Color, 1970, 112 mins. 10 secs.
Directed by Alvin Rakoff
Starring Peter Sellers, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Bulloch
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Anchor Bay, Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Momentum (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Though he's still best known for his legendary slapstick work, Peter Sellers took a number of odd detours over the course of his career attempting to bend the nature of what comedy films even were. Obviously Being There is the most famous example, while the stranger ones can be found scattered throughout the 1970s. Then there's Hoffman, the third go-round for writer Ernest Gébler for a story first presented on British TV's Armchair Theatre (as Call Me Daddy) and then turned into a novel, Shall I Eat You Now? Essentially a drama with uncomfortable elements that make it a somewhat kinder cousin to films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Oleanna, the film features Sellers' most subdued dramatic performance and proved so discomfiting for the actor that he approached EMI Films head Bryan Forbes about having it destroyed and remade more to the star's liking. Obviously the attempt didn't succeed, and while the film remains something of a neglected oddity in Sellers' career, it's a very rewarding and fascinating experience if viewed in the right spirit with a focus on power dynamics and gender tensions that's still extremely relevant today.
At a train station, Janet (Cusack) is escorted by her fiancé, Tom (Bulloch), for a trip out of town for a week on the pretense that she's taking care of a sick grandmother. In fact she's going to spend the weekend at the home of Hoffman (Sellers), an upper executive at the company where Janet works as a secretary. As it turns out, the recently divorced and embittered Hoffman has gotten some damning and potentially incriminating evidence involving Tom and used it to blackmail Janet into spending the week with him. Though he doesn't explicitly coerce her into sex, it's very clear he means to lure her away from her engagement so he has a new companion -- something that she ultimately figures out how to use to her advantage as they each get the upper hand on each other. Gradually layers of Hoffman's misogynistic persona start to reveal something more shaded underneath, but Janet's lessons about the world and its treatment of young women are still just beginning.
Seen today, Hoffman is something of a Rorschach test for viewers' attitudes -- especially its ending, which can be read any number of ways despite the seemingly obvious music. No matter how you take the film though, it's a great showcase for Sellers and Cusack who carry 90% of the running time themselves. It's surprisingly tense and engaging watching them psychologically spar with each other, and while the script gives a lot more depth to Sellers, they both hold their own in front of the camera very well.
The first DVD of Hoffman back in 2003 was tucked away by Anchor Bay as part of its six-film Peter Sellers Collection along with I'm All Right Jack, Heavens Above!, Two-Way Stretch, The Smallest Show on Earth, and Carlton-Browne of the F.O. The same fine master from Studio Canal was later reused for a U.K. DVD from Momentum and a 2012 U.S. reissue from Lionsgate. The worldwide Blu-ray debut of the film arrived from Indicator in 2022, featuring an excellent new 4K scan from the original negative that shows off the film better than ever before. Apart from some opticals involved in the first few minutes that make the footage look a bit dupier, the film is crisp and clear throughout with its original subdued color scheme (apart from a few splashes of vivid lighting) coming through very well. The LPCM 1.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also in great shape. Director Alvin Rakoff appears in a somewhat sparse selected scenes commentary (24m52s) and an interview featurette, "Strange Relationship" (21m34s), which cover the deliberate pacing of the film, Sellers' vocal denunciation of the finished product, the politically incorrect nature of the subject matter, his personal friendship with the actor, Sellers' aversion to the color purple, Gébler's attempts to have Rakoff fired, and the affair the two stars had during filming. Most interesting is the discussion of how to portray the Hoffman character, who was more overtly villainous in the TV version (played by Donald Pleasence) with Sellers initially wanting to go in a far more comedic direction before taking the straight route we have now. "An Underexposed Film" (27m56s) is one of those great below-the-line crew interviews Indicator does so well, in this case featuring focus puller Eddie Collins (2022) recalling his working relationship with cinematographer Gerry Turpin (The Wrong Box, Deadfall), his positive impressions of his director, and Sellers' occasionally difficult side. Finally in "Home Improvements" (5m42s), draughtsman Terry Ackland-Snow briefly recalls the "TV play" approach of the film and shooting the lion's share of it inside Hoffman's house. Also included are the theatrical trailer in HD, a Trailers from Hell version presented by screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, and separate galleries for production stills, promotional material, and the final screenplay. The usual dense insert booklet comes with a new essay by John Rain, archival interviews with Sellers and Cusack, an overview of Gébler’s multiple versions of the story, and sample critical reactions.
Reviewed on January 20, 2022