“What’s new pussycat?” Tom Jones roars over the opening titles designed by Richard Williams, later the animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit as well as a contributor to similar sequences in the Pink Panther films, the iconic song written by the legendary partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David arguably more famous than the film of the same name which it was written for.
Directed by Clive Donner, What’s New Pussycat? marked the screenwriting debut of one Woody Allen who in writing himself the character of Victor Shakapopulis, nervous, ineffectual, overlooked, pining and perpetually whining, conceived a role he would pretty much continue to play in different iterations for many years to come even as he moved to directing himself.
Originally released in the summer of 1965 and now remastered on Blu-ray for the Eureka Classics range, What’s New Pussycat? is very much a piece of its time and is best viewed in that light rather than in the context of a more liberated era, a vibrant comedy set in a colourful and carefree Paris of art nouveau design, larger than life characters, free love and designer fashion.
The tale of serial philanderer Michael James (The Night of the General‘s Peter O’Toole), he lives in he same apartment building as his fiancée Carole Werner (L’Enfer‘s Romy Schneider) yet is unable to commit to a wedding date, saying he wants to write a novel, that he has “wildness and fun to get out of his system.”
More than that, as editor of Chic Magazine who spends his nights in the Paris clubs, Michael is surrounded by the most beautiful women of of the world who cannot help but throw themselves at him, among them the improbably named dancer Liz Bien (The Stepford Wives‘ Paula Prentiss), Rita (Dr. No‘s Ursula Andress) who literally parachutes into his life and Renée Lefebvre (The Pink Panther‘s Capucine).
A fellow patient of psychoanalyst Doctor Fritz Fassbender (The Party‘s Peter Sellers), he has his own problems between his loveless marriage to Valkyrie Anna (Somewhere in Time‘s Eddra Gale), his chaotic group therapy sessions and his own obsessive stalking of Mademoiselle Lefebvre, though his friendship with Michael is undeniably and refreshingly European, marked by a warm physicality which would be verboten in American cinema of the period.
Originally intended as a vehicle for Warren Beatty, it is difficult to picture him in the role of Michael James, his predatory nature the antithesis of O’Toole’s genuine charm, and it is easy to understand why Carole both loves him and forgives him, to an extent; conversely, Doctor Fassbender is little more than a creep, and despite being a film about the adoration of women Allen’s script gives them little to work with, only Prentiss’ dominant and quirky personality shining through.
What’s New Pussycat? a mixed bag, it is livened by a dream sequence whose oddity rivals Barbarella, a go-kart chase and a soundtrack which also includes Dionne Warwick and Manfred Mann, but too often it falls back on slapstick to overcome the shortcomings of plotting, though the informative and enthusiastic commentary by film historians and self-proclaimed pussycats Emma Westwood and Sally Christie finds sufficient to see beyond the flaws and sheath the claws.