He directed 36 films, and acted in a whopping 156. He was one of the pioneers of the Italian neo-realism movement, and gave us such timeless classics as Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and his masterpiece, Umberto D. Yet in 1966 he delivered a messy, bloated, but occasionally funny screwball comedy with an interesting cast -- exactly the type that Filmbrain has of late been mysteriously drawn to.
After the Fox, which stars Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and Victor Mature (from a play by Neil Simon), sounds good enough on paper -- Master criminal Aldo Venucci (Sellers) escapes from prison to help retrieve a huge shipment of gold stolen from Cairo, set to arrive in a tiny fishing village. He disguises himself as a famous director (Frederico Fabrizi) and convinces the village that this is all part of a film he's directing. Victor Mature plays Tony Powell, the narcissistic but aging Hollywood star that gets suckered into appearing into Fabrizi's mock film. Things only really take off when Mature enters the film, and unfortunately that is nearly an hour into it.
De Sica's direction is quite sloppy here -- at times it seems as improvised as the fake film that Fabrizi is making with the villagers. Though Sellers does a wonderful job with the Italian accent and mannerisms, he looks (and acts) as if he had little interest in the project (as was alluded to in the recent The Life and Death of Peter Sellers). Sellers is to blame for Britt Ekland's involvement in the film (they were married at the time), and though she is lovely to look at, even her Scandinavian pout can't rescue her from an abysmal performance. Victor Mature is the real highlight of the film, and whoever it was that coaxed him out of retirement to play a caricature of himself deserves a great deal of credit. He actually outshines Sellers, something few actors could ever do.
The funniest moments are when De Sica is poking fun at the film industry -- including a cameo by himself (as himself) directing John Huston as Moses. There are digs at the "art" cinema of the day (Fellini, Bergman), as well as the film critics that championed them, but playfully so. (The amateurish footage shot by Fabrizi is praised by Italy's leading film critic as "the most important Italian film in 40 years!") Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, and too much of the film is bogged down in unfunny set pieces that are desperate for a laugh. Still, with a swinging soundtrack by the inimitable Burt Bacharach, some nice supporting roles (including a permanently stressed out Martin Balsam), and a catchy theme song by The Hollies, After the Fox is a step above the countless other mid-60s bloated comedies. Rent it for Mature alone, whose performance is truly something to behold.