A Countess From Hong Kong (1967)

This review is part of our Auteurs Gone Wild series. The movie will screen at Anthology Film Archives on 3/22, 3/26 and 3/30.

If they don’t like it, they’re bloody idiots! A millionaire falling in love with a beautiful prostitute—what better story can they have than that? It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.- Charlie Chaplin

Perhaps Countess really is Chaplin’s greatest work, his most personal and poetic. In the words of Andrew Sarris: “the quintessence of everything Chaplin has ever felt.”  And indeed much of Chaplin’s prior films echo on through this one.

Like wealth dominated by longing:

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But as essential as images in this film are, sound is equally as important. The score, already beginning in the film’s studio logo, is so mournful. There is something very beautiful in how it comes in right before the Universal logo; we only see space, and briefly, the earth.

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Chaplin to Francis Wyndham: “Between you and me and the gatepost, it’s a very sad story. This man who leaves his icicle of a wife for a girl who’s a whore. I think the end, where they’re dancing, is tragic. Perhaps his love for her is just a passing thing, happens to us all.”

And indeed the mournful tune of the opening doesn’t appear at all throughout the rest of the film, until its final moments. This has happened before, in City Lights. Chaplin’s smile bursts forth glowingly, but the music plays as though a requiem.

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Note that the final moments of Countess are of people dancing. Throughout the film we see dances begun:

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Dances longed for:

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Dances interrupted:

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And dances lost:

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The film itself begins in a dance hall, a sailor who “has a ticket to dance.”

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Just like the Little Tramp:

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One of the most striking things about this opening sequence is the use of dialogue, which will reverberate throughout the film. When the sailor says “I got a ticket to dance!” it is infused with a great innocence, a great honesty. This will return later, first appearing in the “blandness” of the dialogues between Brando and Sydney Chaplin early on in the film. The things they say are bland not because the story is bland, but because they are bland people. Chaplin does not have to explain what kind of people they are; it is rather through the tone in their voice, the way a line is read. And of course, gestures. It reminds me of another late masterpiece, John Ford’s 7 Women, as well as the films of the Straubs. Here, it may represent Chaplin’s own contempt for contemporary society. But then look at when the “countesses” are introduced!

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Suddenly elegance replaces banality, and indeed much of the film will watch Brando struggle to rise above his banality and return to his instincts.

Chaplin idolizes his countesses in the early sequence. Even though the nameless sailor and the girl are the only people having a conversation, Chaplin treats us to three more close-ups of these women, because he loves them.

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And of course, they dance:

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It doesn’t take a Chaplin aficionado to recognize that dancing is perhaps the key to Chaplin’s cinema.

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Even if the countesses are glorious, they are rife with the pessimism of Chaplin’s Verdoux. “Money makes me romantic,” says one. They are almost lifeless, except for Loren’s Natascha.

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A second Tramp.

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She even says things that could have come out of the mouth of the little Tramp. “We must all face the world sooner or later, some of us sooner”; “Escape from despair, hopelessness, no future. Nothing to look forward to but dance halls and prostitution. I am determined not to slowly die and rot.” At the same time, she continues the trend of lost, dejected women in Chaplin’s films: the Mother in The Kid, Marie from A Woman of Paris, Georgia in The Gold Rush, The Blind Girl from City Lights, the Gamine in Modern Times, the nameless prostitute from Monsieur Verdoux, and Terry from Limelight.

Meanwhile Brando’s Ogden gives us lines like, “If I succumb to any sympathy, I’d have the whole world breathing down my neck.” Much of the things Ogden says to Natascha early on in the film are rife with cruelty. At first he says “You’ll have to leave these premises immediately,” as if a robotic security guard, before burping and undercutting his own supposed authority. His menace becomes much more apparent when he actually does ring the purser and heartlessly says, “Now go ahead and scream.”

Thus, Natascha becomes her alter-ego.

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Natascha exists in a world dominated by cynicism.  When we meet Ogden’s wife, she and her husband exchange:

“Unfortunately, Ogden, the only interest I have is money, having had no children.”

“Am I to blame for that?”

“No, neither one of us is to blame.  The desire for happiness fooled us both.”

“Happiness, huh.”

“I was going to say love!  But I don’t think either one of us knows what the word means.”

Look at their positions as they say the last two lines.

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Brando practically mumbles his line to the point of near incoherence.  It’s one of the saddest moments in movies.

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Hedren pulls a cigarette, resigned to her fate.

In the moments prior to this, sound has dominated this movie. The buzzer of the room where most of this movie occurs takes on a kind of omniscient tone, forcing Ogden out of upholding his established beliefs, and back to ground zero.

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A diplomat, a lawyer and a prostitute.

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The buzzer goes off, chaos ensues, and for a brief moment they are just human beings running on base impulses.

Natascha even tells Ogden early on, explaining why she stayed aboard the ship, “I didn’t think, it was an impulse.”

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Moments before Ogden is forced to live by impulse as well:

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Ogden is constantly breaking down, moving from “distinguished figure,” to comic one.

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He’s reduced to chasing Natasha around the room yelling “Take off those pajamas!”

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Moments before a press conference:

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Where he is inexplicably forced to confront his own hypocrisy.

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In his conferences and speeches, he is constantly talking of “solutions of world peace,” and when we first see Ogden, he is repeating these sentiments, but he’s posing, rehearsing himself monotonously, like a robot.

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“Every statesman, every minister, every diplomat should dedicate himself to the cause of world peace.” Whatever that means.

But just because Ogden lives in a moral void doesn’t mean he’s fated to it. He is looking for happiness too. He learns to live with his impulses, and Chaplin, in his first and only color film, turns the screen red.

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Note his line to Sydney Chaplin right before he walks into this frame: “See you in the morning.”

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Natascha turns her head from the window to Ogden, in awe.

Of course Ogden asks: “Can I have this dance?”

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It’s hard to put into words the sheer romantic energy of this movie. It’s not quite sensual, closer to idealism:

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The morning after they sleep together they are like two different, reborn people.

“Don’t be sad. That’s too easy. Be like me. At this moment, I am very happy.”

And the night they sleep together, Chaplin does something very unusual for him, but very remarkable:

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  2 comments for “A Countess From Hong Kong (1967)

  1. //
    March 19, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    !!!

  2. March 22, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you for your insightful analysis. I picked up this film at Big Lots a few years back and have adored it every since. I would like to add that the scene of Margaret Rutherford sick in bed is among my favorite comedy scenes.

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