His Third-to-Last Breath

It’s getting to be a tradition — watch a late Curtiz every December. Since Curtiz had such an extraordinarily long career (1912-1961!), he’s entitled to more late films than most people. This one is from 1960 — he would make three more and die in spring ’62.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL is from a play by Ferenc Molnar, frequent source for Lubitsch, Wilder, et al, so it allows Curtiz to visit Vienna, in sorta-kinda his native land (it was capital of Austria-Hungary when he was born in Budapest seventy-three years before).

Aaand the first joke is about senility, as an old geezer hears the Emperor referenced and rises, saluting. “Don’t try to get up,” says his somewhat younger wife, “We’ll only have to put you down again.”

I’ve been trying to locate the point where Curtiz’s films stop moving, become inert, dead things. The first half hour of this is relatively spritely, though there are markedly fewer of those elegant gliding tracking shots. But Sophia Loren, a nimble comedian as we all know, gets some laughs, blasting away with a rifle from the tower to which she’s been exiled for excess sexiness — no moping Rapunzel, she. At one point, the film makes it seem as if she’s shooting at a little girl, which made me chuckle.

Then John Gavin turns up in a jalopy — you expect the film is going to collapse into terminal petrification as he fixes the scenery with his gorgon’s gaze, but NO — even though there’s no Chinese white slavers on hand to shoot him full of curare, which generally brings out the best in him, he’s reasonably effective as a stuffy, repressed American interloper. Tiresomely virtuous, someone Loren can run rings around — a good, stiff foil for her moral flexibility.

But once the film decamps to Vienna, despite some terrific locations it heads rapidly into total sclerosis. Chevalier is on hand to provide some vespertine twinkle, but now the script requires both Gavin AND Loren to be priggish and petulant, and I got tired of both of them.

Look, Angela Lansbury!

So, Curtiz’s ability to keep a movie conscious arguably lasted until half an hour into this one, though there are decent moments in his HUCK FINN. I’m going to keep working my way back — I haven’t seen anything between this one and WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is so far the latest-period Curtiz I would rewatch for pleasure. But there are eight films in there, including several in b&w. Curtiz is generally best in b&w. It affects him like curare affects John Gavin — by subtracting something, it releases something else, and the result is entertainment.

The hats are very good in this one.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL stars Filumena Marturano; Prince Danilo; Sam Loomis; Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin; Aunt Alicia; Detective Moletti; Lisa Bolkonskaya; Aramis; and Queequeg.

7 Responses to “His Third-to-Last Breath”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    I like “vespertine twinkle.” My first thought was that BREATH OF SCANDAL included uncredited contributions by still-blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. — not someone I would associate with sachertorte. I also see that Cukor associates Gene Allen (art direction) and George Hoyningen-Huene (costumes) were involved.

  2. The design is great, especially the hats.

    Yes, the Ring Lardner connection is a puzzler. It’s no MASH. The first half hour or so has a bit of sparkle and I wonder who provided that.

  3. I’ve been loving all of these Late Show posts, David. That’s a fantastic screengrab of Maurice. I find I often feel “the point where… films stop moving, become inert, dead things,” but I rarely think about it consciously, except in the case of Shakespeare stuff, where it’s always in the last act, when you see exactly how everything will be fixed and also how far away from the same realization all the characters are. The same phenomenon occurs in most Astaire and Rogers musicals.

    My Mabuse thing is still on the way – it may end up being, well, late by a day… I’m a first-year teacher, the schedule leaves little room for Lang, more’s the pity.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    “The Scarlet Hour”, which Curtiz made after “We’re No Angels,” is good late-period Curtiz (and in luscious b&w!). Not a great or extremely good film, since it has a weak ending (the plot runs out of twists) and even weaker male lead, but three fourths of the film are a pleasurable exercise in late noir. Unfortunately it’s never been officially released on disc and the bootleg copies look nowhere as lovely as the restored print that’s been making the rounds at festivals.

  5. Excited about Mabuse!

    Will be checking out The Scarlet Hour, The Helen Morgan Story and The Man in the Net… oh, and King Creole! VERY curious about that one.

    “Is this the promised end?” King Lear might be the best Shakespeare ending because it manages to evoke the apocalypse on a very small scale, and it’s not overburdened with tragic inevitability. Lear had to die for genre reasons, but (spoiler alert) Cordelia’s demise is a gut-punch to the audience.

  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” looks forward to our current obsession with “surveillance.” While it centers on the peeping cameras inside a hotel it can be metaphorically extended to the rest o the work. Fascinating to see Peter Van Eyck play a heroic lead. And as always Dawn Addams is fetching.

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

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