A different hat

“A cop would turn out to be a crook, or a crook would turn out to be a cop… and everyone was wearing a different hat.” Richard Fleischer, describing the concept of film noir in TV documentary The RKO Story, is probably thinking of his own THE NARROW MARGIN, which has one particularly impressive identity switch at its midpoint, but the movie the line applies best to, I now feel, is BLACK JACK (1950), directed by Julien Duvivier.

I seem to have fallen slightly in love with the extra on the right.

Despite being made shortly after JD’s post-war return to Europe from Hollywood (the amazing PANIQUE in 1949, was his first French movie since UNTEL PERE ET FILS) and despite being clearly pitched at the international market with a fairly starry (and very exciting) cast from all points of the compass, the movie is very obscure and almost never discussed.  This may be partly due to some casting problems which hamper the film, but are largely to do with the film’s producers, the infamous Salkinds.

The movie doesn’t appear on their IMDb profile, but their names certainly appear in the credits–although, since the credits, like the film itself, seem to have been chopped around a fair bit (crew names are interpolated with cast names in a very odd manner), it’s possible they had nothing to do with the film’s making and simply acquired it later and pasted their handles on it. But the rumours of a troubled shoot, the post-production vandalism, the Spanish locations all suggest strongly a Salkindian influence (their 1973 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS ended up listed as a Panamanian film for tax purposes: as director Richard Lester noted “The money came from God knows where… and vanished God knows where.”)

Anyhow, George Sanders plays Mike Alexander (amusingly, to me anyhow, the name of a Scottish TV director) a crooked sea captain with a history of arms dealing and people smuggling, tackling a bad case of post-war disillusion by taking it out on the world, planning to dirty his hands with a drugs deal in order to retire and live cleanly.

The role is clearly written as an American, and blatantly programmed for a Humphrey Bogart type. Had the part been scripted French, Gabin would have been ideal. Had he been English, Sanders would have just about passed (although he was really Russian), although there’s something about him that’s not quite suited to heroism (anti-hero Mike will turn hero, somewhat). But for whatever reason, the screenplay (English dialogue by Michael Pertwee, brother of 3rd Dr Who Jon Pertwee, name misspelled Perthwee) insists on his Americanism.

Another American character is played by the tebbly English Herbert Marshall, which exacerbates the strangeness, and also the film’s awkward physicality. The doughy, uncoordinated Sanders (elegant when speaking, lumpen in motion) and the wooden-legged Marshall sometimes seem to be propping each other up. But they’re both lovely actors to spend time in the company of, so it’s not fatal.

Patricia Roc as the heroine deals the real death blow. Blatantly a nice English girl, she’s cast as an East European refugee. She just plays it English, no doubt wisely considering her limited range. The script keeps plunging her into passionate denunciations she can barely hint at. She can suggest the innocence Sanders is drawn to, but she doesn’t make it seem very interesting.

Help is at hand in the form of Agnes Moorehead as a giddy heiress with a couple of identities to spare. For once Agnes gets to wear gowns and plenty of slap: she looks rather terrifying, but is clearly having the time of her life. She picks up the penniless Roc and makes her a kind of lady’s companion, with all kinds of ulterior motives laid down by the script and a few only suggested: couldn’t she rub suntan lotion on her own chest?

Further deviance is supplied by Marcel “Dalio” Dalio, as a Peter Lorre type human trafficker and sleazeball with spray-on stubble. Maybe too craven to really carry a villain’s role, his perf is nevertheless compelling and icky. The stage is set for some fun.

And fun it is! Despite wearing the lead shoes of miscasting, Duvivier roves around spectacular settings with elegant tracking shots and a doom-laden, romantic score by the great Joseph Kosma. His ending is as great as those of the best poetic realist films: Gabin would kill for a death scene like that. And he throws in maybe the best cave scene I’ve ever seen, dollying past decalcomaniac dribbles of stalactite and stalagmite, a forest of stone to match the beautiful wooden variety showcased in his later MARIANNE DE MA JEUNNESSE… those arrested liquid columns, the enveloping tar womb… like the inside of a four-dimensional inkblot.

Did anybody love the traveling shot as much as Duvivier? Others may have tracked farther or faster in their careers, but the enthusiasm behind every camera movement in Duvivier thrills me. He loved the view from a moving car, filling a long sequence of 1927’s LE MYSTERE DE LA TOUR EIFFEL with automotive POVs, which were reprised in LA CHAMBRE ARDENTE and again in the credits of his final movie, DIABOLICALLY YOURS. And the view from a moving car was the last sight he saw on Earth.

27 Responses to “A different hat”

  1. The formidable Agnes Moorehead looks even more terrifying here than she does as a dyed-blonde ‘dancehall’ madam in THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER. Glamour seems to soften her not one iota. It just makes her steely nature glitter more brightly. What a deeply scary woman she was!

    See also her line to Rock Hudson in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION…”I have two ways of taking your temperature, sir. By mouth – or the other way!”

  2. “Did anybody love the traveling shot as much as Duvivier?”

    Ophuls, Welles and Bertolucci.

    Saw a rare screening last night of the Gemran version of Lola Montes — or rather Lola Montez. Everything is the same, save for the fact that everyone speaks German. Ophuls apprently did one French take and one German take. Ustinov of course trails off into French and English at various points as well. An Absolute Masterpiece in either language.

  3. Oh and Anton Walbrook is billed under his original name: Adolf Wohlbruck

  4. It seems that Marcel Ophuls has been suppressing the German version, for why I don’t know. Always get a kick out of seeing Walbrook’s name in either form. Have obtained Maskerade, which displays his light comedy skills to perfection, and hope to write something about that soon.

    Duvivier’s love of lateral tracking is akin to Curtiz’s — I just get the feeling they love seeing the world go by like that.

  5. The German version hasn’t been restored the way the French one has. Visially it’s rather spotty. Perhaps Marcel Ophuls felt it was best to put all the eggs in one basket.

  6. Could be. I can see how he might want the restored version to soak up all the glory, or at least establish its rightful place in the canon, before allowing variants to come under discussion. But he’s apparently down on the extended La Ronde as well, which is less clear to me. I know some people are uncomfortable with the idea of art existing in multiple forms, but as good Wellesians, not to mention Shakespearians, we should embrace that!

  7. Some people prefer the German version of Lola Montes because Walbrook speaks in his native German. That’s Joseph McBride’s position(from his messages at Dave Kehr’s blog). And apparently some people prefer the colours being more muted in the German restoration.

    The thing about the multiple Welles is that many of these versions are made in spite of perfectly decent ones available like the “restored” Othello with the new soundtrack over the one made by Welles(and what promises to be a second fragmentation of ”Chimes at Midnight” by the plotters of that blunder) and of course there’s that version of the footage of Don Quixote made by Jess Franco that nobody likes. Then there’s the truly awful mess at the editing room of Mr. Arkadin. So I am all for setting the record straight in one basket as in the case of The Big Red One reconstruction.

    Other lovers of the travelling shot include Mizoguchi and Altman. I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s film moste maudite – ”Novecento” last Sunday and the beauty and command of the camera movement set my hairs standing on end.

  8. The colors in the German version I saw looked more muddy than muted.

    Walbrook is great in any language.

    I get the impression that Welles neevr really had much of chance to edit Mr. Arkadin. Still it’s the film of his that made the most impact on me when I first saw it back in 1962 (when New Yorker films released it) While obviously cut the individual bits of it dazzled me. It really started me thinking about the importance of camera movement. When I saw Losey’s The Servant the following year that clinched it. For years I was a camera movement junkie.

  9. Bertolucci credits Welles with inspiring his brand of camera movement, where the motivation for movement isn’t too obvious.

    I loved Novocento in both versions last times I saw it. It’s been a while, but I think I’d still dig it. Great ending!

    Othello already existed in more than one cut before the “post-modern restoration,” and all the versions were authentically Wellesian.

    Confess to mixed feelings about The Big Red One — I’m glad they restored it and added all that footage, but I’m furious they kept the VO and the subtitles identifying each country, which were absolutely against Fuller’s wishes. They also decided to exclude certain scenes (thankfully available as extras) based on their own opinion of how effective they were. As I said to Robert Carradine, “Twenty years later, someone STILL thinks they can make The Big Red One better than Sam Fuller.”

  10. I’ve read long ago Altman citing Ophuls as his influence, but then The Player came out and that opening was more Welles than Ophuls. Some of these reedits seem to be done by people who think rather highly of themselves and rather less of the filmmakers who actually made the film.

  11. Christopher Says:

    that looks like a pleasant way to past some time.
    ..help!…George sanders is chasing me thru a cave with a whisky flask!

  12. …oh dear, I’ve accidentally tripped and fallen!

    In interview Altman said the opening of The Player was basically a pisstake of all these Hollywood blockbusters that try to impress critics with long takes. He regarded boasting about how long a shot is as equivalent to dick-measuring, I think. Of course he references Welles during the shot, because that’s the example Hollywood types always look back to.

    Don’t see much of an Ophuls feel to Altman. Maybe more like a soured Renoir.

  13. The Ophuls/Altman connection is rather opaque to me, Altman would lateral track a lot and do slow zooms (at least in his heyday), but I report, you decide. ISTR the interview taking place around 1989 or so, and I believe there was a mention of a project which was recognizable as The Player.

  14. Altman had this drift thing going on with the camera, where it would sort of float past the action… he was encouraged to revive this for Gosford Park. It’s not exactly Ophulsian, but if it was influenced then it’s nice that he took it so far it became unrecognizable.

  15. In ”The Company” his drift use of camera becomes positively hallucinogenic.

    With ”Novecento”, Bertolucci made one 5hour cut for international release, that was what played in Europe to box-office success. For the States release, they asked him to cut it to something shorter like Four Hours and while Bertolucci claims that the shorter version is interesting since he made it only by shortening and trimming scenes rather than cutting stuff out, he prefers the long cut. On the other hand there’s ”The Last Emperor” which has a theatrical release version that’s twenty minutes shorter than 3hrs and a longer version which was always intended for TV release and in that case, the theatrical cut was Bertolucci’s preference(he thinks the longer version is “boring”). The five hour cut was what was released on DVD by MGM and Paramount.

    According to what I’ve read, the voice over and subtitles were in Fuller’s shooting script which was what Schickel used as a guideline. I have actually never read anywhere Fuller complaining about the VO which actually isn’t as informative as people made it out to be. In any case, The Reconstruction was never meant to be a Director’s Cut since he’s dead and that’s how it was promoted. It was like the restoration of Melville’s “Billy Budd” where scholars looked at the material and made the best version that worked as a piece of art. And ”The Big Red One” reconstruction plays like a movie.

    But then it could be worse, like dreaming of a reconstruction of ”Gangs of New York” when some people like me love the theatrical release a great deal.

  16. The VO wasn’t even written by Fuller, it’s by Jim McBride. He asked Fuller’s permission when Lorimar hired him to write it, and Fuller basically gave his blessing because they were going to do what they wanted anyway and it was better that McBride executed it than someone less talented.

    Fuller explicitly said that he didn’t want the audience to know what country they were in, since “We never did.” That might have helped make the palm trees less problematic… although I never cared about that.

    A “reconstruction” still suggests the creation of something which previously existed, not an entirely fresh take. This version is somewhere between the two.

    Still to see The Company, I hear such mixed reports I’m fascinated.

  17. Almost all great Altman films have mixed reports. Can’t think of one that’s universally liked, save maybe A Prairie Home Companion. Even a masterpiece like Nashville divides people because of some silly grudge against it being unspecific about the country-music scene. The Company is genuinely unique among Altman’s, imagine an early 30s backstage musical as refashioned through a cubist perspective and you got it. Malcolm McDowell is incredible as a cheeky impressario and it has a pre-stardom James Franco and Neve Campbell( who studied ballet for real and produced and co-wrote the film).

    It’s strange that Fuller is saying that “they never knew which country they were in” since in the film itself the dialogue emphasizes the specific problems in each theatre the soldiers find themselves in. The film was shot in Israel and parts of it in Ireland and the Sicilian campaign I believe was shot in West Bank featuring some distinctive architecture from Palestine. So I think the titles helped in that regard.

    If Fuller was alive, who knew how things would have been but only with the reconstruction can you get a sense why he felt The Big Red One was his best and how dark and absurd his vision of the war he fought in was. And in any case, I personally am glad it’s there since Fuller isn’t the kind of director who usually got this much attention from major studios unlike David Lean whose original near4hrs cut for Lawrence of Arabia was restored in the late 80s(with his approval).

  18. That’s why I have divided feelings — the “reconstruction” is unquestionably a better representation of Fuller’s intent than the previous cut, and is five times better overall, easily. But in the places where it departs knowingly from his intent, I feel it suffers, and even if the changes improved it, they were specifically not desired by Fuller, so Schickel etc had no moral right to make them.

  19. Vanwall Says:

    Hmm. As un-frenetic a chase as I’ve seen; Sanders somewhat resembles my late grandmother, without her cane, as he “hurries” down the rocks, altho his mellifluous tones clued me in. I like the cave, tho, and the tracking through it should’ve been for another, more epic film, especially to judge by the music, but smugglers come in all shapes: sweaty, halting, and short here – he would’ve fit in well at Jamaica Inn, come to think about it – so I suppose also do caverns and storylines. I vaguely remember Moorehead as a villainess in this one, but I thought Sanders was supposed to be English; that’s what I get for thinking back then.

  20. He’s so very English in manner (despite being Russian) that it would be easier to ignore the script than to believe he’s other than he seems, so I sympathise with you reading him as a Brit.

    Smugglers don’t seem to have been as well served by the movies as pirates, who in turn haven’t been as well served as gangsters.

  21. >Even a masterpiece like Nashville divides people because of some silly grudge against it being unspecific about the country-music scene.

    My silly grudge against it is based on the fact that I don’t think it’s very good. A couple of amazing moments (the women watching Carradine sing, Blakely’s number “Dues” just before her breakdown) but overall it’s a frequently boring hodgepodge of rigged situations, ragged characterizations, and belabored truisms unified by a mealymouthed, pseudo-profound take on the state of America. I mean, yuck. I do have some complaints about the music, too, namely it only has about four listenable songs in a 3-hour musical. (And none of the incredible three-song-in-a-row sung by that exciting chanteuse KAREN BLACK counts among them.)

    “The Company” is a gem, though. And D. Cairns is right about Altman’s attitude towards “The Player”‘s opening shot: “piss-take” says it all.

  22. It’s been quite a few years since I saw Nashville, but… maybe, since he got his actors to compose their own songs, Altman wasn’t looking for the best compositions? I don’t pretend to know what he WAS looking for, but since the film is a pretty dark and unsympathetic look at the America on view, maybe he didn’t want the tunes to offer too much relief? Of course he got one really good Keith Carradine number…

  23. Altman’s actually on record as LIKING as those numbers. I dunno, it’s not the only time I’ve had trouble with his musical taste: that damn flute gets old about halfway through “3 Women,” and even “The Sisters of Mercy” gets overplayed one crucial time in “McCabe”, and “Short Cuts” made me want to swear off jazz clubs forever.

  24. Thanks. As uneven as it was, “Black Jack” did have some interesting moments such as the fishnet scene as well as the cave sequence. Dalio got to play a different kind of sleaszeball in “Action in Arabia” where Sanders plays yet another American.

  25. I’d just seen Dalio as a stool pigeon in Siodmak’s Mollenard. His villains are maybe too craven and weak to make good foils by themselves, but they’re nonetheless entertaining. He’s truly vile in this.

  26. Agreed. Dalio by himself as a villain is too weak, but he adds so much to the films he is in such as the barber in Paris After Dark. My introduction to Siodmak came with The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. Mollenard and Pieges are about the only two non-American films of Siodmak I am familiar with and I have not seen either in some time unfortunately. Perhaps you can tell me, did Sirk’s use of mirrors precede Siodmak’s? Or is this simply standard in noir?

  27. Ooh, somehow I missed this comment. Sorry about that. Siodmak certainly seems to have gotten start on mirrors in the early 30s, probably before Sirk. But it’s true to say the crop up a lot, in Hitchcock and Welles etc. Reflections are almost as important as shadows, it seems.

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