JESSIE BORRELLE files an appreciation of “The Loved One”, possibly the blackest comedy of them all.

ANY FILM that includes a scene with a Nana Mouskouri look-a-like twirling around a marble staircase crying out “I’m the first lady embalmer of Whispering Glades” is worth a few hours of your time. The Loved One, a 1965 film adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh book of the same title, is worth many more. Directed by Tony Richardson (the auteur of the 1970 Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger) this coal black comedy takes aim at the American glamorization of death. The high profile cast (which includes Liberace) delivers exuberant, often bordering on camp performances that convincingly translate Waugh’s irreverent vision onto the silver screen.

Naive British poet Dennis Barlow (played to perfection by Robert Morse) travels to Hollywood and whilst staying with his uncle (John Gielgud), a once-famous painter, is introduced to the fickle nature of Tinseltown. After being unceremoniously dropped by a Hollywood Studio, his uncle commits suicide, and this inadvertently leads Barlow into the setting of the film – funeral home-cum-mausoleum Whispering Glades. Whispering Glades is the stomping ground and business foil of high-roller Mafioso-style ‘The Blessed Reverend’ (Jonathan Winters) whose character is a brilliantly sacrilegious take on showbiz spirituality and counterfeit faith mongers.

Barlow competes with Whispering Glades embalmer Mr. Joyboy, a riotous momma’s boy played by Rod Steiger, for the macabre affections of Aimee (Anajanette Comer), a cosmetician transfixed by the beauty of eternal rest. Working at the ‘Happier Hunting Grounds’, a cheap pet cemetery version of Whispering Glades, Barlow woos Aimee by plagiarizing Victorian poets while Mr. Joyboy employs the malleable facial expressions of corpses (the Loved ones) to present his messages.

The film provides an irreverent investigation into the rituals of death through vulgar scenarios that corrupt the sacred and illuminate its dependency on the profane. The Loved one also satirizes greed, the wealthy and even the trials of courtship all with the backdrop of a neo-classical sculpture garden.

After 116 minutes the expansive, grand camerawork, shot in stark contrast true to the modernist tradition, does take its toll. There are a few incongruous scenes that detract from the many subplots strung together with dark satire and sagacious dialogue – the trademarks of Waugh’s novella and this cult classic.

Richardson’s astute treatment of The Loved One with its themes of morbid decadence and the distasteful obsession with celebrity still ring true. Several observations made in The Loved One so accurately depict aspects of American society today that the film transcends its era, a rare quality that ensures salience for contemporary audiences. Aptly, the film critiques Hollywood’s grotesque extravagance and America’s death styles of the rich and famous with its incisive script, elaborate scenery and dynamic cast.