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Rhinoceros
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

RATING: 4/10
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 rings hollow.

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!
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