I love George Sanders. I don’t know what it is. I could give you a laundry list of attributes — his effortless charm, his ironic detachment, his pitch-perfect performances as cads and bounders — but that would only scratch the surface.
I like him so much that I found it impossible to root against him as the villain opposite Tyrone Power in John Cromwell’s minor swashbuckling classic Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) and I even enjoyed his role in Douglas Sirk’s lightweight A Scandal in Paris (1946).
His insouciance and Herculean detachment from the concerns of everyday life weren’t just an onscreen pose. In the suicide note he left in 1972 before taking his own life at the age of 65, Sanders wrote, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool — good luck. Love, George.”
In life as in art, there is always the sense with Sanders that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Certainly boredom was not the real reason Sanders took his own life. His brother, actor Tom Conway, had died of cirrhosis of the liver — a complication of his alcoholism — five years earlier. Sanders had four failed marriages under his belt, was himself a heavy drinker, and suffered from extremely poor health in his later years, as well as related bouts of depression. But who really knows? No one really kills themselves because they’re bored, but with Sanders, that’s all we’re left with.
Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel Ami. Dubbed “the history of a scoundrel,” the film has a lot in common with Lewin’s 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which also featured Sanders and Angela Lansbury in starring roles. Both films are black and white adaptations of 19th-century novels that feature a single oil painting shown in stunning Technicolor. In the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, hidden away in an attic, revealing his corruption. In The Private Affairs of Bel Ami it’s the totally crazy and anachronistic “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by surrealist painter Max Ernst.
Ernst’s painting isn’t the only anachronistic thing about Lewin’s film. While the film ostensibly takes place in Paris in 1880, there are no attempts at verisimilitude. Frank Paul Sylos’s art direction in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is careful and loving, but it looks more like a picture postcard than real life.
Sanders’s character, Georges Duroy, is a bored habitué of Parisian café society who seduces women and uses them for social and professional gain, then discards them as soon as a lovely new opportunity sashays across his path. The women who love him call him “Bel Ami.” The name is ironic, since Duroy is a friend only to himself. When the film begins, he is already ignoring a hurt-looking former conquest while he seduces the pale beauty Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury). He’ll soon throw Clotilde over for his business partner’s wife, Madeleine Forestier (Ann Dvorak), to whom he proposes marriage in a businesslike fashion literally as her consumptive husband, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), is drawing his last breath.
She loves him madly, and while Duroy’s treatment of Clotilde is never less than ungentlemanly, the film never gets as sexually brutal as the poster above promises with its implication of desperate, “please-don’t-leave-me” fellatio.
With the help of his wife Madeleine, who does most of the actual writing, Duroy becomes a Victorian-era Walter Winchell with a gossip column called “Echoes.” With it, he influences politics and high society, and becomes a high-level player, but he always wants more. He attempts to buy a title from a family named “De Cantel” whose last descendant is missing, presumed dead. With the promise of his incipient nobility, Duroy courts the young heiress Suzanne Walter (Susan Douglas).
In his role as Duroy, Sanders is always doing things that telegraph his utter boredom with the here-and-now, such as playing with a ball and cup or flipping playing cards into a hat on the floor. He has a voracious appetite for fame, wealth, and women, but he almost never seems to be enjoying himself.
It’s a role tailor-made for the deadpan Sanders. In one of the last scenes of the film, in which he is preparing to fight a duel in the rain with an overheated young opponent, he casually asks for an umbrella and says, “I should not like to quit the field of honor with a bad case of the sniffles.”