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GREATEST MOVIES (non-lesbian) #9: Top Secret! (1984)

By alicebg, Jul 8 2012 08:41AM

For some reason, comedies are rarely mentioned in discussions of all-time great movies. I have ruminated on the essentially disposable aspects of comedy elsewhere on this blog, but funny films tend to have more staying power than any other media. Even so, in 1964 the Academy famously shied away from voting Dr Strangelove as Best Film, instead opting for the safer - and much less funny - My Fair Lady (just one of myriad lapses in judgement the Academy has been guilty of).

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team are, of course, film comedy giants, right from the days of Kentucky Fried Movie, through their perceived masterpiece Airplane and on to such productions as Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun. But if the definition of a 'great' comedy is based solely on the sheer number of laughs packed into it, then Top Secret! stands as their masterwork.

Attempting to summarise the plot of Top Secret! is rather a futile task, as it doesn't really have one. Val Kilmer, in what is by far his most charming role, stars as rock idol Nick Rivers who, whilst engaged on a 'cultural exchange' to East Germany (here completely indistinguishable from Nazi Germany), becomes embroiled in a bizarre conspiracy involving a damsel in distress, a kidnapped scientist, a bunch of hapless French freedom fighters, Peter Cushing & Omar Sharif gleefully making complete fools of themselves, and a cow in wellington boots.

Top Secret! contains roughly one million throwaway sight gags, and it takes repeated viewings of the film to get them all (I was on my seventh run before I noticed the little old lady dotted in among the teen beach revellers during the 'Skeet Surfing' sequence). Some of the gags are so surreal they go beyond Pythonesque into the realms of Dada (cf. a man catching a tree, and a giant statue of a pigeon that is fouled in hilariously appropriate fashion).

As a much younger person I went to see Top Secret! (which was promoted simply as "A Film") at the cinema with my best friend, and it is one of the few times I have felt genuinely ill with laughter. Both of us finished up literally doubled over on the floor of the theatre, gasping for breath, our stomachs aching and our eyes full of tears as absurdity piled upon absurdity until we could barely take any more.

Top Secret! is pacy, relentlessly inventive, visually stunning and perfectly acted all round. These elements alone would make it a great movie, but the fact that it's also the funniest thing ever puts it firmly in the 'all-time' bracket.

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