Concluding my contribution to Realweegiemidget Reviews & Thoughts All Sorts ‘Now & Then’ Blogathon, we leap forward 32 years from the 23rd century sci-fi kitsch of “Forbidden Planet” to the mean streets of 1980s Los Angeles in hard-boiled detective spoof “The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!”.
Los Angeles Police Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) faces his toughest case yet. Investigating the attempted murder of his colleague Nordberg (O J Simpson), Drebin stumbles on a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during her forthcoming visit to California led by the villainous Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban).
With a cold open pre-credits sequence – itself a gloriously zany encapsulation of Reagan-era American foreign policy – where Drebin single-handedly takes out the leadership of the original ‘Axis Of Evil’, “The Naked Gun” explodes on to the big screen with a confidence that belies its roots as a short-lived and inexplicably cancelled TV series that managed only six episodes. From the very first scene at the docks it expertly and mercilessly parodies the hard-boiled police procedural genre, revelling in the po-faced absurdities of film noir. From the very first scene at the docks, during Nordberg’s ‘death’ scene, it’s clear we’re in the hands of comedy experts at the very height of their powers. The jokes are relentless and there’s hardly a one which doesn’t hit its mark. Unlike the later sequels and other spoofs, it knows exactly how long to keep a gag running for, when to push it further and when to call it a day and movie on to the next one. It also sticks closer to its theme whereas later ones would have a more scattergun approach to pop culture references. The plot – essentially a redux of “Day Of The Jackal” and “The Manchurian Candidate” is actually pretty strong, and with a few tweaks to remove the comedy would have made a decent enough action thriller of the time.
Nielsen, who also starred in the TV series, had largely made a name for himself as a dramatic actor. Prominent roles in “Forbidden Planet” and “The Poseidon Adventure” had been followed by a cavalcade of TV roles throughout the seventies as he popped up as the special guest star in everything from “Kojak” and “Ironside” to “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat” but it was his cameo in 1980 Zucker/ Abrahams/ Zucker comedy smash “Airplane!” that would come to define his career. His talent for playing even the most ludicrous situation dead straight and delivering the lines with deadpan sincerity is what makes much of “The Naked Gun” so funny. More than this, though, is his exquisite comic timing, in everything from sight gags to slapstick to the dialogue, everything is beautifully set up and delivered. He makes his comedy look so effortless and simple that many assume it’s easy but he was supremely talented and consistently underrated. The timing and performance of the informant scene is every bit as good as ‘Who’s On First?’ or ‘The 2,000 Year Old Man’; it’s a small scene but perfectly executed.
Every time you watch the film, you spot a new gag, as I did this time on easily the fiftieth time I’ve watched it. There it was: a background sight gag I’d never spotted before. As much as Nielsen runs the show (and it’s difficult to imagine anyone one else making this film work), his co-stars shouldn’t be overlooked. George Kennedy’s contribution is immense, playing it unwaveringly straight in the face of all the ridiculousness while Priscilla Presley smoulders as femme fatale Jane, assistant to the mendacious and elegantly evil Vincent Ludwig, played by Ricardo Montalban in his second best movie performance ever.
This movie cemented Nielsen’s place as a cinematic comedy icon and he never looked back. Mrs Craggus absolutely cannot stand him and his brand of comedy (i.e. the funny kind) but quite honestly, I’ll turn up for anything Nielsen’s done, from his stint on “Due South” to his later spoofs like “Superhero Movie” and I’ll even sit through the otherwise tepid “Scary Movie 4” just because he’s in it.
I’ll concede that his later work was weaker but “The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!” is a bona fide comedy classic. There are simply too many timelessly funny sequences to choose from and compared to some contemporary comedies, this is extravagantly luxurious in terms of the quality and quantity of jokes. Barely a second is wasted by not having a joke in it and the national anthem scene with ‘Enrico Palazzo’ is even funnier now in the current hysterical climate of ‘respecting the national anthem’. Not only is it one of the greatest comedies of all time, it also manages to be one of the best Baseball movies of all time too.