Over the course of his career, Peter O'Toole has specialized in larger-than-life characters, magnetic icons who can inspire intense devotion solely through the force of charisma. O'Toole puts this skill to good use in films like Lawrence Of Arabia, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, and 1972's The Ruling Class, which gave him three juicy roles in one. Adapted by Peter Barnes from his play, the film casts O'Toole as the 14th Earl Of Gurney, a sweetly deluded paranoid schizophrenic convinced he's Jesus Christ. Released from a mental hospital following his father's suicide, O'Toole inherits his father's lofty title. This troubles his parasitic family and social circle, even Bishop Alastair Sim, who, like O'Toole's family, is far more comfortable with religious dogma than with Christ's ideals and values. Desperate for a new, more stable heir, O'Toole's family attempts to both marry him off and cure him, which backfires when he ceases to think he's Jesus and begins to view himself as Jack The Ripper. The central joke of Class is that Jack The Ripper can navigate the corridors of power far more smoothly than a beatific Christ figure, and it's a tribute to Barnes' script that Class never becomes a one-joke movie, even over the course of 154 minutes. At once a visionary work of provocation and a throwback to an era of stagy, acidic farces populated by sharp-tongued butlers and scheming women, Class uses its theatrical conventions as the platform for an attack on social inequity informed equally by the witty bon mots of Oscar Wilde and the transgressive satire of Terry Southern. Deftly blending broad humor, low comedy, social commentary, surrealism, suspense, and even musical numbers, The Ruling Class' attack on bourgeois propriety recalls similarly ambitious satires of the period, such as If…, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Catch-22, and Harold And Maude. Criterion's DVD restores the film to its original length (the original VHS version runs 141 minutes) and features an entertaining commentary track by the film's three Peters (star O'Toole, director Medak, and screenwriter Barnes), who discuss the film's political content, unconventional tone, and structure with palpable affection. Like most films of its scope and size, The Ruling Class occasionally errs on the side of ambition, but it remains a corrosive attack on social stratification as well as a terrific showcase for O'Toole (who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) and an excellent supporting cast.

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