The Ritz Review
How much you enjoy The Ritz will largely depend on your tolerance for the single joke which it hammers into the ground; the notion that a straight man, chased by his homicidal brother-in-law, is trapped for a night in an ultra-camp New York bathhouse. It’s fair to say that if you find gay jokes embarrassing or are easily offended by gay stereotypes then there is not much to appeal to you here. On the other hand, if you have a penchant, guilty or otherwise, for a bit of camp humour then you might find a lot to laugh at The Ritz. The problem for this viewer, who wasn’t remotely offended by the film and laughed at quite a bit of it, is that it’s an attempt to film a stage farce and, as such, is ultimately doomed to failure.
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that it’s impossible to successfully film a farce but the precedents, apart from Occupe Toi D’Amelie, are not encouraging. The 1960s film adaptations of Hotel Paradiso and A Flea In Her Ears were disasters, despite the presence of stalwarts such as Alec Guinness, while the attempts to film Whitehall farces - Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something, Chase Me Comrade, Not Now Darling - fell flat on their faces and were barely films, merely filmed records made as cheaply as possible. Attempts to film Boeing Boeing and No Sex Please We’re British were peculiarly unfunny despite good casts. Even a brave attempt like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off didn’t quite come off. The problem, it seems to me, is that without the live audience reaction, the sense of performers thinking on their feet while going faster and faster is completely lost. Anyone who had the privilege of seeing the recent revival of Boeing Boeing with Roger Allam and Mark Rylance will know the feeling of blissful pleasure which the form can offer when it’s played with complete conviction.
The lack of a live audience for the actors to play against is painfully obvious in The Ritz as is the fact that it was clearly designed for a particularly complex set, built by Terence Marsh for the Broadway premiere. The plot is a completely artificial construction so to give it a realistic setting is to lose a great deal – not least because the interactions are now separated and can’t be seen all at the same time. Short of using split-screen, there’s no way this could be done and Richard Lester tries instead to use a lightening fast pace and split-second timing from the cast. Sometimes this works very well and the farcical situations – hiding under beds, mistaken identity, exchanged clothing, gender confusion – are pretty funny. The incredibly hard working cast is crucial to this with Jack Weston producing a tour-de-force as the embattled hero and great comic actors like Jerry Stiller and F. Murray Abraham coming up with the goods. Even when the mechanics of the plot are beginning to creak, there are very effective scenes involving Weston, particularly a glorious moment when he, Abraham and Paul B. Price dress up as the Andrews Sisters. Price is excellent throughout, playing a ‘chubby chaser’ who is after Weston, and has a lovely bit where he throws chocolate bars over the locked door of his quarry’s cubicle.
Unfortunately, a poignant shadow hangs over the film – it’s hard to watch the carefree promiscuity of these gay men without being sadly aware of how few of them would be left a decade later. Quite apart from this, the film runs out of steam about an hour in and the slapstick machinations of the finale are grimly unfunny. Indeed, the physical comedy throughout is a little strained as are some of the more obvious jokes – Treat Williams as a butch detective with a soprano voice promises to be a lot funnier than he is. There’s also an uncomfortable sense of something being awry with the setting. The film, set in New York, was made in England and many of the supporting roles are filled by recognisable British actors – Dave King, Peter Butterworth, Ben Aris, Hugh Fraser. This isn’t an uncommon problem with Lester’s work – the opening of Superman III features Bob Todd, Graham Stark and Henry Woolf pretending to be Americans in some country which resembles a town in Buckinghamshire.
That said, Lester shows his undoubted strengths here as an actors’ director. He works beautifully with Jack Weston, who has rarely been as good as he is here, and he does wonders with Rita Moreno who reprises her award-winning Broadway role as the hopelessly untalented singer Googie Gomez who is convinced that Weston is a producer and regales him with a horrible rendition of Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses. These two actors, along with the rest of the talented cast, make The Ritz a lot more watchable than you expect. The disappointment is that you’re conscious all the time that it should be gut-bustingly funny and probably was on stage. Sadly, amusing though it is, the film simply isn’t.
The new Warner Brothers DVD of The Ritz is part of their Directors Showcase, deservedly spotlighting Richard Lester who has had a bit of a raw deal recently at the hands of some of the more rabid Richard Donner fans. Although labelled Region 1, it’s also encoded for Regions 2,3 and 4.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a great transfer in terms of colour – it looks a little muddy and flat – but the level of detail is adequate and there’s a pleasing sharpness. Some minor print damage is present in places. The mono soundtrack is absolutely fine with clear dialogue and effective music.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which attempts to sell the film as a crazy laugh riot. The film has optional subtitles in English and French.