One of my recent movie-viewing projects has been to explore the world of 1970s sex comedies. Now that might sound to you like it would be a complete waste of time and kinda weird. But the fact is that when a film genre is universally despised by critics I start to have warm feelings towards that genre. Few genres have ever been subjected to as critical contempt as the 1970s sex comedy. And it’s a genre that is still widely despised and ignored.
You have to ask yourself why. The odd thing is that critics and reviewers who have no problem with movies that depict sex graphically and even crudely despise sex comedies. They obviously have no real objection to sex and nudity. But they like to feel that movies that include sex and nudity also have Artistic Value.
This became a big thing in Australia in the 70s, with the government censors making decisions on whether to ban or cut movies largely on this basis. And the film establishment thoroughly approved of this Artistic Value idea. If they could convince themselves that a movie had a political message or included “social commentary” or said something supposedly profound about the human condition or was in some way artistic then it was OK to show sex and naked women. But movies that showed naked women for the sole reason that audiences like seeing naked women were bad. They were prepared to defend a movie like Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, which depicted actual rather than simulated sex, because it was arty and dark and miserable and took itself oh-so-seriously. Apparently seeing sexual acts and nude women wasn’t harmful to audiences in a movie like that. But movies that were fun and entertaining and included much milder sexual content were reviled as likely to deprave and corrupt public morals.
Sex comedies were despised even more than softcore erotica because they committed the unpardonable sin of treating sex as funny, and sex is no laughing matter.
To be honest critics have never been overly fond of comedy in general, if it’s just pure comedy that has no purpose other than to make us laugh.
The fact is that audiences like movies that make them laugh, they like sex and male movie-goers (all male movie-goers if they’re prepared to be honest about it) like seeing nude women.
As a result sex comedies were enormously popular in the 70s. They kept the British film industry afloat. They kept the Italian film industry alive. To a considerable extent they kept the Japanese film industry going.
Which brings us back to The Nurse. This is a movie that makes no claims to having Artistic Value. It aims for laughs and it’s prepared to do whatever it takes to make the audience laugh.
Leonida Bottacin is a wealthy ageing widower who owns a winery. His family are impatiently waiting for him to die. He has a heart condition so it seems reasonable for them to expect him to die soon but the old boys stubbornly clings to life. The matter is becoming urgent. The family want to sell the winery to rich American businessman Mr Kitch (Jack Palance). There’s a lot of money at stake for the family but old Leonida Bottacin will not sell. If only the old boy would die.
Then Leonida’s nephew Benito comes up with a brilliant plan. Old Leonida likes women. He perhaps likes them too much for a man of his years in his state of health but he can’t and won’t give them up. His most recent heart attack was suffered while having sex with his mistress. What if the family employs a nurse to look after the old chap? A nurse so sexy and so horny that her ministrations will be certain to excite the old man into a fatal heart attack. The family (Leonida’s two nephews and their wives) decides that this is an excellent plan. It’s not exactly murder.
Which brings Anna (Ursula Andress) into the picture. She seems like an ideal choice to play nursemaid to the old fellow. If Ursula Andress can’t excite him enough to give him a heart account nothing will. She probably won’t even have to do very much but if she can be persuaded to prance about naked and start getting affectionate that will help things along. Anna thinks it’s a fine idea.
But still old Leonida won’t die. There are added complications. Various Benito is sleeping with his sister-in-law. His brother the Colonel (an ex-Army man obsessed with military matters) is sleeping with the housemaid Tosca. And Benito’s sixteen-year-old son has fallen madly in love and lust with Nurse Anna.
The basic idea is not exactly startlingly original but it’s executed with verve and wit. There’s plenty of overt sexual humour but overall it’s an interesting blending of obvious sex jokes and more sophisticated biting humour and some black comedy. There’s some cleverness in the script.
There’s very little actual sex but enormous amounts of female frontal nudity with Miss Andress contributing more than her share, which didn’t hurt the movie at the box office.
The sub-plot involving the Colonel’s affair with Tosca is genuinely amusing. The Colonel can only get his artillery piece into action when stimulated by martial music and sounds of battle and gunfire. Tosca doesn’t mind. Anything that will get the Colonel’s cannon firing is a good thing in her book.
Ursula Andress got the part of Anna because producer Carlo Ponti wanted someone with star power and at the time she certainly had that. She proves to be surprisingly adept at comedy and even manages to make Anna more than just a sex bomb. She proved to be perfect casting choice. She really is terrific.
The other players are uniformly impressive, with Mario Pisu as old Lenida, Duilio del Prete as Benito and Carla Romanelli as the likeable but sex-crazed Tosca being especially good.
The Shameless Region 2 DVD (which provides a very good transfer) includes extended interviews with writer-director Nello Rossati and his brother Toni who did the production design and costumes.
This is a movie that is consistently amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s lighthearted but with just a slight edge at times. And it’s very sexy in a good-natured way. There’s lots of harmless unpretentious fun to be had here. Highly recommended.