Archive for Archie Mayo

Headgear

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2011 by dcairns

“He’s worse with a hat on!” I declared, and Fiona agreed with me.

The subject of discussion was Regis Toomey, star of the spicy pre-code triumph UNDER 18, which we enjoyed very much. And it was a strange discovery to make. I’d thought I just didn’t much like Toomey, didn’t like his face, like that of a juvenile clown whose makeup has become grafted to his skin; didn’t like his voice, a raspy instrument more suited for frightening cats than human speech. But when I saw him sans chapeau (a rare condition for a male actor in 30s movies), I found him not without a certain vulnerable appeal. Let once a cap, fedora or helmet adorn his brow, however, and repulsion, anger and intolerance made hay with my disposition.

I mean, look at this (UNDER 18) ~

And this (SHE HAD TO SAY YES) ~

And this (THE FINGER POINTS) ~

And normally I like hats. I’ve never found an attractive one that would fit my bulbous, William-Hurt-sized head, but I like them on other people. Normally. It’s just that on Toomey, his pursed, shrunken clown face takes on a new and ghastlier hue when shaded neath the brim of an otherwise inoffensive lid, be it homburg, boater, fedora or Moorish tarboosh.

Still, that aside, Toomey is sympathetic in a difficult role in UNDER 18 (the title is an irrelevance): anybody who has to act cross with Marian Marsh is doing very well to not make the audience hate him. And she does well too — a peaches-and-cream cutie playing a naive ingenue type with big googly eyes, she could easily become punchable, but she holds the film together, aided by Warners Brothers’ typical no-nonsense approach, which hits story points hard and fast, and even manages to deliver sentimentality in a blunt manner.

Case in point: the movie begins with Marsh’s sister getting married (to future director Norman Foster, so we know there’s trouble ahead). Director Archie Mayo holds a long shot on the girls’ dad, as he slowly tears up. It’s sweet and gently funny, but it’s followed by a quick dissolve to the old guy’s gravestone, as we move into the future, the stock market crash, and marital difficulties which for the big sister which soon have Marsh questioning the viability of romance. And when a girl’s in that frame of mind, the arrival of a feckless millionaire played by Warren William is apt to represent a temptation.

WW, who gets to smirkingly emit the line he was born to say — “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay awhile?” — is on very good form, as is Mayo, one of the less distinguished but still damn good Warners directors. Here, his attention to the bit part players is especially commendable.

“Watch your step,” says the elevator operator (Otto Hoffman) to Marian as she alights at Williams’ penthouse fuck pad. And then he drives his double entendre home with a meaningful look.

This delivery boy (name unknown) gets TWO looks, a bored/nosy/dopey one as Marian signs for her delivery, and an obsequious/lecherous one when he makes eye contact. The guy makes his mark.

The movie also finds space for sparky Claire Dodd, cadaverous Clarence Wilson, an unusually camp Edward Van Sloan, and many other attention-grabbing artistes.

And for 1931 this is a remarkably fluid piece of work, with long camera moves and expressive angles unhampered by the demanding microphone. Here, setting up Williams’ shagging palace, Mayo proves himself a regular pre-code Ozu with the three building-block establishing views he uses ~

Of all the pre-code parties, this may be the best, even if the host suffers a near-fatal injury.

For B. Kite.

HOT EUROPE

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-57933

“Fat, Forty and Full of Fire.”

That was producer Walter Wanger’s verdict on Hitchcock, producing FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, his second American film and his first made out from under the thumb of David O Selznick. “I’ve seen him climb a ladder with unbelievable agility,” he added — a startling image. This is all from Bill Krohn’s excellent book Hitchcock at Work.

Star Joel McCrea had a different impression, as he saw Hitchcock slumbering between, and even during takes. “Cut!” he cried, as his director snored. Hitch awoke. “How was it?” “Best in the picture!” declared McCrea. “Print it!” said Hitch, quite satisfied.

Hitch was a little snooty about McCrea when talking to Truffaut. The French auteur remarked that, compared to the gloss of REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT was very much in the B movie mold, and Hitch blamed the casting. He had tried to secure the services of Gary Cooper, who considered the thriller romp beneath him and turned it down (Hitch had written an article for the English press about the American stars he’d like to work with, and Coop was one of them. William Powell was another. Carole Lombard was the only one named whom he got to direct, and that in a rather unsatisfactory film — see next week for details). Really, I think Truffaut was referring to the movie’s helter-skelter plotting and structure. In reality, it cost more than REBECCA, what with its extremely elaborate production design and effects work by William Cameron Menzies (who also designed GONE WITH THE WIND).

McCrea, an actor of true modesty, once expressed himself amazed when Preston Sturges wanted to hire him. “I want you,” said Sturges. “People don’t want me,” protested McCrea. “They want Gary Cooper and they get me.” I think Hitchcock should have been damned grateful to have a generous and warm player like McCrea on his team.

The film arose because Selznick, with whom Hitch had signed an exclusive contract, did not have a property for him to direct, and anyway he was occupied dealing with the unprecedented profits rolling in from GONE WITH THE WIND, his bloated and racist epic, and to some extent REBECCA too. Liquidating an important capital-gains transaction (I have no idea what that means) he took three years away from active film production and loaned Hitch out at a considerable profit: Hitch was paid $2,500 from Selznick, while Wanger paid Selznick $7,500 for Hitch’s services. This inequity added to Hitch’s resentment of the controlling producer, whom he personally quite liked. (All this business stuff from John Russell Taylor’s Hitch.)

Starting from the memoirs of a real-life foreign correspondent in Europe, Hitch roped in British collaborator Charles Bennett for one more screenplay, working with Joan Harrison, who had worked her way up from secretary to the most important part of the Hitchcock support group next to Alma. The writing credits are complex: Robert Benchley contributed to dialogue as well as co-starring, with James Hilton and, for the stirring final speech, Ben Hecht, a writer who would loom large in Hitch’s future work.

Part of the impulse was certainly propagandist, to encourage America to enter the war in support of Britain, and the other goal was to create a true Hitchcock vehicle, a chase film like THE 39 STEPS, the sub-genre Charles Bennett had helped invent. Once Holland was fixed upon as a setting, Hitch asked the familiar question: “What do they have in Holland?” and set-pieces immediately began to take place.

forcor

We begin in a miniature New York, moving from the general to the specific in classic Hitch mode, into a newspaper office, where the editor is looking for news from Europe, and is sick of the guff he’s getting from political correspondents. He decides a straight crime reporter would be better: “There’s a crime happening on that bedeviled continent!” This is a classic Hitchcockian ruse, since the director hated to have an expert hero. In all his best espionage films, the protagonist is a naif thrust unwittingly into trouble. If he must be a professional, let him be inexperienced. John Gielgud in SECRET AGENT was an author newly recruited to the service. Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS was a complete outsider. The cop heroes of BLACKMAIL and SABOTAGE are marginalised next to the heroines. So McCrea’s John Jones is a man who knows nothing of politics and is armed only with common sense and an athletic build. Starting with his head in the ground, he will undergo a political awakening commensurate with that Hitchcock hopes for from his audience.

The ed sends McCrea to get the inside dope from a statesman called Van Meer. “How about Hitler? Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to pump him? He must have something on his mind.” For no very credible reason, John Jones is rechristened Huntley Haverstock and introduced to peacemonger Herbert Marshall.

A brief scene of McCrea saying goodbye to his relatives before sailing adds comparatively little, except to suggest what Hitchcock’s emigration to America might have been like, with a bossy mother becoming emotional at the last moment… In reality, the poor cameraman dispatched by Hitch to shoot second unit in England and Holland was torpedoed on his way home, and had to make a return trip for retakes.

vlcsnap-1105888

In London, McCrea meets complacent comedy relief journalist Robert Benchley, who’s on the wagon, since “I can’t afford a new set of organs.” Benchley presses McCrea to a scotch and soda, while he has a glass of milk. “Doesn’t taste like it did when I was a baby, that’s got poison in it,” he mutters. Poisoned glasses of milk have not finished with Hitchcock…

McCrea makes contact with Van Meer (Albert Basserman), which is a plot point rather than a chance for discourse: Hitch and Bennett’s political thrillers always avoid any real discussion of politics — the trick is to express politics in movement. McCrea tries to talk war, but Basserman rambles on about feeding the birds. “Don’t you think that right now the birds are the least of our worries?” asks the frustrated reporter. Hitch seems to be trying to prefigure all his later movies.

vlcsnap-1131987

At a peace reception conference thing, we meet Herbert Marshall’s screen daughter, leading lady Laraine Day, whom Hitch was equally sniffy about. While she may add to the air of B-movie, not being terribly famous, she does a fine English accent for a gal from Utah, and is personable enough. McCrea and Day meet and spar, and there’s a comedy Latvian and a comedy Scotsman and a comedy society matron, &c. McCrea endears himself to us by putting his foot in it with Laraine.

Off to Holland, spurred on by a convenient telegram from the editor. The cast are reunited in a gigantic town square constructed at vast expense. Michael Balcon had refused to let Hitchcock build (and blow up) a tram for SABOTAGE, so Hitch makes sure he has several here. Some idea that Holland is perpetually rainy leads to the upcoming set-piece with umbrellas, for 25 minutes in the film is suddenly going to become a thriller. First, Van Meer doesn’t recognise McCrea — THE LADY VANISHES moment when reality assumes the mask of nightmare — and then VM’s bloodily done in by a fake news photographer, who hides a revolver alongside his camera in a visualised pun on the verb “to shoot.” The flowing moves of the scene are interrupted by the quick, unnaturally static shots of the gun-blast and camera-flash (POV Van Meer) and the slain man’s face, frozen pain/death (POV killer). A classic Hitchcock “God shot” shows McCrea chasing the culprit through a forest of brollies, and then dodging through traffic as every stray shot from the gunman seems to fell an innocent bloke on a bike.

I haven’t seen so many Dutch cyclists abused since SPETTERS.

forcor1

Jumping into a passing car, Our Joel finds himself in a high-speed chase with Laraine Day and George Sanders. George frickin’ Sanders! Nobody’s that lucky. George quickly offers up the best line of dialogue ever delivered in a high-speed chase: “I say old girl, would you mind shoving your knees out of the way?” Sanders is Scott ffolliott, a delightful Charles Bennett creation. I’m not sure why ffolliott’s needed in this story, but I’m of course overjoyed to have him. He seems designed to soak up bits of action and adventure that should rightfully belong to the hero or heroine, but since the sight of George Sanders leaping out of windows and crashing through awnings has a whimsical incongruity to it that Joel McCrea could never attain, I can’t regret the substitution.

vlcsnap-1517295

A geographically implausible chase takes us swiftly into the countryside, nearly running over immortal Scots comic James Finlayson (“Doh!”) with the second unit scenic shots put to good use, until it turns out that the Dutch countryside is another model, like New York. Here we get one of the Big Ideas which make Little Sense: a windmill turning against the wind, as a signal to the enemy agents. That’s quite an elaborate, and easily detected signal. But we embrace such madness in  Hitchcock’s miniature dream landscape. Better still is the preceding moment when George rounds a corner in his car and the vehicle he was chasing has just vanished — in an entirely flat landscape. It’s kind of the flip-side of NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s crop-duster attack: instead of asking “Where could danger come from in this flat plain?” we are to ask “Where has it gone?” 

“Inside the sinister windmill,” is the answer, and the real Van Meer is there too — that’s why the assassinated statesman didn’t recognise Joel, he was a looky-likey. But — but — but — why didn’t he, as a professional impersonator, simply pretend to recognise McCrea? Why would the enemy shoot their own man? Wouldn’t somebody notice such a substitution, especially the coroner?

Dream logic reigns.

vlcsnap-1519352

Really great suspense stuff with McCrea hiding from the bad guys. Van Meer has been conveniently drugged so he can’t explain the plot (I would think drugs might help). The windmill, tiny on the outside, is cavernous on the inside, and then McCrea has to dangle from the roof to avoid capture, it’s suddenly very tall also. The birds come to his rescue by providing an alibi for his noises. The bad guys then have to manhandle a drugged old man down narrow stairs without banisters — their plans look sure to go awry in absurd fashion. 

Fetching the authorities (with the help of the world’s least convincing Dutch schoolgirl) McCrea finds all evidence has vanished, and he’s left looking like a chump. It’s a familiar thriller twist, of the kind Hitchcock pioneered in THE LADY VANISHES, but it means the plot needs kick-starting out of this cul-de-sac. An attack on McCrea in his hotel provides the necessary impetus, forcing our hero out the window in his dressing gown, where he must clamber over a giant “H” in the hotel’s sign (Hitch’s signature?). McCrea is often to be found in his bedclothes: an earlier scene shows him fetishistically garbed in PJs and bowler hat, while sharp-eyed observers of THE PALM BEACH STORY claim to be able to spot, er, Little Joel briefly escaping from the actor’s pyjama flies, if pyjamas can be said to have flies. McCrea’s interference with the neon converts the sign from HOTEL EUROPE to HOT EUROPE, a fitting summation of the political mood. 

Emerging in Laraine’s room in a state of dishabille, McC causes scandal and offence, but soon wins her over and battles the (very slow-witted) thugs waiting in his suite by calling room service. Laraine even send the valet to collect McC’s clothes by telling him “You see, my husband’s waiting in that room,” a re-use of the adultery story deployed by Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS. Soon the would-be assassins are knee-deep in hotel services in a slight reprise of the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. International espionage has been mated with bedroom farce.

London! Why? Doesn’t seem to matter. I think there is a reason but we’re going too fast to ask questions. Edmund Gwenn, one of the few stars of English Hitchcock to migrate into American Hitchcock (he will return as late as THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, to wonderful effect) makes an unlikely assassin, and quite an ineffective one, as it turns out. Hitchcock is onto something cute with the idea of the mild-mannered old boy who’s really a deadly hitman, but to pay the gag off correctly we would need to see him do something successfully nasty. But we now know that the heroine’s dad, Herbert Marshall, is in league with the baddies, so there’s a more compelling source of suspense. The conflict of family and faction make some form of tragedy inevitable.

vlcsnap-83448

“By an ironic chance a Requiem Mass was in progress at the time.”

Leading Joel up a Roman Catholic cathedral tower, ostensibly to avoid the liturgy (“The dead are alright… in their place,”) Gwenn threatens to get Hitchcock in trouble again by jeopardising a schoolboy, but soon turns his lethal attentions to McC, with results that Hitch cheekily conceals from us for a few moments. Then we have a few moments of reporters McCrea, Sanders and Benchley in an office that makes me long for a sitcom about the three of them. Benchley answers the phone: “No, tell him it’s ridiculous!” He hangs up. Presumably that was Charles Bennett on the other end.

The need to expose Herbert Marshall leads McCrea to take part in a fake kidnapping of Laraine Day, getting us into more ethically and emotionally murky waters than would generally be the case in the British comedy-thrillers. Fortunately for Hitch, McCrea’s sweetness is more than enough to keep us on his side. When McCrea hears that the plan requires him to keep Day busy all night, his honourable distress is more heartwarming than amusing. At the country hotel where he attempts to put this plan into action, the receptionist is the creepy-looking  Eily Malyon, who played a Nazi agent in CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY. Joel could be in trouble here!

When Sanders tells Marshall his daughter’s been kidnapped, cinematographer Rudolph Maté pulls off his best, moodiest work in the picture so far, which is starker and simpler in its lighting than the baroque REBECCA. Hitch even has Marshall look almost directly into the lens, Ozu-style, a technique he had played with as early as THE MANXMAN, and which Selznick would object to when he did it in THE PARADINE CASE. As a protective father with a young daughter, Hitchcock no doubt identified with his villain here.

Laraine Day, returning after romantic difficulties with McCrea, scuppers the fake kidnapping, but Sanders follows Herbert Marshall to darkest Tottenham Court Road where the kidnapped Van Meer is being tortured with bright lights and jazz music. Even better darkly modulated lighting from Maté, and then a brilliantly peculiar special effect from William Cameron Menzies as Sanders leaps from the window: a manikin ffolliott descends the front wall on some kind of hidden rail, hits an awning, which tears, and a felsh-and-blood ffolliott emerges, dripping wet, onto the street. Marvelous.

“Ring up the Curzon Dancing Academy and cancel my rhumba lesson!” Great as McCrea is, I’m beginning to wish Sanders was the lead.

Van Meer is rescued so that Albert Basserman can go on to appear in THE RED SHOES, but Scotland Yard is unable to arrest Herbert Marshall, so as war is declared, “weather permitting,” he takes off for America with his unsuspecting daughter. Hitch was very proud of his one-shot plane crash effect (in reality devised by Menzies, I suspect), but never talked about the astounding shot that creeps through the stratosphere towards the Transoceanic flying boat, sidles up to a window, eases itself through the glass without breaking it, and explores the first class cabin at its leisure. A remarkable thing.

vlcsnap-123733

Of course, McCrea is aboard too, and just when the emotions are getting truly entangled, Hitch and Bennett pull the same stunt they tried in SECRET AGENT, only the deus is even more ex machina this time: a gunship blows everybody out of the sky and Hitch gets some aquatic practice in for LIFEBOAT, with a spectacular apparatus built by Menzies: a floating aeroplane with a wing that breaks off and drifts away, all built on underwater tracks like one of the toy trains Hitch loves.

All the disaster movie stuff is terribly well done, and resonant to myself, since I recently flew the Atlantic by Air France shortly before one of their flights took a nose-dive into the drink. Disconcerting. rescue comes, but not before Herbert Marshall has sacrificed himself to save the others, providing redemption and a reunion for the lovers. Then it’s swiftly on to McCrea’s rousing propaganda speech, and end titles.

So impressed was Walter Wanger with Hitch’s aeroplane work that he got him in to helm reshoots on Archie Mayo’s HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY, which had a passenger plane scene in it. I’ll try to see that one soon. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is a worthy climax to Charles Bennett’s work with Hitch, and would be the unsurpassed comedy-chase-thriller until NORTH BY NORTHWEST (SABOTEUR looks a little pallid by comparison). Bennett’s tendency towards bagginess in construction works as an effective disguise for some genuinely tight plotting — it’s not wholly consistent but it’s almost wholly enjoyable.

Leonard Leff, author of Hitchcock & Selznick, wants us to believe that Hitchcock needed Selznick in order to make more mature films, and that FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT proves this. On the contrary, I think SHADOW OF A DOUBT disproves it, and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is too sophisticated an entertainment to argue for Hitch’s dependence on anybody. A pity Hitch didn’t work with Wanger, a really talented and supportive producer, some more.

Moontide Torrents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by dcairns

So, I finally figured out, sort of, how to download movies by bittorrent, which is a horrendous headache I wouldn’t recommend to anyone except my goodness the things you can find. Expect more absurdly rare stuff to feature here soon.

Now, a Fever Dream Double Feature.

Since I’ve been reading a lot about the recent DVD release of MOONTIDE, it was a delight to snap up a copy. Written by John O’Hara and directed by Archie Mayo after Fritz Lang dropped out due to complications in the bedroom (both he and the film’s star were sleeping with Marlene Dietrich), this was a star vehicle for someone who was not yet a star in America, a delicate operation designed to introduce Jean Gabin to the US. Gabin was temporarily in residence stateside as his native homeland was enduring the German occupation.

Introducing a star is a tricky proposition, but the Hollywood studios had plenty of practice. They must have sensed a challenge with Gabin, however, since he could hardly be introduced as a newcomer and built up in the public consciousness through small supporting roles — he had to be given a vehicle that showed what he did as a star, his distinctive persona. One problem with this was that Gabin’s French films have distinct qualities that do not translate, or could not be translated, into Hollywood terms. The fact that Gabin played an army deserter in QUAI DES BRUMES (a film which Jean Renoir reportedly blamed for France’s early defeat in the war) gives some clue to this. Nevertheless, MOONTIDE tries to reproduce the Gabin persona in a new context.

Borrowing its foggy dockside setting from QUAI DES BRUMES, and giving Gabin a dog as in that film and fits of homicidal rage as in LA BETE HUMAINE, the makers cast him as a drunken dockworker, an undependable, vacillating kind of character who often does the wrong thing, but cannot be relied upon to do so. Not a type that was regularly welcomed by American audiences. The poetic realist school of French cinema was driven by fatalism, even more so than film noir (no wonder, if this was the national mood, that the country crumbled in the face of invasion!) and so its anti-heroes are regularly ineffective, passive, fickle, misguided, discouraged or just inept. This works like gangbusters in the French films, but has serious repercussions when combined with the Production Code’s insistence that vice must be punished and virtue rewarded, and must have represented a challenge to audiences used to the easy morality plays of the standard Hollywood productions.

Nevertheless, MOONTIDE, as photographed by Charles Clarke and Lucien Ballard, is visually stunning, touching, and endearingly peculiar. Mayo has an odd habit of cutting directly down the line at the action, jumping from medium-shot to medium-close-up, without any apparent dramatic purpose, but he only does it a few times and otherwise his work is unobtrusive and effective. The superb lighting carries the film otherwise.

Gabin is excellent — I’d never heard him speak English before! His accent isn’t too strong, although his friend Nutsy (Claude Rains) unfortunately sounds like “Nazi” when Gabin calls him by name. Whether it’s from taking her cues from Gabin’s simmering underplaying, or because Mayo’s got her tightly under control, or whatever else, Ida Lupino is spectacularly effective, a very modern, muted kind of performance that holds everything back for the key moments. And I like Ida anyway. She’s doing her natural cockney accent with a soupçonof Californian, and that seems to help her attain an unusual level of naturalism. We care far more about her than we do about Gabin, which works fine for the film.

Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains are as excellent as one would expect, although Rains doesn’t quite get into the swing of the underplaying — he’s always very measured and clipped, and has a formality that’s perhaps very slightly out of keeping with the general air of relaxation. Mitchell, looking like a schoolboy whose suddenly SPROUTED, makes a weird and memorable villain, although by characterising him as a weak parasite, the script robs him of the chance to add serious dramatic tension to the meandering plot, at least until the end.

The Production Code seems to have imposed strange limitations on the film (Lupino’s past life appears to have been a shameful one, but the occupation given her – hash-slinger – hardly seems sufficiently sinful), yet at the end Gabin is effectively a murderer twice over, which seems odd, to say the least. Not unwelcome, but odd. The movie is a decidedly eccentric addition to Fox’s output, but a welcome one. Nevertheless, the makers might have capitalized on Gabin a bit more…

Mistake One: introducing Gabin drunk, and then hungover (there’s a magnificent expressionistic drunkenness montage) means it’s a very long time before we get to see him as he naturally IS. It’s a striking entrance, struggling with his dog leash and demanding a pint of whisky, but it takes a definite chance. Thomas Mitchell in this scene appears more like a comedy sidekick than a villainous blackmailer, and he appears to have no hold on Gabin whatsoever, which has fairly disastrous effects on the narrative tension. He can only reassert himself by towel-whopping a naked Claude Rains — the movie has driven him to this extreme!

Mistake Two: Gabin strips to the waist to rescue Lupino from drowning, and the sight is awe-inspiring. No Hollywood leading man was this ripped. He makes Johnny Weissmuller look doughy and wan. The mistake was in not having him partially denude every twenty minutes, on the slightest pretext. Audiences wouldn’t have been able to believe their eyes. Wives would have regarded their husbands in a new and dimmer light. Gabin, clothed, always has something of the schlub about him, albeit a strangely intense and fiery schlub, so this stripshow is particularly startling. He never did it in France, that I can recall, but had he done so in Hollywood he would have eroticized the hell out of the place. The sexual revolution would have started early.

Mistake Three: I can’t really call it a mistake, because looking at it now, MOONTIDE gains a great deal from it’s jerky plot movement and aimless characters, but jettisoning some of this gallic ennui and injecting some good old American THRUST would probably have worked wonders at the B.O. But I’m kind of glad they left it like this, a fogbound peculiarity, out of time and place.

THE IMPOSTOR, directed by Julien Duvivier from his own story, was Gabin’s second assault on the US market. Weirdly, his accent is stronger and he’s harder to understand in this one — presumably because Duvivier, as a Frenchman himself, was less able to troubleshoot on matters of pronunciation. It’s no big problem though.

Gabin plays virtually the reverse of his QUAI DES BRUMES deserter, this time being an escaped convict in conquered France who inveigles his way INTO the army, borrowing the uniform and papers of a slain war hero. Gabin’s introduction is splendid, as he plays an arch-cynic as indifferent to his own execution as he is to the policeman he’s killed in a riot. As the German bombs drop in this distance, he muses, “Makes the guillotine seem a little old-fashioned, no?” Soon those bombs, acting on behalf of fate, have freed him.

The film bogs down slightly as Gabin escapes with the remnants of the French army to colonial Africa. Now that Gabin has to keep his cynicism to himself, in order to blend in, he’s less fun for us to be with, and the plot seems to lack momentum. There are also unfortunate ironies: “This is French soil,” enthuses commanding office Richard Whorf, trying to inspire his men, conveniently overlooking the fact that this tropic jungle is French only by the same law that says Paris is now German. Duvivier’s attitude to Africa and the Africans (it was at least continent he knew, having filmed there several times) is a recurring problem in the film.

A particularly beautiful scene, full of tightly crammed deep-focus figures sheltering from a monsoon at Christmas, shows Gabin’s comrades reminiscing over Christmas in France, while he fumes at his lack of any such warm memories. This section of the story deals with Gabin’s gradually bonding with his comrades (a banker, a farmer, an actor). Not only does he reconnect to humanity, but to life and a sense of his homeland. There’s almost a supernatural sense of him being taken over by the identity he’s adopted. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths: its poetic realist weirdness, which undercuts the flag-waving message with fatalism and tragedy. The Production Code makes it pretty clear that Gabin will end by dying for his country… what’s surprising and rather grim is how he ends up dying without an identity.

Meanwhile there’s more awkward and unattractive racial attitudes to deal with: the ex-actor proposes setting up a business after the war to sell perfume and makeup to the Africans (because Africans smell bad and are ugly, see?) which in a Clouzot film would just be a sign of how obnoxious everyone is, but here is jarring since we’re supposed to find these guys appealing. A woman shows up and everybody makes a fuss. “A black girl?” asks one fellow, roused from his sleep. “Do you think I’d disturb your beauty sleep over a black girl?” It’s quite credible that Frenchmen of this period would talk this way, but it’s not clear that Duvivier doesn’t share their prejudices. Not that he should announce his disapproval in some obvious way, but the fact that he includes such sentiments in what is still a piece of war-time propaganda is disturbing.

The moment that actually becomes interesting, as opposed to just uncomfortable, is when the men stand around and listen to La Marseillaise over the wireless. Actually a moving and powerful scene, and I’m normally highly resistant to any appeal to patriotism, especially if it involves the suggestion of laying down one’s life — one’s single, fleeting life — in the service of the immortal state. After cutting from closeup to closeup of the emotional soldiers, Duvivier actually ends on a group of Africans, listening with unreadable expressions. Either this is meant to be an inclusive gesture: “These, too, are Frenchmen” – in which case it’s too little, too late in my opinion — or Duvivier is pointing to this other conquered nation and actually equating France and it’s colonies to Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Which would be very interesting and provocative, and casts a different light on the racist remarks quoted earlier.

The fact that these ambiguities exist, when Duvivier was certainly smart enough to eradicate them and create a full-on call to arms flick with no disturbing elements if that had been his goal, makes THE IMPOSTOR more uneven but also more interesting, more akin to the ambivalent and tormented cinema of poetic realism.

Now I want to see more Gabin English-language films, but I CAN’T. HE NEVER MADE ANY.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers