For eight years Peter Sellers urged author Jerry Kosinski to grant him the right to play the touching savant at the heart of his novel, a kind of Forrest Gump without the homespun platitudes. He knew it was the role of a lifetime, a role that cleaved closest to the empty vessel of his own persona.
Meanwhile, Hal Ashby had proven skilful at interpreting the vagaries of human dependence in The Last Detail and Coming Home, and hones in on our desperation to divine meaning where none seems apparent. Thus, when Chance tumbles unwittingly into the real world of New York society, his barely audible utterances take on the cadence of grand wisdom. There is a natural gag at the heart of the device – such homilies as, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well” are purest twaddle yet start to come across as insightful.
The audience are invited to become believers; the film a test of universal gullibility. And given how the world has since been overtaken by the quick-buck blather of endless self-help gurus and the bottleneck of ‘reality’ TV, Ashby’s satire has grown more relevant with time.
There is a wonderful synergy between the glazed, beatific performance from Sellers, cutting a vehement u-turn away from tumbling down staircases and karate chopping Kato, and Ashby’s slow, mannered direction. The film never ruffles its feathers, even as the ranks of the FBI and CIA begin to feel threatened by this weird being undetectable on their files. Even his name is given to him. Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas give excellent support to Sellers remarkable performance, representatives of society’s callow hunger for truth. And while the final twist may tug too hard at suspensions of disbelief, it’s a haunting note that registers religion as much as a human necessity as a divine placebo.