Arthur Hiller’s Penelope offers some nice mid-1960s location shots of New York City, but its slight story of a kleptomaniac desperately trying to rid herself of her habit never plays securely as the knockabout comedy it’s attempting to be.
The Production: 2.5/5
Arthur Hiller’s Penelope wants desperately to be a comic romp with its bubble-headed title heroine stealing everyone blind right under their noses and getting away with it. But despite a delicious cast and some fine location photography and an eye-popping wardrobe for its fetching leading lady, Penelope falls flat without the zany pacing and madcap aura that might have lifted this routine story into something worthy of the screwball epics of the 1930s.
When Penelope (Natalie Wood) gets married to banker James Elcott (Ian Bannen), she finds him too preoccupied with work to pay much attention to her, so she robs his bank while in disguise. After she confesses to her psychiatrist Greg Mannix (Dick Shawn), he offers to return the money for her as he is secretly in love with her. However, he abandons the money when the police approach. Penelope becomes determined to admit to the crime, but neither James nor the police believe her story.
Adapted from the book by E.V. Cunningham, George Wells’ screenplay gets off to a rollicking start with Penelope disguised as an old woman robbing her husband’s newly opened bank of $60,000, but the film pretty much goes downhill from there. Confessing her crime to her devoted psychiatrist, we learn that this bank job was but the latest in a series of heists Penelope has engaged in against people she feels have wronged either her or her husband. Wells uses flashbacks to show her thieving beginning with a college professor (Jonathan Winters) trying to molest her and going through her early Greenwich Village life as a folk singer (Natalie gets to sing “The Sun Is Gray” with her own voice after being famously dubbed in West Side Story, The Great Race, and Inside Daisy Clover), at a kooky Village party, on her wedding day, and at a pool party. While a police detective (Peter Falk) seems on to her from almost the beginning of his investigation, irony rears its ugly head when the wrong person gets arrested for the crime, and Penelope feeling terrible guilt admits her addiction to stealing, all of which falls on deaf ears. Arthur Hiller’s lead-footed direction doesn’t wring much humor from the admittedly slight story (there is some unforgivably sloppy looping work when Natalie plays a succession of male characters in her husband’s fantasies), and the movie basically devolves into a fashion show for Natalie Wood: decked out in an astounding array of gowns and wigs (and in and out of shoes, the film’s supposedly hilarious running gag), she does look stupendous, but the film is just too slight to amount to much.
Natalie Wood doesn’t have much of a character to work with. She does what she can with the story, but the script and director let her down after her initial amusing turn as a little old lady bank robber. In the remainder of the film, she seems the same age whether playing a college student or scenes set in the present day. And she has no chemistry whatsoever with the rather stolid Ian Bannen playing her husband. After wonderful pairings with Tony Curtis and Robert Redford in her recent work, their twosome is rather unfortunate. She’s better in scenes with Dick Shawn as her psychiatrist, but his material doesn’t give him much of a chance to shine either. Jonathan Winters is completely wasted as the lecherous college professor (a scene that’s cringe-worthy in our present Me-Too era), but Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi have a bright moment or two as charlatans who attempt a pitiful blackmail scheme. Peter Falk is the best thing about the film, his police lieutenant an apparent warm-up for Lieutenant Columbo which was right around the corner for him. Norma Crane as Mildred, a former sweetheart of Bannen’s James who still carries the torch for him, Jerome Cowan as a bank manager, and Arlene Golonka as a floozy stripper all score in their brief bits.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully rendered in this beautiful 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. For a change, the Metrocolor doesn’t run toward the red spectrum with nicely balanced hues throughout (important for the quarter million-dollar wardrobe which adorns Miss Wood during the movie), and the transfer is spotlessly clean and crisp. Contrast has been beautifully applied for a most appealing visual presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix sounds very appropriate for this era of filmmaking. Dialogue, the sprightly Johnny Williams score, and the sound effects are all professionally combined into a single track with no traces of hiss, crackle, hum, or flutter to distract from the proceedings.
Special Features: 2/5
Featurette (4:28. SD): wardrobe designer Edith Head discusses the choices for Wood’s clothes with a series of wardrobe tests showing off the many designs worn in the film.
Theatrical Trailer (2:39, HD)
Arthur Hiller’s Penelope offers some nice mid-1960s location shots of New York City, but its slight story of a kleptomaniac desperately trying to rid herself of her habit never plays securely as the knockabout comedy it’s attempting to be. A fine cast does what it can with pretty feeble material, and the Warner Archive Blu-ray looks simply splendid for fans of the star or the era.