School for Scoundrels (1960)

The original 1960 film, based on the the Stephen Potter novels, and directed by Robert Hamer. It’s quite good. Alastair Sim is terrific. And he has the fuzziest ears in all of movie history. This is the story, which is not exactly like that of the Todd Phillips remake, which came out a few years ago: Henry Palfrey (played by the late Ian Carmichael, of I’m All right Jack and Lucky Jim fame) is the head of a small firm (very small, not very firm). He is a nitwit and everyone knows it but him–that is until Raymond Delauney, with whom he occasionally plays tennis, makes him all-too-aware of this fact. But the film doesn’t begin here, it begins a little later then jumps backwards.

Henry Palfrey arrives at the Lifemanship College in the hopes of earning a degree in, well, lifemanship. According to the founder and headmaster of the Lifemanship College, Mr. Potter (Sim), lifemanship is basically the practice of one-upsmanship. It’s a very simple and very cynical theory: if you’re not one-up on somebody, you’re one-down. Palfrey arrives a bit late in the lesson, so he introduces himself to Potter later on, in the headmaster’s office. I think Palfrey says his name but it is mistakenly heard by Potter as “Paltry” which is apt if not accurate. Paltry, I mean Palfrey, tells Potter his reason for wanting to enroll in Lifemanship College, and here is where we flashback a few days.

What follows is a series of wonderful scenes in which Palfrey is subject to just about every kind of one-upsmanship–mainly from Raymond (played by Terry-Thomas) but also from two auto dealers (the hilarious Dunstan and Dudley, played by Dennis Price and Peter Jones), who manage to convince Palfrey to drop a shit-load of money on what I can only describe as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s older, retarded brother. Palfrey buys the car because the girl of his dreams (April Smith, played by the adorable Janette Scott), whom he bumped into getting on a bus, is clearly impressed by Raymond’s Italian sports car. A deeper layer of meaning can be found here: Palfrey is quite reasonable in his justification for not owning a car. The bus system and underground are quite sufficient. April is, disappointed yes, but nevertheless persuaded by Palfrey’s logic. Ah, yes Palfrey is very sensible. Very British. And that’s the problem. Raymond has an unmistakable and unmatchable European flair (he drives an Italian car, knows his French wine). He’s one-up on Palfrey.

The last straw is a hilarious tennis match during which Lafrey fails to impress April both with his retarded Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and his tennis skills–which aren’t bad, it’s just that Raymond is (once again) one-up on him.

So now we’re back in present time at Lifemanship College. At the beginning of the film, we were treated to some funny but all-too-brief moments with the other pupils. Now, we’re pretty much alone with Palfrey. I wish they would have shown more of the other students. The great Monty Landis! I wanted more of his wonderful Fleetsnod! I couldn’t take my eyes off him. There’s one student who picks his nose–quite a cheap and not-so-effective way of catching our attention. But Fleetsnod’s ticks and chirps are so endearing. I want to see the film about his graduation from Lifemanship College (though one suspects he’s a lifer–the very sort of student that keeps Potter’s school afloat).

Great ending, too. After Palfrey graduates, we basically re-enact the entire middle part of the film, this time with Palfrey with the upper hand. April’s affections swing back to Palfrey. Meanwhile, Raymond is onto Palfrey and this lifemanship lessons. He confront’s Potter, accusing him of trickery. “No, no, no, not tricks my good man,” says Potter. “Art, science, philosophy if you like…no, no, no, not tricks.”

There’s a nice, though somewhat expected (and necessary) twist to these concluding events, and I won’t go into them. I will say I love Potter’s insincere distaste for sincerity.

I feel I’ve learned a good deal about British comedy. Monty Python is full of one-upsmanship sketches.

I watched this film only a few days after watching Hitchcock’s I Confess, which takes place in the very French and very Catholic Quebec province. I couldn’t help notice that this film begins like I Confess, but inversely (for those of you unfamiliar with this film, what follows will not make any sense. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s an obscure Hitchcock, but very good). Both Hitchcock’s film and Hamer’s film open with streets signs pointing, repeatedly, in the same direction. In the Hitchcock film, the sign says “Direction.” In the Hamer film, the sign is a human hand, pointing with the index finger. Another, and I think telling difference: the English signs point to the left whereas the French-Canadian signs point to the right. Interesting, too, that the train in School for Scoundrels arrives left screen to right, whereas the train in the Arrival of Train at the Station (photographed by the French Lumière brothers, the founders of cinema) moves right to left. Is this English film meant to be a rejoinder to Hitchcock’s French-Canadian film? To French cinema? Or France in general? At first I was hesitant to pursue this line of thought but then I was rewarded: the last finger-pointing sign in School for Scoundrels is a two-fingered salute, the English insult to the French after the Battle of Agincourt.

And in 1960, when School for Scoundrels was made, was there no match for French cinema? One-upsmanship indeed. Raymond orders a wine from the Loire valley, even though Palfrey had already made a recommendation–the #93 (an English wine, no doubt).

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