Ten years after Stanley Kubrick released his problematic version of Lolita (1962), another iffy adaptation of a sexy Vladimir Nabokov novel reached the screen, albeit with a much less impressive pedigree. In King, Queen, Knave, David Niven costars with fading sexpot Gina Lollobrigida and minor British actor John Moulder-Brown, while Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski calls the shots. These folks tell an unappealing story about adultery, deceit, greed, lust, and murder. There are even allusions to incest and patricide. The kicker is that King, Queen, Knave is a comedy—or at least it tries to be one. Although Niven lends his signature pithiness, the storytelling never finds the right balance between dark and light elements. At its least surefooted, the picture feels more like a thriller than a comedy, especially during a climactic scene that recalls Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), which, not coincidentally, was cowritten by Skolimowski.
Charles Dryer (Niven) is a super-wealthy European businessman married to icy beauty Martha (Lollobrigida). They agree to look after Frank (Moulder-Brown), the only son of Charles’ recently deceased brother. The college-aged Frank is a nervous, stuttering klutz who can’t see without his glasses, and the minute he gets an eyeful of Martha, he’s overcome with lust. (To ensure we understand this, Skolimowski includes a tacky scene of Frank masturbating to a picture of Martha.) Sensing an opportunity, Martha seduces Frank, then tries to persuade him to kill Charles so they can share his fortune. Complications of the least interesting sort ensue, not least of which is a bizarre running gag involving Professor Ritter (Mario Adorf), whose pet project involves fabricating artificial skin that feels like real human flesh.
None of the three main characters is remotely sympathetic, because Charles cheats on his wife with random bimbos, Frank betrays his uncle’s trust, and Martha is a would-be murderess. Whatever satirical edge the material may have possessed in its original form did not make it to the screen. Skolimowski renders some imaginative camerawork, such as crane shots tracking characters’ progress up flights of stairs, though just as often, his overzealous angles feel amateurish; the less said about the undercranked fisheye-lens shots during sex scenes, the better. While still quite alluring (she was in her mid-forties at the time of filming), Lollobridgida gives a trite performance, all petulance and teasing, and Moulder-Brown is annoying, his blithering-idiot routine growing tired within seconds of his entrance. So it falls to Niven, ever the smooth professional, to put this thing over. Whenever he’s onscreen, the picture is bearable.
King, Queen, Knave: FUNKY