Rhinoceros (1974)

Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Karen Black, Joe Silver,
Rhinoceros is a movie starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Karen Black. A boozing young man in love with his co-worker finds that everyone around him, even his pompous and condescending best friend, is changing into a rhinoceros.
  • 5.8 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Eugène Ionesco, Julian Barry, Writer:
  • Tom O'Horgan, Director:
  • Ely A. Landau, Producer:

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6 / 10

An absurd film from a "Theatre-Of-The-Absurd" play.

The Theatre-Of-The-Absurd was a style of experimental play-scripting that was practised in the '50s and '60s by playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco. When first devised, the Theatre-Of-The-Absurd movement was rather unpopular because audiences were left bewildered by the intentionally illogical and plot less story lines. A particular rule of absurdist plays is that they have no dramatic conflict, instead dealing with logically impossible situations and having the characters speak about irrational things as if they are perfectly rational. Also, the main character in an absurdist play is usually significantly out of key with everyone and everything around him. Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" is one of the most famous of all the absurd plays. This film version is set in urban America and is a deliberately subversive, surreal experience with strong comic performances. It is not, however, as multi-layered as the original play (which was set in France and had strong political and historical connotations about the Nazi occupation). This presentation of Rhinoceros is mainly a story about conformity and, in particular, those rare few who refuse to conform.

Depressed, bored accountant Stanley (Gene Wilder) spends his week-days crunching numbers and his weekends drinking himself into a haze. His friend John (Zero Mostel) disapproves, but still meets Stanley every Sunday lunchtime to talk to him about the error of his ways. One particular Sunday, their lunch is interrupted when a stampeding rhinoceros charges down the street outside the restaurant. Soon, more and more rhinoceroses are sighted in town and Stanley gradually begins to realise that the entire population is turning into these huge pachyderms. More alarming still is that everyone that Stanley counts on to "remain" human seems to be switching to rhinoceros form too - his work colleagues (Joe Silver, Robert Weil, Percy Rodriguez), his dream girl Daisy (Karen Black), and even his best friend John. Stanley is determined not to conform, but as the human numbers dwindle and the rhinoceros population soars, will he be able to resist?

One of the main problems with this film version of Rhinoceros is that it doesn't use the possibilities of film to "open-up" the constraints of its stage-bound play origins. For instance, during the scene where Mostel's character transforms into a rhinoceros, Wilder keeps commenting on the bump appearing on his forehead and the greyness of his skin, but there's no bump or greyness visible. Here was an opportunity to use the visual advantages that film has over the theatre stage, but it remains an unused opportunity. In fact, at all points the film refuses to become cinematic and constantly has a feel of "filmed theatre" about it. However, in other ways Rhinoceros is quite well done and credit needs to be given where it is due (Maltin rated this film BOMB, which shows how wide of the mark Maltin is prone to be). Wilder and Mostel interact brilliantly, relishing the play's enigmatic and often self-contradictory dialogue. Mostel's transformation sequence - done without make-up or visual effects, as noted earlier - is almost compensated by the sheer outrageous energy that Mostel invests in it. And, by removing the historical and political subtext of the original play, I think they've actually made it more timeless by focusing more on the themes of conformity (after all, don't we all relate to how it feels to spend our lives conforming, losing more and more of the animal-like freedom that was a characteristic of primitive man?) Transforming into a rhinoceros could be viewed as a metaphor for any type of conformity - doing drugs because all your peers do them; being promiscuous because it's the norm; voting for a particular political party because everyone else on your street is in favour of that party; etc.

Not a complete success, then, but definitely a worthwhile and thought-provoking piece of cinema.

9 / 10

You'll get a charge out of it.

Rhinoceros is not the best of American Film Theatre's films, but it does grow on you. When I saw this in the cinema, I had already read Ionesco's play, so I was in a mood to be critical of every change?notably the change of setting.

Over the years, I have come to see that Ionesco can be transmogrified, and that most of the changes work quite well. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder turn in dynamite performances, and the rest of the cast does nicely as well. Karen Black actually has the hardest job, turning her sweet and sexy character into a rhinoceros, but she carries it off gracefully. This is real acting!!

The most objectionable part comes with political references, like a picture of Richard Nixon, or a "Remember Pearl Harbor" lapel button. Not only is all this too heavy-handed, it dates the movie unnecessarily. The music is also quite low-quality 70's kitsch, especially the song "What did you do to yourself?". This song however accompanies a great dream-sequence. I must also say that the theme accompanying the final scenes is quite moving.

Ultimately, Rhinoceros is one of the great dramatic works of the twentieth century, and this movie will be for most people their only chance to see it (now that it can be bought on video). For those who don't know anything about it, it's about a town where the citizens start getting a strange malady that turns them into rhinoceroses. It starts out as a slapstick comedy of manners, but this is Ionesco's way of softening us up so we're more vulnerable to the horrific elements later on. Those of you who enjoyed Dr. Strangelove and Brazil should get a charge out of this.

8 / 10

Not to be forgotten

As with others that commented on this film, I first saw Rhinoceros because it starred Gene Wilder. At the time, in the mid 1970's, Wilder was near the peak of his popularity. The film was a complete surprise to me. Very bizarre, nothing that I expected. Years later, I remember that I was quite disappointed with the movie and wondered just what it was that Wilder was doing. Years later, however, I find that the memory of this film has never left me. The premise of the movie, that of all the towns-people turning into Rhino's, escaped me. Today, I relate this film, in some ways to the novel 1984. I see the resemblance of the Rhino to sheep and/or cattle. This Wilder film is not comical. It is, however, a strangely unsettling satire that is difficult to forget. I, for one, am looking to purchase a copy of this film on DVD. I'm sure that it's meaning will be more apparent to me today than it was when first viewed 40 years ago.

8 / 10

Joining The Herd

The short lived American Film Theater in its few years of existence produced and preserved so many good theatrical works that might never have gotten filmed they deserve the gratitude of all who appreciate the best in plays. One of the best and most interesting preserved work is French playwright Eugene Ionesco's absurdest work, Rhinoceros. It's a very funny work with a strong moral message about individualism.

Ionesco knew a little something about zoology in that he picked of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, the Rhinoceros is the one he chose. Rhinoceros is an animal with a thick hide, a small brain relative to its body, good hearing, great sense of smell, but absolutely limited vision. Their tempers are quick to arouse when they perceive a threat and once charging they're hard creature to stop. It's a good thing they're herbivores, if they were carnivores, they not the lion would be king of the jungle. And they travel in herds, when not in their usual mud habitat, chewing on their cud.

And Rhinos are what people are gradually turning into in this small town which was set in France, but could easily be any small town in the world. They are a great deal more provincial and the chances of finding folks who are individualistic are slimmer. My guess is that Ionesco lived in small towns in his formative years and hated it.

Rhinoceros ran for 240 performances on Broadway in 1961 and starred Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach in the part that Gene Wilder plays in the film. The casting of Wilder was obviously done to exploit the chemistry Mostel and he demonstrated in Mel Brooks's The Producers.

Mostel like in The Producers by dint of his stronger personality tries to get Gene Wilder to change his ways. Wilder is a mousy little man who has a dead end job in a newspaper, can't get to first base with the object of his affection, Karen Black, and likes to drink a little too much more than is good for him.

But while Zero is giving Gene his spiel about straightening out, the first of many Rhinoceros make their appearance outside the café they are lunching at. Gradually one by one the whole cast turns into these creatures, the whole town does except poor Wilder who is left sheepishly alone.

Mostel won a Tony Award for his role in the original Broadway production, but it really is Wilder's film, he definitely has more screen time. Wilder definitely should have gotten more acclaim for what he did in Rhinoceros.

The theater of the absurd is not to everyone's taste, but for those that do appreciate it, this production of Rhinoceros should fill your bill.

10 / 10

A great lost movie! Zero Mostel gives an INCREDIBLE performance!

I have not seen this movie since the mid 70's but back then I watched it at least 20 times when it was shown on cable. Now it appears it is virtually lost, as they were unable to find a print of it for the Ionesco festival in New York this past year. If you are able to catch it on tv, do not miss it. A truly strange and unusual film, involves Gene Wilder as a man who seems all alone in the world as everyone else has started to catch a strange flu, which starts with bumps on there foreheads and then eventually turns them into raving lunatics, and finally into a Rhinocerous. Zero Mostel turns in a great performance as Wilder's friend, who goes beserk inside a building and literaly tears it apart in a rampage. The film goes on to explore whether or not Wilder is the sane one, or the odd man out, as he is the only one who has not conformed. He meets Daisy (Karen Black) who has not yet turned. They do everything they can to keep themselves from turning into what they fear, and the film really turns from comedy into psychological horror at this point. Some strange imagery, and perhaps Gene Wilders only nude scene on film, happen all before the climax. Truly a unique gem from the minds of people who defined the 60's! Tom O'Horgan directed Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, and was involved with experimental projects with Robert Downey Sr. So you can imagine this is something of a rare find! Good luck on tracking it down!