“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.
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.