’t. He argued for this brooding quality”. The result is a very uncomfortable film, and as noted in the beginning of this review, one that would ultimately offer a chilling snapshot of the real Sellers.
The rest of the film around Sellers’ performance isn’t hugely memorable – the direction isn’t particularly inventive and the supporting cast hardly excel. This is Sellers’ film, and after years of being near-impossible to find, fans can be truly grateful to Indicator/Powerhouse for adding this hidden gem to their catalogue with a world premiere Blu-ray release. Boasting a stunning transfer and a generous wealth of special features that add valuable insight to the film’s history, this is another jewel in Indicator’s crown.
Hoffman is a dark and compelling film that offers a troubling insight into the real Peter Sellers, thanks to his career-best performance in the titular role.
HOFFMAN is available now on Blu-ray from Indicator/Powerhouse Films