Saturday, June 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteen Chairs' (1969)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

I'm sort of surprised that The Thirteen Chairs (also known as 12 + 1) isn't more well-known, or at least more widely available, since it features Sharon Tate's final onscreen performance before her death, plus a small role for a hammy Orson Welles as a hammy stage actor. The movie itself is a pretty dreadful slapstick comedy, based very loosely on the same novel that inspired the Mel Brooks movie The Twelve Chairs. Vitorio Gassman plays Italian-American barber Mario, who inherits a dilapidated house in England from his late aunt. The only assets left in the estate are the titular 13 chairs, which he promptly sells to an antique store to attempt to recover some of his expenses. Immediately thereafter, he discovers a note from his aunt saying that her actual fortune is hidden in one of the chairs. 

So he recruits Pam (Tate), the bubbly antique-store clerk, to help him track down the chairs in the hands of their various buyers all across Europe. They encounter a whole range of crazy situations, including the aforementioned Welles, playing a theater impresario who buys some of the chairs to use in his stage production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gassman mugs like crazy as he attempts to slash open each chair (the chairs make an exaggerated "sproing!" noise when they're cut open), but Tate is a little more subdued. Mario and Pam inexplicably fall in love, and their romance starts with an extremely rapey scene in which Pam hides the info about the chairs' buyers in her bra, and Mario basically sexually assaults her to get at it. The whole movie has a very sexual vibe, with plenty of nudity and various women jumping into bed with the apparently irresistible Mario.

As is common with international productions like this, the cast is a hodgepodge of accents and backgrounds, including legendary Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica as an Italian count who purchases some of the chairs (and then seduces Pam, apparently, because everything in this movie ends up being sexual). The humor is mostly belabored and unfunny, including the old chestnut of the fast-motion chase scene set to wacky music (there is a lot of wacky music). As the chairs keep getting split up and sent to new buyers before Mario and Pam can track them down, the plot becomes more and more tedious. The movie ends with a shrug and a totally random windfall for the hapless Mario, but he's such a smug douchebag that it's hard to feel good about his getting the riches he's been chasing.

So maybe it's not all that surprising that this movie is so obscure (I managed to watch it in nine parts posted on YouTube). For Tate or Welles obsessives, it might be worth tracking down for the sake of completism, but otherwise it's a forgettable little oddity, a comedy that attempts to combine various cultural sensibilities and just ends up an indistinct mush.

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