Conceived and shot in the space of a few weeks due to the Solidarity crisis of December 1981, Jerzy Skolimowski‘s black comedy is much more than a political tract: it’s a profound, gripping comedy of terror and isolation, oppression and entrapment. Jeremy Irons, in a performance worthy of Chaplin, is the head of a Polish construction crew doing illegal work on a flat in London; when the military coup occurs back home, Irons—the only member of the group who speaks English—must keep it a secret from his men. Though the film is founded on a metaphor, it is never forced or abstract: Skolimowski’s direction is a concrete creative response to these actors in this setting at this time, making full expressive use of the details, gestures, and situations at hand. It is, in short, a film—unimaginable as theater or literature—and very possibly a great one.
Through its first half, Roman Polanski‘s 1976 film is a cruel and painfully funny black comedy, following a timorous Polish expatriate (played by Polanski himself) as he tries, overpolitely, to negotiate the intricacies of social contact in his adopted Paris. But the second part tapers off into a routine psychological thriller, riddled with overwrought shock effects. The end result is somewhere between Franz Kafka and William Castle, but still worth seeing. With Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, and Shelley Winters.
Billy Wilder‘s emphatically tasteless 1981 comedy about death, sex, and friendship is more trenchant than funny—though it probably has more laughs than any of his films after The Fortune Cookie. It pits a death seeker (suicidal TV censor Jack Lemmon) against a death dealer (coolheaded hit man Walter Matthau) in a battle for a grain or two of human companionship, a victory confirmed over a corpse. Though it’s clearly an old man’s film, it’s hardly serene and settled: Wilder is in a curmudgeonly rage about everything in sight, from sexual repression to sexual liberation, from Today’s Youth to Yesterday’s Codger. But instead of the sentimental cop-out that usually closes his films, Wilder has isolated an impossibly tiny center of real value and belief, an optimism that is extremely moving in its microscopic dimensions. With Paula Prentiss and (a brilliant idea gone spectacularly wrong) Klaus Kinski as the head of a sex clinic.