THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE PURPLE TAXI”

Some films are ensured of success from the moment they are conceived. The 1977 feature “The Purple Taxi” does not fall into that category. Directed by a Frenchman, shot in Ireland with a predominantly Anglo-American star line-up and financed with Italian funds, the film seems more like a tax shelter than a cinematic statement.

Based on a novel by Michel Deon (who?), “The Purple Taxi” takes place in a small Irish village which is so postcard-quaint that it makes the pastoral setting of “The Quiet Man” look like “Metropolis” in comparison. The focus of the story concerns three expatriates who somehow wound up in town. One sort-of belongs there: Jerry (Edward Albert), the scion of an Irish-American dynasty who returned to the roots after a nasty business involving opium, arson and an Iranian girl who went up in narcotized smoke. But the other two guys don’t seem to belong in Ireland at all: Philip (Philippe Noiret) is a French journalist who escaped his wife and life after the death of his son, and Taubleman (Peter Ustinov), a Russian-sounding raconteur whose profession is unclear. Taubleman is allegedly broke, but he lives in a mansion and keeps a stable of horses; he also employs Sean, a handyman who gets drunk and plays the bagpipes (in case you forgot, this is Ireland).

Hovering on the periphery of this madness is the local physician, Dr. Scully. He’s played by Fred Astaire. Yes, that Fred Astaire – complete with the worst Barry Fitzgerald brogue imaginable and a tailored wardrobe which is more suitable for a Park Avenue neurosurgeon than a small town Irish physician.

As luck would have it, this happy all-male world is disrupted by women. First it’s Sharon, Jerry’s sister. Sharon is a self-styled aristocrat who married a German prince. She’s played by Charlotte Rampling, the gorgeous British actress. Of course, the vocal resemblance between Rampling and Albert is literally an ocean apart, but that’s explained away playfully when Albert remarks “You’ve changed your accent again.” Rampling, in turn, growls in a Brooklynese worthy of Barbra Streisand: “Oh really?”

Then comes Anne, Taubleman’s daughter. She is a mysterious beauty – although the mystery comes from her silence. Is Anne a mute or is there a deep secret that keeps her from speaking? She eventually speaks, but there’s a slight problem: Anne is played by Italian actress Agostina Belli, who obviously could not converse in English. Belli’s lines are badly dubbed (the lip movements are nowhere near the mark). Clearly she is present to keep the Italian moneymen financing “The Purple Taxi” happy.

Oh, there is a purple taxi. Dr. Scully drives it around, for no clear reason except that it looks cute. It shows up about three or four times in very brief scenes.

Any way, the mixture of accents sets off some highly combustible carnal urges. Anne and Jerry get hot and bothered, but is she really in love with Jerry or just after his family fortune? Both Belli and Albert were very attractive, so their romantic liaisons help spark some voyeuristic jollies.

At the same time, Sharon sets her eyes on Philip, with the hope he could plant the seed to bring forth an heir (it seems her German prince of a husband can’t rise to the occasion). While Charlotte Rampling is drop-dead gorgeous, Philippe Noiret is not exactly every woman’s idea of a French lover. In fact, the man is a fat, baggy-eyed, atrocious mess. Watching the shirtless Noiret roll Rampling on her back and press his flabby body on hers is enough to make anyone swear off sex for a month.

But all of this ooo-la-la is not without consequences. Taubleman is concerned of losing Anne, Philip doesn’t want to father another child (remember, his son recently died), Jerry is concerned that his sister is being seduced by his French pal, Dr. Scully gets upset when Taubleman cheats at poker and wins, Philip falls in quicksand but survives the ordeal, Taubleman’s mansion burns down, and Sharon’s Vietnamese maid gets goosed by Philip. Did I forget the Vietnamese maid? Yeah, she doesn’t do much except follow Sharon around, open the curtains, clear the dishes and curse Philip in Vietnamese after his Gallic digits squeeze her Mekong Delta.

There is also a lot of Celtic music on the soundtrack performed by the Chieftains. Or at least it is Celtic-sounding: French composer Philippe Sarde wrote the score. And the Irish countryside is beautifully framed by the cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (whom, as you might guess, is not Irish).

Time Out London dubbed “The Purple Taxi” as the worst French movie ever made – which is amusing since the film is actually in English. Yves Boisset, a minor filmmaker who never made an English-language film before this, clearly had no control over his cast. For the most part, the stars were left to their own devices. Even the New York Times theorized Ustinov was making up his own film as he went along – with wild rides of emotional and vocal chaos, eye-rolling and zany hand gestures, Ustinov was having too much fun. Rampling gamely takes him on and their on-screen time is priceless. When Ustinov abruptly gets up from a dinner, goes to the front door and opens his fly to urinate (out of camera range) for an absurdly long time, Rampling views him with aristocratic boredom, turns casually to Albert and exclaims: “Incredibly small bladder your friend has.” Even Fred Astaire gets carried away: at one point he yanks off a cap he is wearing and nearly loosens his toupee in the process.

Is there any wonder why “The Purple Taxi” is barely known? The film debuted at Cannes in 1977, but to no great impression. No American distributor would touch it for three years until Quartet Films picked it up and cut 13 minutes from its two-hour running time. Alas, a brief New York playdate was poorly received and the film was sold to syndicated TV, where it played as late night filler during the early 1980s.

“The Purple Taxi” did have a video release during the mid-1980s from the now-defunct RCA Columbia label. Incredibly, the label opted to play up Fred Astaire on the cover art, even though his role was relatively small. Perhaps the label wanted to confuse the buying public into thinking this was an Astaire musical. But no one was buying that, figuratively and literally.

Today, “The Purple Taxi” can only be obtained in America from private bootleg collections or from the very rare eBay auction of the original RCA Columbia videos. It is available on DVD from a Spanish source, but I cannot determine if that is a dubbed Spanish version or if the English-language edition is on the DVD. How fitting: where else can you find a French-Italian-Irish movie with American and British stars than in Spain? Excuse me while I go out for a breath of fresh Eire.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 16, 2005 in Features by
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