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  • Ravi Swami

"Good Neighbor Sam", Dir: David Swift, 1964

The German actress Romy Schneider is the subject of a great deal of image fetishization on various social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest in much the same way as Audrey Hepburn, usually paired with her former husband, the impossibly good-looking Alain Delon, as examples of the iconic couple of European cinema of the 60's, but I wasn't overly familiar with her work other than her appearance in a segment of "Boccaccio 70" and perhaps a few appearances in English language roles in various international co-productions and Hollywood films that never left much of an impression on me compared to her contemporaries like Claudia Cardinale etc.

This has more to do with exposure and decent roles in these films, where, like other European actresses of her era she was dropped in to add an element of continental glamour in films made outside of Europe. In fact her films in Germany and France show a broader range of her acting ability, for example, in the sumptuous historical "Sissi" trilogy which was never screened in the U.K as far as I know, let alone being seen on TV.

I was therefore curious the check out more films where she had a more central role, primarily as a result of watching the segment in "Boccaccio 70" ,and looked to Apple TV.

There are several of her films available on the streaming service including this Jack Lemmon vehicle that I had never heard of that begged for attention simply because of that.

Frank Devol's (often credited simply as "DeVol" in many films that he scored) jaunty leitmotiv score that runs throughout the film feels very inspired by the work of Piero Piccioni, making the film seem somewhat reminiscent of "Commedia All'Italiana" in tone but without the extensive use of location cinematography that is notable in the Italian films - here, the location is the San Francisco of 1964.

This is a Hollywood film and because much of the plot centres on the homes of Sam Bissell (Lemmon) and his wife Min (Dorothy Provine - an actress I'm more familiar with from TV serials of the 60 's) and their newly arrived neighbour from Europe and dear friend of Min, Janet Lagerlof (Schneider), these scenes are shot entirely on a studio set with exteriors shot in a typical modern tract housing San Francisco suburb of the 1960's - all manicured lawns and garages housing enormous cars - that feel very real, ie they don't appear to be studio backlot sets.

The rest of the film is set in central San Francisco and the "Burke & Hare" advertising agency (this *is* a comedy after all) where Bissell is a lowly graphic designer until a series of circumstances results in his promotion to head of a lucrative account advertising "Nerdlinger" dairy products and where he finds favour with Mr Nerdlinger (Edward G.Robinson) for his startlingly original advertising campaign.

The plot itself is quite convoluted and there are moments where the comedy potential drifts into concern for the characters and the outcome, as Bissell is unwillingly persuaded to act as Janet's estranged husband since she is due to receive an inheritance of 15 million dollars from her late father's estate, but only on condition that she remain married to her husband for a period of 6 months, even though she has separated and the divorce has not been finalised.

This leads to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between their respective houses as Min, Bissell's long-suffering wife, agrees to be complicit in the charade that involves the trio trying to avoid Janet's greedy snooping relatives and the private investigator that they have hired who pitches up in his van equipped with high-tech spying devices like a periscope etc, opposite their respective properties.

Grateful that Bissell and Min are helping her to stop the inheritance from being divided up amongst her greedy relatives, she promises the couple a gift of 1 million dollars and for Bissell the promise of giving up his tedious advertising agency job to pursue his artistic ambitions in the form of elaborate "Rowland Emett" style contraptions that he builds out of assorted scrap in his backyard.

Romy Schneider demonstrates a talent for comedy and of course Lemmon is on top form, with Provine providing a strong supporting role. Edward G.Robinson is an unusual inclusion but he proves himself to be equally adept in a comedy role, playing the straight-laced Mr Nerdlinger, who has compiled dossiers on the senior advertising executives in charge of his account that reveal that they are all serial womanisers having affairs without the knowledge of their wives and are therefore unsuitable to handle his "pure" dairy produce, and his desired profile of the typical clean-cut, clean-living American male is met by Bissell.

This leads to further complications since photographs of Bissell and Janet (posing as his wife) together are used for enormous advertising billboards erected across the city advertising Nerdlinger Dairies to huge success, and the fear that this will cast doubt on his clean-cut credentials.

Things take a turn when Janet's estranged husband turns up looking for her, possibly because he has got wind of the huge inheritance, and this leads to a fiery reunion between the battling couple, but only after she and Bissell decide to deface all the billboards to ensure that their identities aren't revealed to Nerdlinger and his ad' agency bosses.

It's an entertaining comedy with some nice moments but it did feel as if the gag was being strung out a little too long in places and it never quite reaches the comedic heights of, for example, "How To Murder Your Wife", released in the following year and another film that featured a European actress in the form of Virna Lisi, when it appears that these transatlantic pairings were in vogue.

It also reveals the very sexist attitudes towards women that were prevalent at the time, with Provine providing the housewife home-maker stereotype pf the Post War American (post) nuclear family and Schneider as the free-spirited financially independant woman with European sensibilities that extend to her stylish couture outfits, and is in essence a male fantasy about having two wives without the guilt associated with having an affair while married.

An interesting oddity worth checking out on a lazy weekend afternoon that suggests that there are many such comedy pot-boiler films starring Jack Lemmon and others that have slipped the radar in favour of the more successful and well-known ones.

"Good Neighbor Sam", Dir: David Swift, 1964

Apple TV

Ravi Swami 2021.

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