There’s a half-decent satirical notion buried inside the tiresome comedy Once Upon a Scoundrel, and the movie offers a large serving of star Zero Mostel’s signature overbearing charm. For those two reasons, it’s likely that some viewers will find the picture amusing, albeit forgettable. However, the same qualities that might be interpreted as virtues could just as easily be perceived as shortcomings. After all, the satirical notion—an entire community of people pretends that a living man is an unseen ghost, with the goal of driving him nuts—gets stretched way past the point of believability. As for Mostel, let’s just say that a little goes a long way, and Once Upon a Scoundrel has much more than a little of the actor mugging, preening, and screaming. He’s simultaneously entertaining and exhausting, in equal measure. He’s also absurdly miscast as a Mexican. Mostel plays Don Carlos del Refugio, the tyrannical overlord of a poor Mexican village. Don Carlos has the hots for local peasant girl Alicia (Priscilla Garcia), but she’s in love with wide-eyed laborer Luis (A Martinez). Don Carlos pulls a scheme to get Luis thrown in jail, then says he’ll only release Luis if Alicia contents to marriage. Fed up with Don Carlos’ villainy, the locals drug Don Carlos and perform a funeral, making Don Carlos believe he’s died and come back as a specter. In the hands of some screen-comedy master, perhaps Ernest Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, this premise might have led to broad-as-a-barn hilarity. Alas, the team behind Once Upon a Scoundrel has the clumsy approach one normally associates with bad sitcoms, a problem compounded by the presence of a strictly workaday cast. (Snce Mostel sucks up so much oxygen, formidable actors would have been needed to counter the star’s manic energy.) Thus, Once Upon a Scoundrel ends up feeling dull and flat, particularly during long stretches in which the jokes simply don’t connect. And, wow, is the final sequence awful, seeing as how it lends a morbid quality to an otherwise innocuous movie. Holding the disparate parts of Once Upon a Scoundrel together is a robust score by the great Alex North, whose music is the movie’s sole unassailable element.
Once Upon a Scoundrel: FUNKY