Mar 18, 2020
On Blu-ray: Natalie Wood in Penelope (1966)
I fell in love with Penelope (1966) when this candy-colored crime caper streamed on the dearly departed FilmStruck service. It’s got a stunning cast, led by the bright-eyed Natalie Wood and features a sprightly early soundtrack by John Williams, adorably credited as “Johnny Williams.” I was thrilled when the film finally made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.
Wood stars as the titular anti-heroine, a former beatnik who is struggling to get the attention of her work-obsessed banker husband James (Ian Bannen). In an act of rebellion, Penelope robs her husband’s bank on its opening day. Police Lieutenant Bixbee (Peter Falk) immediately suspects this friendly society wife of the crime, but he is so charmed by her that he doesn’t want to make the arrest. Penelope’s therapist Dr. Mannix (a delightfully bonkers Dick Shawn) is likewise charmed by his unpredictable patient, though she has driven him to constantly slurping milk for his ulcers.
Though it’s all played for laughs, there’s a deep well of perversion and dysfunction at the core of Penelope which keeps its cheerfulness from becoming too shallow. Wood plays a woman with an impeccable veneer who nevertheless always seems to be screaming for help. It’s a situation similar to that of the actress who played her, though it doesn’t seem she recognized any parallels with her character.
Wood was coming out of a deep depression when she made Penelope and the production was a happy experience for her. Unfortunately her joy didn’t reach audiences at the time,who didn’t show up at the box office. The film gets criticized for being overly cute and silly, but it has a lot to offer, from that catchy Williams soundtrack and gorgeous Edith Head costumes, to its bizarre, but brilliant cast. Just having the highly excitable Shawn and the smoothly laid back Falk in the same film makes for quite a ride. Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi put out a goofy Boris and Natasha vibe as a pair of cartoonishly evil con artists and Jonathan Winters is a Me Too nightmare in a silent cameo as a lecherous professor.
I was especially taken with the pairing of Falk’s police lieutenant and Bill Gunn as his sergeant and right-hand man. The multi-talented Gunn, who earned fame as a playwright and is perhaps most remembered as the director of Ganja & Hess (1973), is so appealing in his small role that I thought it a shame he wasn’t given more to do. Falk was already trying on the wise, but cool stylings that he would bring to his most famous role as the television detective Colombo. The pair has such a fascinating chemistry here that I couldn’t help wishing he and Gunn could have made a series of films or a television show together.
While Bannen never seems entirely plausible as a man Penelope would adore, Wood has excellent chemistry with her other male co-stars. She has her best comic scenes with the neurotic Shawn, playing off his anxiety with an amusingly mannered nonchalance. There’s a more easygoing vibe to her moments with Falk; he’s having the time of his life watching her get away with everything and she’s happy to be a cheerful companion.
This is a delightfully entertaining film and deserving of more attention.
Special features on the disc include a short featurette about Edith Head’s designs for the film and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.