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  Only Two Can Play Thwarted Passion
Year: 1962
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Stars: Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling, Virginia Maskell, Kenneth Griffith, Raymond Huntley, David Davies, Maudie Edwards, Meredith Edwards, John Le Mesurier, Frederick Piper, Graham Stark, Eynon Evans, John Arnatt, Sheila Manahan, Richard Attenborough
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: John Lewis (Peter Sellers) is a librarian in the small Welsh town of Aberdarcy, but he feels he has lost all his prospects in life and is going nowhere fast. As if in reaction to this aimlessness, he finds himself looking at women more and hoping for an opportunity to have his wicked way with them, which would not be that unusual if he were not married. His wife Jean (Virginia Maskell) stays at home in their cramped, boarding house flat to look after their two children, a little girl and a baby boy, without an inkling of how her husband is really feeling. But if he's not careful, an encounter with councilor's wife Liz (Mai Zetterling) could change all that...

Peter Sellers got his chance to do yet another accent in this, a rather more serious comedy than he had made his name with and adapted from a Kingsley Amis novel by Bryan Forbes. There were still some very funny lines expertly delivered, but Only Two Can Play owed a lot to the kitchen sink dramas of the day, so much so that if it had not been for the broader comic scenes you could well envisage an Alan Bates or a Richard Burton in the lead. It was also a change of pace for the filmmaking duo of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a move towards greater realism in their work to reflect the issues of the day - not the political issues, but the social ones.

In 1962, the so-called Sexual Revolution was in its infancy (note the reference to Lady Chatterly's Lover in the dialogue), but there were still plenty of men feeling that they could benefit from a spot of open-mindedness as far as relationships went, not to mention the women who were feeling the same, even if it were prudent not to admit it in polite company. Only Two Can Play reflects that, even in its mild manner, and mines a prosperous seam of laughs from its main character's bumbling, fumbling attempts to satiate his libido while still acting the respectable family man and librarian (a noble post, in many eyes).

Sellers, true to form, thought that this film would be a flop, so much so that he sold his profit share back to the company, so naturally it was a substantial success, capturing as it did the mood of the times in places outwith the London that was beginning to swing. Much of that success, on artistic terms, was down to Sellers and his deft stylings, one moment humorous, the next self-pitying, finding the exact tone that was right for the performance, which makes it all the more odd he had no confidence in himself here. He was helped by two equally skilled leading ladies to form the plot's love triangle, the tragic Maskell, who committed suicide just over five years later, and Zetterling, making a good impression in possibly her highest-profile role.

We can believe these people because their preoccupations seem all too convincing: yes, Lewis would be swept up in the possibilities of an affair with Liz, as not only is she of a higher social standing, but she represents all the daring that he wishes to indulge in, and what's best is that their respective families need never know. Jean, as we see in the sequence where they're invited to Liz's party, has seen her potential squashed in this repressive place, and is as much a prisoner of her surroundings as her husband; if only he'd realise it, he could see he was absolutely correct to fall in love with her, and that he would be better off ignoring his seven year itch. With the prospect of a higher position in the library profession for Lewis, will he take it, or will he recognise that it will never saitsfy him, taking into account he is actually a downtrodden rebel, unlikely as it may seem? If the comedy sometimes gets too farcical, then it's those three cast members who hold it together, bringing out the essential melancholy of their situation without neglecting the laughs. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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