The Millionairess

The MillionairessSynopsis: A beautiful, spoiled heiress has everything money can buy – except a husband. After a disastrous first marriage, she sets her sights on a dedicated, but poor Indian doctor who saves her from suicide. 

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The Millionairess 7.25

eyelights: the sharp dialogues. Peter Sellers’s performance. Sophia Loren’s sexiness.
eyesores: the final sequence. the contrived plot developments.

“I have fallen in love with your pulse.”

‘The Millionairess’ is 1960 British film based on a George Bernard Shaw play. A screwball romantic comedy, it paired up Sophia Loren and Peters Sellers (a personally devastating pairing, as documented in ‘The Life and Times of Peter Sellers‘) as Epifania, the titular millionairess, and Dr. Ahmed el Kabir, an Indian physician she attempts to woo.

It’s the story of an uptight, lustful, entitled and temperamental woman who is slated to become a millionairess following the reading of her eccentric father’s will. As per his instructions, she will gain the fortune if she marries a man who will make 15000 pounds out of 500 pounds in the matter of three months. Naturally, she gets married as soon as possible.

However, she falls victim to her desires and marries the wrong man. Discovering that he is cheating on her, she decides to jump off a bridge, with the dispassionate assistance of her butler (played by the superb Graham Stark). This is where she first meets Dr. el Kabir, passing by in a rowboat, wishing her good luck. This upsets her and fires up her will to live.

She would meet the good doctor once again after tossing her manipulative shrink in the drink. After the doctor goes to fish him out, she decides to feign an injury to try to capture el Kabir’s attention. At first impervious to her charms (hence her determination), he becomes mildly smitten with her during an exam. Resisting her now would prove challenging.

In order to prove herself to this idealistic doctor, Epifania decides to build a new, high-tech clinic. Unfortunately, she makes the mistake of throwing money at it to make it über-efficient, forgetting the human side of equation. Although awestruck by the facilities, which she offers to him, he brushes her off, reminding her that a human touch is essential.

Eventually, utterly obsessed with el Kabir, and confident that he is interested, Epifania proposes to him. Unfortunately, not only does he have to pass her father’s test, but his own mother requires a test: he can only marry a woman who can survive for three months on only 500 rupees. Without batting a fake eyelash, Epifania takes up the challenge.

There are few elements that I quite enjoy in ‘The Millionairess’.

Firstly, I love that the dignified way in which el Kabir is portrayed. It’s one of those rare moments (especially for the time) in which the foreigner is the straight man, not the object of ridicule. He is someone to be admired, not someone to make fun of: he is compassionate, considerate, selfless.

Secondly, there is the fact that Epifania, for all her petulance, shows hints of feminist ideals. For starters, there’s her proposal, which breaks convention. Then she showcases her intelligence and business acumen by turning a pasta-making business into an empire. She doesn’t get by just on looks.

Then there are the dialogues. I love that the pair has discussions about the value of money and human life; thought-provoking exchanges are not typical of romantic comedies, and it’s nice touch. I also loved the sexual subtext that was sprinkled all through the dialogue. It was subtle, but delightful.

The cast is also terrific:

Admission: as a massive Peter Sellers fan, I was initially drawn to this picture only because of his involvement. I knew nothing about it, and the packaging and price were not enticing. I had no idea that he played an Indian man, which might have put me off, if not because of how inappropriate that is, then at least because of my aversion to ‘The Party’, in which he plays a bumbling Indian.

It turns out that Sellers is really terrific as el Kabir: he is composed and his accent is just right. He perfectly conveys the compassion and intelligence of this man struggling between his beliefs and his desires. To make up for a lack of initial screen time, Sellers also voices Epifania’s dead father, with whom she has “dialogues”, and was the model for the many paintings of her father.

I have mixed feelings about Sophia Loren, and always have. I’ve only seen a few of her movies, and I’ve never really been that taken with her. I realize that she is an award-winning actress and sex symbol, but I find neither reputations entirely justified. And certainly not here.

For starters, her comedic talent is limited to sitcom-quality hyperbole, a style I’m not very keen on. But she has something, a certain quality that makes her magnetic. And it’s not that I find her alluring, either. I don’t. Aside for her strong shoulders, I find her unimpressive.

Still, as Epifania, she does a credible enough job. She is fine as the spoiled brat and as the composed, entitled millionaires. Her best moments are when she gets into a playful, vulnerable mode. In that moment we seem to catch a glimpse of the little girl inside, bereft of pretensions.

The best part goes to Alistair Sims as Sagamore, the family lawyer, however. He has superb material to work with, walking that fine line between propriety and disdain. For the sake of professionalism, he’ll even offer a prescription for cyanide to Epifania when she announces her intention to commit suicide.

He’s darkly comic, razor sharp; behind his smugness is fire. He’s a shark, subtly trying to prevent Epifania from landing the fortune. I haven’t seen Sims in many films, but he’s as good if not better than in ‘Scrooge‘ – if you can image that. He’s more than just mean, he’s devilish, the type to grin as he stabs you in the back.

If I have any issue with ‘The Millionairess’, it’s that the third act feels tacked on and convoluted. I like that Epifania and el Kabir face each their own challenges in their own ways, but it seemed thin to me. On top of that, it didn’t make sense that he was trying to give away his money but couldn’t – that no one wanted it.

Anyway, his motivation is completely lost on us. If he didn’t want to succeed, why take up the challenge in the first place? It just doesn’t make sense. And neither did his last-minute change of heart, which produced a final scene that makes no sense whatsoever, especially in its last few moments.

‘The Millionairess’ is a veritably imperfect film: it’s contrived and unrealistic, and the performances aren’t always credible. However, it’s amusing and the texts are rich with mordant humour. Add to the mix the combination of Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers and Alistair Sims, and it makes for some pretty terrific lazy Sunday morning viewing.

Audiences agreed: at the time, it was a sensation in the UK. Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers even had a hit with a tie-in single that they recorded as promotional material for the film. It’s a shame that this one seems to have gotten lost in time; one rarely hears about it now, and finding a decent copy is near-impossible (at least, in North America).

I hope that this will change, and that we’ll at least get a decent blu-ray transfer of it someday. I’ll be the first to grab one.

Date of viewing: June 28, 2014

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