-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2004 VideoVista
cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Karen Black, Joe Silver, and Robert Weil
director: Tom O'Horgan
100 minutes (PG) 1974
widescreen ratio 16:9
inD DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Roger Keen
Eugene Ionesco, a pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd, wrote the play Rhinoceros
in 1959 as a political satire. One by one the inhabitants of a French village lose their
humanity as they transform into rhinoceroses, and only one man - the drunk Berenger - manages
to withstand. Typical of the surreally comical devices Ionesco used, the rhinoceros
transformation is a metaphor for Nazi infiltration of French society during World War
II, and the play is intended as an attack on the totalitarian mindset generally.
By contrast the 1974 film Rhinoceros attempts to be a zany screwball-type comedy,
pairing Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and hoping to reproduce the excellent chemistry
they achieved in The Producers. Wilder plays the
drunk Stanley, and Mostel plays his smarter and socially superior friend John. As in
the earlier work, John dominates Stanley, constantly berating him about his slovenly
ways, drinking and bad hair, and holding himself up as a paradigm of righteousness.
Mostel is as comically overblown as ever, and Wilder gives a typically goofy performance
as a hopeless case. But where are they going with this? When rhinoceroses are sighted
in the streets John refuses to believe it, as do co-workers at Stanley's office. But
later John himself succumbs to rhinoceros-like behaviour, and the awful truth dawns
that everyone is turning into rhinoceroses.
The film makes no real attempt to embody the play's political dimension, and without
it the rhinoceros rationale is simply empty and pointless. It's a bit like Orson Welles'
version of Kafka's The Trial, which doesn't quite work outside its setting of
Eastern European repression. Moreover Rhinoceros cannot find a way to transcend
its theatrical origins and give its rhinoceros-ness a cinematic life. It remains stage-bound,
resorting to devices such as sound effects and rhinoceros silhouettes behind curtains. As
for the performers, they have to use acting alone to convey the sense of transmogrification.
This deficit is particularly notable during a scene where Stanley tells John that his skin
is becoming grey and he has a bump on his forehead, when we see no greyness and no bump.
On stage it would be acceptable, but we expect more from the larger bag of tricks that
film has at its disposal. True, it's difficult to see how this could have been done without
going down the horror movie path of make-up, prosthetics and special effects - hardly
suitable to the tone of the piece - but without something of that kind the whole enterprise
On the plus side, Mostel and Wilder do manage to whip up a little comic frisson, and
Karen Black is reasonable as the tacked-on female interest, oscillating between the
two men. But ultimately Rhinoceros falls between two stools, succeeding neither
as satire nor slapstick. For anyone coming to the film, knowing nothing of Ionesco, the
question must inevitably hang on their lips: Why...?
As part of the American Film Theatre collection, Rhinoceros has an array of DVD
extras associated with the AFT. There are trailers for several other AFT productions,
an AFT Cinebill, featuring pieces on Ionesco's writings and a tribute to Zero Mostel,
stills and poster galleries, a further article on Ionesco, and a message from AFT President
Ely Landau. The main extras featurette is an interview with director Tom O'Horgan, intercut
with clips from the film that are so long it feels like you've watched it a second time.
Like in so many of these extras' interviews, O'Horgan talks about what he wished to achieve
as though that wish was fully realised. There is one telling section when he describes
an attempt to use a real rhino, which was abandoned when it made moves to charge the
camera! "Rhinos are not exactly directable," he says. Therein lies the heart
of his problem!