Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Penelope (1966)

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A daffy cutie with any number of disguises at her disposal, at the start of director Arthur Hiller's underrated 1966 film, Penelope Elcott (Natalie Wood) poses as an elderly woman to rob her husband's bank before she switches wigs and clothes once again and makes her getaway.

Visiting her longtime shrink Dr. Gregory Mannix (Dick Shawn), shortly thereafter, she recounts every mundane detail of her day before startling him completely with, "I stuck up my husband's bank." He doesn't believe her, of course — few men do throughout the film — but Penelope sets him straight when she retrieves $60,000 from her purse.

Turning him into an accomplice of sorts, Gregory asks her to chart her history as thief, which begins with a disturbing flashback where her professor (Jonathan Winters) chases her around the classroom in an attempted rape that's played for laughs. Stripped down to her underwear, when she makes her escape, Penelope discovers that she's accidentally come away with his watch fob. Listening intently, the shrink tells our feisty protagonist that she's the opposite of a klepto.

Robbing others thereafter as sport, she steals not because it's a compulsion but because she enjoys it. Using theft as her means of exacting feminine justice, Penelope dishes it out whenever she feels like she's been taken either advantage of or for granted. From the horny matron of honor who tried to seduce her husband on their wedding day to another woman who comes onto him in a swimming pool, Penelope steals something from each of the offenders, feels better after the surge of endorphins, and moves on.

Based upon the novel by Howard Fast, which was published under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham, Penelope was adapted for the screen by George Wells. After years of writing musicals for MGM producer Joe Pasternak (who also produced Penelope), Wells had been given more opportunities to branch out, showing what he could really do with smart, sophisticated, and subversive material like Party Girl, The Gazebo, and Where the Boys Are. And while Hiller's Penelope never fully comes together overall, the script by Wells is an absolute high point. It's so inspired that I began imagining how it could be tweaked here and there to be remade today, as this fine, flawed, forgotten feature deserves a second look.

Filled with irresistibly quotable one liners like "you should've known me in the days before you knew me," that Wood lets roll off her tongue with easy wit, the veteran performer is so brightly effervescent in Penelope that one imagines she could've saved the film's producers a fortune in lighting costs.

Unfortunately, this was not so. Described by the actress as one of the most difficult professional experiences of her life — as she was going through a lot of personal turmoil and became so stressed she broke out in hives — it's both sad and a credit to just how gifted Natalie Wood is that we don't see a trace of this pain in her performance throughout.

Harshly judged by critics upon its initial release, while some lashed out at Wood's perceived lack of comedic timing and skill, others, like Variety, focused instead on her contribution to the film as "a nice clothes-horse for Miss [Edith] Head's glamorous fashions." And while it's true that the star looks amazing in the designer's $250,000 wardrobe, even without all of the excess, she's an absolute delight.

Elevated by Dick Shawn, who has far better chemistry with the actress than the actor playing her husband in the form of Ian Bannen, Wood is especially charming whenever she shares a scene with instantly likable, (then) up-and-comer Peter Falk. With a crooked smile and an ever-present twinkle in his eye, Falk's turn in Penelope as an amused New York detective trying to solve the bank job serves as a great warm-up to his iconic role as Columbo, whom he played just one year later in a TV movie before the series premiered in 1971. No stranger to playing cops and heavies in smaller parts, by 1966, Falk was moving up.

First crossing paths with the actor when Wood shows up to watch a reel of robbery footage and her image overlaps with her disguised as the thief onscreen, the two have an unexpected rapport that's quite fun to watch. They liven up the proceedings once again later on when Falk spends the day with the beauty he unabashedly flirts with as he teaches her how to blow bubbles with her chewing gum.

Tonally all over the place, composer John Williams does the best he can to weave everything together with his breezy, infectious score. And while the film's plot arc concerning Penelope's past as well as the robbery's aftermath is in desperate need of sharpening — since the running gag that nobody believes her goes on too long in the final act — Hiller's film is still much more entertaining than its awful reputation would lead you to believe.

Given a shiny new Blu-ray transfer from Warner Archive that sparkles with as much brilliance as an emerald necklace swiped by Penelope as payback, the film, which has been given new life thanks to TCM, looks better than I've ever seen it before.

Though it uses the original vintage art from the film's release, which enlisted Wood's sexuality to sell tickets, the disc's cover calls attention to the fact that her early near nude scene opposite the lascivious Winters in Penelope is fraught with danger, not fun.

Still, it's easily forgotten when we watch Wood, disguised as a redhead, hop into a cab after the film's opening robbery sequence. Donning the second wig that we're seen thus far, she drops her head below frame, abandons the red, and flips back up to reveal the brunette chameleon underneath, letting us know that, no matter what happens onscreen or off, Natalie Wood has been there all along.

A box office disaster, Penelope was the last film Wood made before she took three years off from acting, before she returned to the screen in 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And while Penelope isn't nearly as funny as Sex and the Single Girl or as important as her most famous dramatic works, which paved the way to a more naturalistic style of female acting in the late '60s, it's still worthwhile in its own right. Natalie Wood might have thought she was terrible in the film, but long after she captivates Falk and Shaw, once she takes the money and doesn't run, she manages to steal our hearts as well.

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