Arthur Hiller: An Appreciation

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Brooker/REX/Shutterstock (379086do) ARTHUR HILLER OSCARS / ACADEMY AWARDS AT THE KODAK THEATRE, LOS ANGELES, AMERICA - 24 MAR 2002

The name Arthur Hiller doesn’t really spring to mind when I think about great directors. However, when I heard the news he passed away last night at age 92, I looked him up on the IMDb. Much to my surprise, Arthur Hiller was responsible for some of my favorite funny films. Hiller wasn’t a distinct stylist or auteur, just a skillful handler of actors with a deft touch for comedy. In remembrance of the man, here are a few of my favorite Hiller-directed films, in chronological order:


PENELOPE (1966): I covered this movie in-depth at this link about a year ago. It’s a silly, saucy comedy starring Natalie Wood as a neglected housewife who robs a bank. A quintessentially 60’s flick with comic support from Peter Falk, Dick Shawn, Jonathan Winters, and a good turn by Arlene Golonka as a hooker. It’s definitely worth your time if you haven’t discovered it yet.


THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967): Another movie that could only be a product of the 60’s. Husband and wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson star in this howler about an isolated mailman plotting to kidnap his dream girl, and winding up snatching a middle-aged housewife. The pair play it over the top, which makes for a whole lot of fun. Dustin Hoffman makes his film debut here.


SILVER STREAK (1976): The first screen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor was a box-office smash. The Hitchcockian plot involves murder on a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, with Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan, and Ned Beatty all on board. The scene where Pryor helps Wilder disguise himself as a black man is pure comedy gold. Highly recommended!


THE IN-LAWS (1979): Frantically funny with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in rare form. Arkin’s a deranged ex-CIA agent who puts Falk through the wringer on a road trip from hell. Another big hit for Hiller, and an uproarious good time! See this one and avoid the 2003 version.


TEACHERS (1984): This underrated comedy-drama features Nick Nolte as a burned-out teacher in an urban battle zone of a school mentoring young Ralph Macchio. Richard Mulligan is hilarious as an escapee from the nut house who mistakenly becomes a history teacher! JoBeth Williams is Nick’s former student and current love interest, and the cast includes Judd Hirsch, William Schallert,  Art Metrano, and early appearances by Laura Dern and Crispin Glover. The distinctly 80’s soundtrack features Bob Seger, Night Ranger, ZZ Top, and a hit theme song by .38 Special. Another film worth discovering.

Arthur Hiller is most remembered today for the 1970 tear-jerker LOVE STORY, but his comedy films are what I’ll remember him for the most. Thanks for the laughs and rest in peace, Mr. Hiller.


Hidden Gem: Natalie Wood in PENELOPE (MGM, 1966)


When I first recorded PENELOPE, I thought it would end up in one of my “Cleaning Out The DVR” posts. But after watching this hidden gem, I’ve decided to give it a full review. PENELOPE not only gives Natalie Wood a chance to show off her comedic skills, it’s a perfect time capsule of mid-60s filmmaking. The movie bridges the gap between the old screwball comedies and the more modern attitudes to come. That’s not to say PENELOPE is a must-see classic, but it’s an underrated film that I recommend to anyone who likes comedy, 60s style.


Penelope Elcott is a scatterbrained kleptomanic who, feeling her husband James (Ian Bannen) is neglecting her, robs his bank. She tells it to her shrink, Dr. Mannix (the always funny Dick Shawn), who doesn’t believe her until she shows him a wad of cash. Flashbacks (including one with Jonathan Winters) reveal Penelope’s criminal history. Penelope takes the yellow Givenchy dress she escaped in to a thrift store, where an unscrupulous couple (Lou Jacobi and Oscar winner Lila Kedrova) buys it for seven bucks. Police Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk, preparing for Lt. Columbo) is on the case, and has his suspicions about the banker’s wife.


Dr. Mannix, who’s also in love with Penelope, persuades her to give him the cash so he can return it to the bank in their night deposit box. But when he tries to do the deed, a cop siren scares him off. The loot is picked up by a hooker named Honeysuckle Rose, who subsequently gets pinched for the robbery. Penny feels bad for her and tries to confess, but no one will believe her. The scheming couple from the thrift store find a magazine clipping of Penelope wearing the yellow outfit and try to blackmail her. But she’s more than happy to let them tell James and the cops, so they figure something’s fishy and destroy the evidence. Perplexed Penelope then asks James to throw a cocktail party, where she plans to return all the jewelry she’s stole over the years. None of the victims will take it back, and Penelope runs away, later figuring out a plan to make everyone believe she’s a thief in the films madcap conclusion.


Critics of the day unfairly savaged PENELOPE, sinking it at the box office. It deserves another look for many reasons. The cast is hilarious, balancing amusing dialogue with slapstick humor. Besides those mentioned, standouts in small roles include Arthur Mallet, Carl Ballantine, and Arlene Golonka (as the hooker). Even veteran Fritz Feld shows up in one of the flashbacks to give us his patented “pop”. The witty screenplay is by George Wells, writer of several Red Skelton vehicles, and movies like TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME (1949), ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951), and his own Oscar winner, DESIGNING WOMEN (1957). Speaking of designing women, Edith Head deserves special mention for her work, making Natalie Wood more beautiful than ever (if that’s possible). Director Arthur Hiller has done more recognizable movies (THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, LOVE STORY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK), but PENELOPE shouldn’t be forgotten. Obviously I liked it, and I think you will, too. It’s a pleasant surprise for comedy buffs, fans of Natalie Wood, or even casual viewers. It can be purchased on Amazon, viewed online, or occasionally on TCM. Catch it when you can, you’ll thank me for it!

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