The Battle of the Sexes Review
Edinburgh, the end of the 1950s. McPherson’s is a small traditional Scottish tweed family firm, seemingly becalmed for decades. Then its owner (Robert Morley) stirs things up by hiring efficiency expert Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings). For accountant Mr Martin (Peter Sellers) it’s a new broom too far, faced with – horrors! - mechanisation, synthetic fibre and, Heaven forfend, women in the workplace. What is the world coming to? And the object of Martin's antagonism is not only a woman but, in this bastion of Scottishness, an American. Soon Martin is sneaking into a cinema showing The Case of the Unknown Killer, subtitled The Story of the Perfect Crime. To take notes, no doubt.
In 1960, Peter Sellers’s star was in the ascendant. The previous year he had won the first of his two BAFTA Awards as shop steward Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack, played three roles in The Mouse That Roared and had helped kick off Richard Lester’s film directing career with the Oscar-nominated short film The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, which preserved some of the spirit of Sellers’s radio Goon Show and paved the way to Lester’s later films with The Beatles. The Battle of the Sexes was one of four films Sellers made in the same year, along with Two-Way Stretch, Never Let Go and The Millionairess, which saw him in brownface playing opposite Sophia Loren.
To state the obvious, The Battle of the Sexes, based on James Thurber’s story “The Catbird Seat” and written by Monja Danischewsky, is a film from another age. Although feminism had made its mark decades earlier, with the Suffragettes and Suffragists fifty years earlier, it wasn’t something that had made its mark in popular entertainment, at least not until the women’s movement later in the same decade. It opened the same week as one of a long-running comedy franchise, Carry on Constable. But it seemed that The Battle of the Sexes was a cut above, both in front of and behind the camera. The director was Charles Crichton, who had made his mark at Ealing, particularly with comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt, as well as the comic relief in the otherwise not funny at all portmanteau Dead of Night. It’s Crichton’s assured handling which makes The Battle of the Sexes work, with Sellers, deep in character, not allowed to overwhelm the material.
Sellers is the star here, and it’s remarkable how little he seems to do, inhabiting his role as the meek, middle-aged worm who turns. It’s not a performance which gained him awards attention, unlike I’m All Right Jack or, later, Dr Strangelove or Being There, but maybe it should have. Cummings and Morley give strong support. Plenty of films dealt with the subject of women’s liberation with derision to a degree which makes them unwatchably offensive nowadays. The Battle of the Sexes doesn’t do that, making the battle more even-handed. Martin is a dinosaur and he knows it, making the film all the more amusing as a result.
The Battle of the Sexes is a dual-format release from the BFI. It was watched for review during the Covid-19 lockdown, so no discs were available, only a standard definition video link, so my comments on picture and sound quality will necessarily be limited and running times quoted below will be affected by PAL speed-up. The transfer of the main feature begins with the BBFC U certificate it earned in 1960 and which it still bears. A Ghost of a Chance carries a U as well. The remaining extras are documentaries which do not require certification, but The Royal Mile Edinburgh, Border Weave and The Western Isles all received U certificates on their original cinema releases.
Shot in black and white 35mm, The Battle of the Sexes is transferred to disc in a ratio of 1.66:1. The soundtrack is the original mono. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available, though weren’t on the review link.
The extras begin with A Ghost of a Chance (48:25), nothing to do with the main feature at all, but long enough to count as a feature by the Internet Movie Database’s criteria. It was made for the Children’s Film Foundation in 1968 and shown at weekend matinee screenings to an audience of hopefully appreciative children. Three children (Stephen Brown, Mark Ward, Cheryl Vidgen) and two ghosts (Jimmy Edwards and Graham Stark) stand in the way of ruthless property developer Ronnie Barker. Also in the cast are Terry Scott and Bernard Cribbins as handymen. It’s very broad stuff, directed by Jan Darnley-Smith.
“Images of Edinburgh in Archive Film” (31:19) is a compilation of short films devoted to the Scottish capital. We begin at the start of the twentieth century with roving filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon around to capture a Funeral Procession, a Circus Procession and the Royal Scots Regiment in 1901. Edinburgh is from 1934, directed by Marion Grierson for the GPO Film Unit. This is in remarkably good shape and is a travelogue of the city, complete with trams, busy streets and tourist sights. On to 1943, and The Royal Mile Edinburgh and soldiers are here during the War, including the Scots’ East European colleagues.
Two separate items are Border Weave (14:35) and The Western Isles (14:13), two documentaries from 1942, both reflecting on the war being fought elsewhere. Both were shot in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff. Border Weave shows us a woollen mill at work, while The Western Isles is a picture of a remote community in Harris in the Outer Hebrides, source of the well known Harris Tweed.
Next up is another celebrated comedian from the 1960s, Tony Hancock, in a series of commercials made for the Egg Marketing Board (9:50). There are eleven of them, often using Fay Weldon’s famous slogan “Go to Work on an Egg”. Patricia Hayes and Pat Coombs provide support and occasional frustration. Hayes even gets one commercial to herself, making an omelette.
Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (9:03).
The BFI's booklet for the first pressing of this edition runs to twenty-eight pages. It's mostly taken up by an essay "The Complete Man: Peter Sellers and The Battle of the Sexes" by Vic Pratt, which as its title suggests centres on the star of the show. Also in the booklet are biographies, two pages each, of Charles Crichton, Constance Cummings, Robert Morley and James Thurber, with full film credits, credits and notes on the extras, transfer notes and stills.
The Battle of the Sexes (1960)
Dir: Charles Crichton | Cast: Constance Cummings, Jameson Clark, Peter Sellers, Robert Morley | Writers: James Thurber (short story "The Catbird Seat"), Monja Danischewsky