Looking back at Peter Sellers in Hoffman

Aliya looks back at the film Peter Sellers wanted destroyed and finds it very, very dark indeed...

Peter Sellers is one of those figures of British comedy whom everyone feels, in retrospect, was only laughing on the outside. If you want to know about his less than happy life then it’s worth watching Geoffrey Rush give a brilliant performance in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004). Rush does a really good job of putting across his deep-seated sense of emptiness. Sellers once said of himself, “I could never be myself… You see, there is no me. I do not exist… There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” This might sound like a deep statement of angst; it seems entirely fitting to me that he said it to Kermit during his 1978 appearance on The Muppet Show. Ten seconds later you can watch him recite the opening soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III while squeezing two muppet chickens under his arms.

I don’t think you often see the emptiness of him on film. When he’s fully immersed in his characters there’s only the pleasure of being entertained by him. But there are films in which you can really see blank desperation in his face, and one of the most interesting is a film he made in 1970 called Hoffman.

We’re lucky to be able to watch Hoffman now. Sellers was determined to buy back the negative so he could destroy it, which is fascinating. What did it show that he couldn’t bear to see on screen? It’s the story of a middle-aged man who has formed an obsession with Miss Smith, a secretary who works in his office. The opportunity arises to blackmail her, and he demands that she spends a week alone with him in his luxurious flat before her impending marriage. In utter desperation, she agrees.

The film starts with her journey to his flat. Miss Smith (played by Sinead Cusack) eventually stands in the hall outside his door, her face filled with trepidation. The door swings back, and Sellers’ expression is repellent – so naked with lust and despair, and violence also lurks there. The creature he most resembles in the first half of the film is a vampire, but not the charming, non-bitey kind. He has the drawn cheeks and ugliness of the original Nosferatu. It’s amazing that Miss Smith can get through the door. I would have run away screaming.

Ad – content continues below

So is this a horror film? Fear underpins everything at first. Hoffman says terrible, lascivious things to Miss Smith at every opportunity. “Please make yourself look as if you want to be fertilized,” he tells her. He preys on her, touching her exposed neck, telling her he wants to eat her. A mystery is hinted at; Hoffman’s wife has disappeared, and there is a permanently locked door in his flat, leading us to suspicions of Bluebeard-worthy behaviour. Will the wife come back? asks Miss Smith. “Not very likely,” says Hoffman, with the kind of deadpan delivery that instantly makes you think the worst.

But the worst doesn’t materialise immediately and after a while it becomes easier to relax into the dialogue, and realise that this is also a comedy. There are one or two very funny moments, which Sellers plays so well without sacrificing the fundamental unlikeability of Hoffman. The dialogue was written by Ernest Gebler, based on his own novel, and Hoffman’s misogyny leads to some observations that are difficult to forget – “Women are Fallopian tubes with teeth,” he says, as he and Miss Smith settle into a pattern of behaviour worthy of a long-married couple. She suffers from minor ailments and he is aghast that she is not free from such problems; she is meant to be a cross between a Goddess and a blow-up doll in his eyes.

This film, and this sort of dialogue, can only work with amazing actors. There are a few (mainly) two-hander thrillers throughout the seventies and eighties that really work; I’m thinking of Sleuth (1972) and Deathtrap (1982), both of which rely heavily on the brilliance of Michael Caine. But in those films we’re watching a battle of intellects. I wish that Hoffman had gone further down that particular path. There was a great opportunity to make Miss Smith a match for Hoffman intellectually in their power struggle. But instead it seems to me that the film fizzles out as it insists on tying her purely to emotion, and she makes some unconvincing decisions.

I just don’t buy the ending, but I get the feeling it’s the kind of ending that people could really argue about. What, exactly, does it all mean? What kind of film is this? The motivations are complicated and it’s not easy to condemn Hoffman as a monster, or to sympathise with him. He is really horrible, and yet we understand his bitterness. He lies in a no-man’s-land of characterisation. I think it’s one of Sellers’ very best performances, and Hoffman is a film that I often think about.

Hoffman was one of a string of flops for Sellers in the 1970s. He died in 1980, after having one final critical success with Hal Ashby’s sublime Being There (1979). He made so many incredible characters come to life, but I think one my favourites is the one that looks so much closer to death. You get the feeling Hoffman has stared into the abyss. It’s worth watching just to see Sellers embody such blackness of spirit. Perhaps it’s the closest we can get to understanding what he really felt about himself.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below