The Male Secretaries
Rather strangely, I watched two Male Secretary Films the same day, without any plan to do so. (And what kind of strange plan would that be anyway?)
“I’m your… secretary.”
This is actually a colour film, but my copy was faded — severely. I bumped up the colour settings on my old JVC and the results were just about acceptable.
In MAGNET OF DOOM, a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller based on a Georges Simenon novel, ex-pugilist (he’s got the face for it) Jean-Paul Belmondo takes a job as private secretary to a powerful banker Charles Vanel (face like a crumbling cheese, body like a sandwich) who’s planning to go “on the lam” to avoid prosecution for past wrongdoings. The pair head to America, a mythical land composed almost entirely of rear-projection plates and interior sets (although it’s got a bit more scope than Melville’s other Atlantic crossing, TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN, which stays put in Paris and barely tries for any sense of geographical illusion at all).
Vanel, who enjoyed a quasi-sexual infatuation with Yves Montand in THE WAGES OF FEAR for Clouzot (although, is “enjoyed” really the right word for anything anyonedoes in a Clouzot film?), has a suggestion of the same in his relations with Belmondo, his travelling partner whom he increasingly comes to rely upon. And this is unfortunate for him, as it’s obvious from twenty minutes in that Belmondo is not a reliable fellow: something to do with the way he has his girlfriend sell all her possessions, before he scarpers with the money, leaving her in a café unable even to pay her bill.
Melville’s America is, apart from its artificiality, a thing of cliché, stereotype, icon and movie reference, sometimes laid on so thick as to approach total opacity, but always very personal. The road-movie part of the film takes in a good bit of John Ford homage, with Georges Delerue’s score acquiring a languid, elegiac harmonica theme.
I did appreciate this CITIZEN KANE salute, and I bet Vanel enjoyed being part of it.
The ending is also very fine: Melville’s good with those. It’s sentimental and hard-edged at the same time, and pretty ambiguous with it… a kind of poetry is achieved. Sometimes the film seems devoid of direction, but any longeurs are thoroughly redeemed by Belmondo’s fantastic last line. Two quite nasty characters uncover some tender feelings.
In TAKE A LETTER, DARLING, struggling painter Fred MacMurray is hired as personal secretary to icy advertising exec Rosalind Russell, who needs him to pose as her fianceeto make clients’ wives less jealous. This being a Mitchell Leisen comedy, there’s a little racy byplay (Fred threatens to spank a snooty tailor), dreamy talk of Mexico, sexual role-reversal and disguise. It’s somewhere in the middle of his comedy work, quality-wise, not great like HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (although MacMurray smokes pensively at Russell’s door, in a direct echo of the earlier film) but a lot stronger than I WANTED WINGS (which also featured Constance Moore) or PRACTICALLY YOURS.
In fact, the situations are very good, the dialogue sometimes sparkling, and only the ending lets it down. Robert Benchley plays RR’s boss. Oh, MacDonald Carey as a misogynist millionaire who falls for Russell, and Moore as his flighty sister who falls for MacMurray, are not written or played nearly interestingly enough to come close to Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor’s slightly similar roles in THE PALM BEACH STORY.
The ending falls flat too, mainly because Leisen is too smart to go for a smugly conservative a-woman’s-place message, but the narrative conventions virtually demand it, so there’s an impasse. Swiping the ending of Keaton’s ONE WEEK, but copping out of the ruthless destruction, creates some brief comedy suspense, but doesn’t actually answer any of the questions posed in the story.
But a very long take in the back of a cab, with MacMurray nervously playing with a collapsible top hat, and Russell getting annoyed by it, is enough to justify the whole film. Amazing what a good light comedian can convey just by having his hat pop up.