I have a weak spot for the absurd Czech comedies of the Sixties and Seventies, particularly the SF ones.
The best is undoubtedly the wild Comic Strip characters brought to life romp, Who Wants To Kill Jesse?, which overflows with the outrageous and unexpected. So it is interesting to see another SF comedy by its director, Václav Vorlícek – even if it isn’t quite up to the same standard.
One of the notable absences here is the satiric political undercurrent of the earlier film. For those familiar with the history of the all too brief 1968 “Prague Spring”, when the Czechs tried to restore Democracy only to have the USSR send in the tanks eight months later, this comes as little surprise: the Czechs made satiric films about Communism into 1970, but these last few had devastating effects on their creators’ careers.
When an inept general accidentally cuts off the arm of a visiting monarch, the King decides to disband his equally inept army. So the generals decide to assassinate the King, using a psychotic killer who’s scheduled to be hanged. They create a perfect copy of the distinguished actress who has unlimited access to the King and plan to put the killer’s brain it.
But their plan goes badly awry. The genius astrologer, Stuart, warns the King of their first attempt to kill him. They murder Stuart, but thanks to yet another stupid mistake, his brain ends up in their assassin’s body…
And that’s when it starts getting…complicated.
For all that this is a movie filled with murders, attempted murders, lethal accidents, a decapitation, an arm getting hacked off, and brain transplant surgeries, there is a surprising lack of blood. One hates to imagine what a modern remake would look like. Certainly it would trample the humor out of it all, as well as the lighthearted absurdity that gives these films their unique flavor.
Iva Janzurová turns in a bravura performance in what is effectively three separate parts, displaying an impressive gift for mimicry. Supposedly the film was written for her and it’s hard to imagine making a film this dependent on a single performance without an actress of her caliber on board from the start. It is pleasant to note that she is still hard at work today.
I’ll confess to being a bit amused by one of the more curious conceits of this film: Stuart, who is supposedly an incredible genius, has a knack for making these incredibly detailed – and accurate – predictions, supposedly based on his calculations from his antique zodiac charts, which he works out with a protractor and lots of math. Somehow it seems a tad bit out of place against Artificial bodies and advanced transplant surgery – but perhaps less out of place against the background of Kings, revolutions and a magnificent Opera House. But then these elements might seem out of place compared to the elements of bedroom farce or murderous domestic comedy.
Somehow it all hangs together, despite its complexities and contradictions. What’s more, it remains consistently amusing, unpredictable and lighthearted – and avoids the slide into horror which would have destroyed it.
Curiously, someone turned You Are a Widow, Sir into a play in 2009. However, while there were plans in the Seventies for a Hollywood version of Who Wants To Kill Jesse? with Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine, it really isn’t much of a surprise that no one seems to have considered remaking this one.
Even in the Seventies, Hollywood had its limits.
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