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?)

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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21 Responses to “The Male Secretaries”

  1. ——–
    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?)
    ——–
    A Zen plan.

    I haven’t seen MAGNET OF DOOM, but from your description it reminds me of another road movie based on Simenon, Cédric Kahn’s very interesting FEUX ROUGES. The original setting was the US, but the director transplanted it to France.
    I wonder what the attraction of the road movie is? Perhaps something to do with the sense of enforced intimacy.

  2. Slightly tangentally to the subject of Male Secretaries, but just saw the Friedkin remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR; SORCEROR….which against all the odds is kind of brilliant and almost unbearably seedy. I wonder which film is closest to the original novel. I suspect SORCEROR.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I’ve never seen L’AINE DES FERCHAUX. Almost all scholars see it as a low-point for J-P Melville.

    Belmondo may have a face for a pugilist but his strong force also made him a perfect coup for LEON MORIN, PRETRE, Melville’s weird story about a priest converting an atheist bisexual communist played by Emmaneulle Riva during the Occupation. The idea is that the priest is too sexy to reject and in this film, the priest knows it. That’s one of Melville’s strongest films for me. As is LE DOULOS, the first time they worked together although there Belmondo seems to be type cast.

    Digressing slightly from topic, I just saw STAVISKY… for the first time day-before-yesterday and I’ve been thinking of Belmondo all the last two days.

  4. L’Aine des Ferchaux played the very first New York Film Festival.
    It’s decidedly minor Melville, much like Deux Homme a Manhattan in that respect. Melville’s adoration of all things American was best invoked at a distance. The closer he got to the object of his affection the less sure his touch. Odd too in that this is a Simenon adaptation, with very little sense of Simenon to it.

    “Enjoy” is the right world as male homoerotic masochism is key to Melville. At its most elegant there’s Bob le Flambeur in which the older man happily gives the younger one a girl he could have had — just so he can suffer a bit over it.

    My favorite male secretary is of course Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise.

  5. I remember this one from a viewing maybe 20 years ago–mostly I remember laughing with Benchley (this is not uncommon for me)–doesn’t he play golf in his office or something?

    MacMurray and Russell do make a good pair though, don’t they?

    and I’m always pleased to read praise for Hands Across the Table–I think it’s one of the genuinely great rom coms of the 1930s.

  6. Yes, Benchley plays all kinds of games throughout the film, never ever doing any work.

    MacMurray goes great with anyone — actresses loved him because he doesn’t try to steal the show, he just reflects them in all their glory. Ros makes a very good match, but so of course did Stanwyck and Lombard, several times, even Dietrich and Colbert in some lesser Leisens.

    I think this Melville may benefit from reassessment (and a decent print). It’s flawed but fascinating, a lot better than Two Men, I think. It’s true that America reflected through France works beautifully for J-PM in many of his thrillers, and also true that his evocation of it here is not exactly convincing — but convincing isn’t everything. In fact, the cardboard nature of his America is part of what fascinated me.

    Enforced proximity + movement + scope seems like a winning formula for cinematic drama, so I guess the road movie was an inevitable development. The problem here may be the aimless nature of the journey, and then the fact that they just STOP.

  7. Stavisky is truly sometig, Arthur. It’s the role Belmondo was born to play, Charles Boyer gehts a superb career-capping curtain call as The Baron, and the Sondheim score is one of the very greatest ever written for a motion picutre.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Belmondo apparently made the film possible since he told Jorge Semprun that he wanted to play Stavisky in a film and Semprun who worked with Resnais got him on board and Resnais brought on Boyer and Sondheim. Like a chain reaction creating a new matter.

    The entire style of the film, the glamour, the costumes are really seductive. The other thing that I found striking is that while the film is classical to an extent in it’s use of costumes, period decor, when I saw the film I didn’t feel it was a period film. I felt the story was taking place in the present tense. It’s different from The Conformist which goes for a Neo-Modernist style, here it’s trying to recapture the 30s style(Lubitsch whose TROUBLE IN PARADISE seems a reference point and of course Renoir) as if the film-makers went back in time with their colour stock and cast and crew and made it then. It probably comes from the editing. CHINATOWN made the same year also gives the same effect.

    It’s kind of ironic how this film is obscure when it’s so entertaining and funny, though also deep and enigmatic. Probably because Resnais is supposedly “intellectual” and not known for hip supercool films.

    The film also reminded me of GOODFELLAS and CASINO oddly enough. It deals with stylish criminals as well.

  9. At the time of its release it was compared to the Big Expensive remake of The Great Gatsy with Robert Redford. The critics agreed that Stavisky was the REAl Gatsby. Redford’s a marvelous leading man but the character of Gatsby is a thug who aspries to Redford’s (very obviously non-thug) level and manages to pull it off through style. That’s Belmondo all over.

    Also featured in Stavisky is a brief turn by Depardieu, just on the way up the stardom ladder at the time. One generation salutes another as it were.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Depardieu’s cameo was hilarious. It’s actually three generations. Boyer who shot to stardom around the same time Stavisky was in action(which must have been interesting, appearing in a period film where the period and milieu was one you lived through), then Belmondo and this cameo by Depardieu. Anny Duperey who is criminally gorgeous is terrific as Arlette.

    There is indeed a lot of Gatsby in Stavisky, expect beau Sacha comes of as genuinely tragic. Like that scene in that cafe where Baron tells him how his enemies are saying he isn’t French and then Stavisky removes his voter’s card and other credentials to challenge that. You do like the guy even if he’s plainly a two-timer.

  11. The world thinks the Baron a fool, but his insistence on the importance of friendship marks him as truly heroic in Rsnains’ eyes. Stavisky may be a scoundrel but he has style, charm and loyalty to this real friend.

    The film marks the beginning of Resnais romance with the 20′s (ie. his youth) resulting in such later masterpieces as Melo and <iPas Sur la Bouche.

  12. The skeletal Depardieu! His face looks like an assemblage of leg-bones. Some of the cutting is pure Resnais, utterly 60s, but it totally works and never seems decorative or superficial. Cutting ahead to the court hearing adds suspense and mystery, but also a kind of nervous energy.

  13. My costume designer is a little wary of fashion designers who do film — she thinks they tend to favour beautiful clothes at the expense of the dramatic verisimilitude. But I pointed out that Resnais is no fool, and by using unbelievably gorgeous, perfect clothes, he aligns the film with the Baron’s romantic view of Stavisky, at least allowing us to see what the seductive appeal was.

  14. Quite true. Yves St. Laurent knew precisely what fashionable women wore in the thirties.

  15. oh yes, everything feels accurate in detail — but at the same time, like a fantasy, since nothing is worn or aged or “broken down” the way movie costume designers are used to doing it.

  16. Well Resnais would argue that was true of Lubitsch’s films and what’s good for Lubitsch is good for Resnais.

  17. Yes, although Lubitsch was capable of showing imperfect things if the project demanded it. But he increasingly preferred the kind of projects that benefitted more from a poetically idealised surface gloss.

    What deepens Stavisky in a different way is that we do learn the consequences of all this loveliness. Loveliness doesn’t have bad consequences in Lubitsch.

  18. On Belmondo – we recently watched Jean Yarbrough’s wretched but hypnotic The Brute Man, where – in certain close-ups – Rondo Hatton seems like Belmondo’s doppelganger, with certain features enhanced by the wide-angle lenses. Shame Belmondo’s too old to do a Hatton biopic.

  19. I want to see some of those Hattons, I’ve only seen him in the Sherlocks.

  20. You really should see The Brute Man – be warned, it’s a painful experience to watch. The story revolves around how the Hatton character used to be a handsome All-American quarterback who was disfigured by a lab accident, so it calls for Hatton to look at his image in a mirror and smash it, that sort of thing. Too close to home really, under the circumstances. But it’s the only real acting role Hatton was ever given – he has dialogue! Lots of it! – though it leaves you feeling a bit depressed and grimy, especially given that Hatton died not long after finishing it from a condition related to his acromegaly.

  21. I’ve seen some other Jean Yarbrough stuff from around this period, maybe later (a Lugosi, I think) and it was indeed painful. Well, I have to see it ’cause it’s in the Gifford book, but I’m a little afraid now.

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