"Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" is a savory light entertainment, a culinary comedy-murder mystery that opens with an elegant place setting of a title sequence and manages to sustain a fairly elegant confectionary charm.
The film, opening today at several area theaters, is far from foolproof, but it puts the current competition in the same genre - "Death on the Nile" and "Somebody Killed Her Husband" - to shame.
"Chefs" demonstrates how a film can survive on the strength of amusing secondary characters - notably Robert Morley in a towering caricature of gourmet snobbery - and decorative attractions, principally gorgeously photographed meals and surroundings.
Jacqueline Bisset cast as a famous, ravishing dessert chef, and George Segal, cast as her crass ex-husband, the owner of a fast-food empire, are the weak links. Their romantic comedy relationship, theoretically the heart of the story, never rises above a facetious pain.
It appears that Bisset may be a little too passive and well-bred to get in the spirit of a playful who dunit. Beautiful a she is, he lacks the humorous animation of actresses like Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Diane Keaton. If there's a comedienne locked up inside Bisset, a movie like this ought to liberate her. A wardrobe evidently calculated to conceal her figure beneath funny fur coats doesn't help. Bisset often look sunder wraps in an all too literal sense.
Segal is introduced in a miserably conceived and executed scene where he supposedly spooks the clientele at a vegetarian restaurant in London by posing as a loudmouthed Texan and announcing that he plans to open a steak and hamburger emporium next door. The role is topheavy with smugness from the outset, but Segal makes it worse by coming on smirky. Indeed, the smirkiness is so unrelenting that you wish someone would smack him one.
Bisset arrives in London to participate in a culinary gala at Buckingham Palace masterminded by Morley, who publishes a gourment magazine and craves a knighthood. On the eve of this triumph, Morley is informed by his doctor that years of gastronomical over-indulgence have brought him to the brink of death. The doctor advises his patient to diet immediately or face the consequences. Morley, who lives by the motto "I can resist everything but the very best." responds with withering sarcasm but then begins dieting discreetly, overseen by his long-suffering secretary, played by Madge Ryan.
Meanwhile, death stalks the kitchen. Following the feast at Buckingham Palace, Bisset spends the night with a French colleague. Jean Pierre Cassel, whose specialty, pigeonneaux en croute had been the entree. The next morning she awakes to find him roasting in one of his ovens.
When Bisset goes to Venice to get away from it all and interview a noted seafood chef, played by Stefano Satta Flores on behalf of Morley's publication, the killer strikes again. Bisset discovers her Italian colleague drowned in an acquarium.
There are two possible suspects: Segal, who has a proprietary interest in Bisset, and Jean Rochefort as a French chef who resented Cassel's superior place in Morley's esteem. Eventually, it occurs to hr that the publisher's taste might be the murder's inspiration, since the first two victims had been praised in a magazine feature about "the world's greatest meal."
There were four courses to the meal judged supreme by Morley. The third course was a pressed duck created by a French chef, suavely portrayed by Philippe Noiret. The final course was Bisset's own monumental desset Le Bombe Richelieu , an mountain of ice cream covered by fresh raspberries and layers of raspberry sauce, whipped cream and chocolate, with a spun sugar crown on top. Can the killer be identified and apprehended before he finishes his apparent plan to spoil Morley's greatest meal?
It's been several years since Morley has been able to indulge himself in a part as richly amusing as the gourmet, called Max Vanderveere. Physically and temperamentally, he is the perfect actor to endow Max's promposity, sarcasm and self-pity with irresistible comic authority.
No one else could bring quite as much insolent self-satisfaction to lines like Max's friendly greeting to the fast-food king - "How many smiling, unsuspecting children have you poisoned this week? - or his disdainful reply to his doctor's statement "I'm concerned about your health" - "That's why I came to you rather than my florist."
The spectacle of Morley surrounded by dozens of gourmet dishes and conking out to rest his head in a bed of whipped cream will surely remain with moviegoers for the rest of their lives. Morley's performance could emerge as a favorite for the next Academy Award in the supporting actor category.
The film's source is a witty, breezy, excessively kinked-up novel called "Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe." by Nan and Ivan Lyons. The slight alteration in the title of the movie version was evidently made to avoid confusion with "Somebody Killed Her Husband."
Screenwriter Peter Stone hasn't succeeded in ironing out all the kinks or upgrading the romance, but the script recalls some of the zest of his collaborations with Stanley Donen on Charade and "Arabesque." Stone also has imporved the mystery story by coming up with a fresh murderer, an innovation that should disarm people who read the novel.
Based on his last credit, "Fun With Dick and Jane." Ted Kotcheff loomed as a worrisome choice as director, but his comedy technique appears to have improved enormously. The collaboration of an exceptional cinematographer, John Alcott, probably accounts for some of the improvement.
Alcott, who photographed "Clockwork Orange" and "Barry Lyndon" for Stanley Kubrick, lights beautifully. It's not only the food that looks marvelous in "Chefs." The interiors of apartments and restaurants and the scenic excursions around London, Venice and Paris are also pictorically resplendent.
Paul Bocuse supervised the cooking, and stopovers at a dozen or so famous restaurants contribute to the movie's vicarious pleasures.When "Bobby Deerfield" came out, it looked as if Columbia was missing a bet by not promoting a European tour based on the locations used in the movie. Warners might think of getting together with some travel agency for a "Chefs" itinerary, since one certainly comes out of the movie persuaded that there's a lot to be said for eating and traveling in style.
Moviegoers with culinary talent may feel inspired to recreate Max Vanderveere's greatest meal. The recipes were included in the novel. It would have been a nice touch to append them to the closing credits of the film.