It seemed timely to feature this intertitle from the early Doug Fairbanks starrer FLIRTING WITH FATE, an uncredited adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China. (The title card refers to struggling artist Augie, played by Doug.) It’s an old story — a hapless loser hires an assassin (here, the artistically-monickered Automatic Joe) to end his misery, but then his luck changes, he wants to live, but he can’t find the gunman to call off the hit. Robert Siodmak made the story as LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER in Germany from a Billy Wilder script, again without crediting the source, and Philippe de Broca adapted it with credit, and with the inevitable Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead. The appearance of this movie put paid to Richard Lester’s plan to cast Ringo in the story and use it for the Beatles’ second film, and so we got HELP! instead.
Doug’s version starts slow and hammy, but proceeds to some fine silliness once paranoia and the plot kick in —
This may be my favourite intertitle of the year. It refers to the fantasy sequences of Automatic Joe snuffing a series of stand-ins in visions that pop up before Doug’s mind’s eye, and are shared by us. This seems like fairly advanced film narrative for the period. As a result of these fantasy murders, Doug spends the middle of the film fleeing in terror from anything that’s around, including the correspondence-school detective who’s trying to protect him. A long sequence of two characters in false beards taking fright at each other and at any other bearded men, has a real feel of vaudeville on acid.
Automatic Joe (George Beranger) is guilt-stricken because he has accepted fifty bucks to snuff a man, and the fellow still breathes. I am besotted with this image, especially the deeply-scored wallpaper in the background.
This might be the best approach to Verne’s story idea — it seems like a superb plot motor, but filmmakers often seem to have some trouble figuring out what to do with it. It can essentially lead anywhere. Fairbanks, with writers Robert M Baker and Christy Cabanne, who also directed, serve up plenty of impressive acrobatics for Doug, but actually concentrate more on the story’s psychological side, using it as a study in comic suspense rather than a cue for adventure. Fairbanks, rather too flamboyant in the early “straight” scenes, becomes very amusing when he can athletically portray a mind in collapse, as in this image, which almost seems to reference William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar ~
Doug attempts to be inconspicuous.