Burgess Meredith (above, left) must be the actor most associated with author Octave Mirbeau — he stars in the Amicus horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, which admittedly owes nothing but its title to Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices, but he also scripted and appears in Jean Renoir’s film of THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID.
Renoir and Meredith do right by Mirbeau’s unfilmable (but filmed several times: once by Bunuel) book, by making a film which one cannot conceive of as a Hollywood product. Paulette Goddard, who has turned hard-hearted after unspecified mistreatment by men and by the upper classes, enters her new position determined to find a rich husband and leave behind the world of manual toil. Immediately we sense trouble, as the mistress of the house is Judith Anderson. The master is kindly duffer Reginald Owen in a Boudou beard, playing a dreamy sort of Lord Emsworth dolt. Further eccentricity is provided by neighbour Burgess Meredith himself, who eats flowers and throws stones (but never the other way around — stones have no flavour).
Meredith seems like possible husband material, which shows how hard up Paulette is. He has money salted away, but when Paulette’s attentions over-excite him and he accidentally kills his beloved pet squirrel, she starts to suspect that being his fiancée might be fraught with peril.
Does this sound like a Hollywood movie so far?
Then the young master comes home from his debauches, and he is Hurd Hatfield, which means that Paulette is sharing house with Dorian Gray, Mrs Danvers, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen played the latter three). With the Penguin living just across the way. Anderson/Danvers sets about pimping out the new maid to persuade her psycho son, who is the apple of her eye but who despises her fervently, to stick around the family pile.
Hatfield is a surly invalid who reads the grimmer bits of Shakespeare (“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…”), clearly meant to suggest Sade. To Paulette, he seems a potential mark, but his mood swings and unhealthy relationship with mother tend to rule him out. Then a new prospect emerges from an unlikely quarter. Valet Francis Lederer (from CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and PANDORA’S BOX) proposes buying a bar with loot raised by stealing the silverware, and Paulette is amenable.
The film’s only turn towards conventional Hollywood morality is Paulette’s last-minute conversion to righteousness after Lederer stoops to murder. Even then, the conventional romantic solution is undercut by an earlier, throwaway moment when Owen, reading the Paris newspaper, remarks upon the latest case of murder — WOMAN MUTILATED! — and we ask herself, who has been in Paris? Why has the line been placed there? What are you implying, Jean Renoir? As the happy couple head off into the sunset, we recall that both of them had been in Paris not long before…
Bottom-scraping indie Benedict Bogeaus produced, and the film has a cheap feel — Eugene Lourie’s sets don’t convince, nor do they create a particularly alluring sense of fakery, and to be honest Renoir doesn’t do the best job of concealing the threadbare cyclorama. But he does whirl the camera about with some brio at the violent climax, and this may be the one US film on his CV that hits the notes of unsettling, tone-clashing weirdness that we find in some of his French films (the Lourie-designed RULES OF THE GAME, for one). Hurd Hatfield believed that Paulette was all wrong for the movie due to her “cheap-sounding” American accent, but in a movie where Lederer’s German and Owen’s English accents both represent French characters, where should one look for a barometer of linguistic authenticity? As with CLUNY BROWN (Owen’s second role as lord of the manor that year), Brits above stairs and Yanks below makes a feasible and not too distracting scheme.
Francis L has a special spike for slowly murdering geese. Because that’s how he rolls.
We rather loved it. We watched SWAMP WATER the following night, and that one is a proper terrific film, but DOAC is bananas, the kind of thing where you can’t figure out why it exists but you’re glad it does. Fiona and I recognized it as a kindred spirit.