L’HOMME MYSTERIEUX, AKA OBSESSION (1933) is the work of Maurice Tourneur, which is reason enough to watch it. Father of the these-days-more-famous Jacques, Maurice was acclaimed in the ’20s as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Which he was.
In this intense 40-minute short, cash-strapped Charles Vanel arranges for his paranoid brother (Jean Yonnel) to be released from psychiatric hospital in order to save on bills, despite good evidence that Yonnel is still plagued by a persecution complex and the idee fixe that his wife (Louise LaGrange) has been unfaithful. A flashback establishes Yonnel’s homicidal tendencies, and his wife’s justifiable fear that her safety is being compromised for the sake of those around her (skinny brother-in-law and mother, little son who misses dad).
The young Vanel (right) before he got to look like one of the decaying sculptures in JULES ET JIM. Here he has a sort of Robert Armstrong/Pat O’Brien vibe.
The movie’s not perfect — tracking shots are wobbly, artistic devices like the long lap-dissolves into flashback don’t completely work, and the digitally restored soundtrack has camera noise and creaky dolly wheels all over it, suggesting that the film must have been quickly and cheaply made, without the care that would have been lavished on a feature. But the film is nevertheless restrained, elegant, sensitive and compassionate, which counts for a lot.
One of the pleasures in the work of Tourneur pere is seeing his similarities to his son. Like Jacques, Maurice prefers his menace delivered in whispers rather than screams, and would rather throw a shadow on the wall that depict an act of violence straight-forwardly: you can compared this image with similar shadowplay in J.T.’s CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST, for instance.
In examining a real social problem, OBSESSION rather stacks the cards: none of the parties who conspire to get Yonnel released are really concerned about his own well-being or that of society, they’re all either selfish or simply stupid. The bureaucrat who overrules the psychiatrist’s concerns does have some good points, but we’re not meant to give them much weight: Yonnel hasn’t been convicted of any crime, and shouldn’t be locked up on the basis of a doctor’s opinion, when there’s no proof against him. The same arguments are heard today, when British politicians have seemed to favour the idea of imprisoning people with incurable personality disorders, before they’ve actually committed any crimes. It’s a very dangerous practice.
Yonnel returns home and quickly starts exhibiting signs of his old paranoia — indeed, as soon as everybody’s abed, he starts creeping up on his missus with his hands outstretched in strangulation mode. The arrival of his little son distracts him, and what follows is a creepy parental scene highly reminiscent of THE SHINING. But while Jack Nicholson was on a downhill slalom into demented manslaughter, Yonnel is bound for redemption — called back to self-awareness by his son’s love, he calls the asylum and urges them to get him at once. While Nicholson said “I’d like to stay here forever…’n’ ever…ever…” Yonnel concludes, “I’ll never hurt anyone again. Never… Never… Never…” as we fade to black.
That single repeated word recalls King Lear, and what may be the simplest but most affecting iambic pentameter Shakespeare ever penned ~
“Never, never, never, never, never.”
Happy ending: M. Tourneur married Louise LaGrange, his star, after the shoot.
Unhappy ending: producer Bernard Natan, who signed this film, was jailed for fraud, imprisoned by the French, and then murdered by the Nazis. He is often cited today as a pornographer, based on a single offense in his youth, rather than as the innovative and shrewd producer he truly was. His story will be told in NATAN, a film I’m working on with Paul Duane.