RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Gisela Werbisek

A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).'”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.

Advertisements

The Dark Corner (April 9, 1946)

If someone were to say to me, “What exactly is a film noir? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I might direct them to Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Not because it’s the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but because it contains so many “noir” elements; a tough-talking P.I. and his sexy secretary, blackmail, frame-ups, violence, creative use of shadows and low-angle shots, and a plethora of quotable tough-guy dialogue like “I can be framed easier than Whistler’s mother.” It’s also not a picture that’s attained the status of a true “classic” like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946), so no one’s going to be distracted by great acting, iconic characterizations, or a brilliant storyline. This is pulp. Pure and unvarnished.

I love pulpy noir, so I really enjoyed The Dark Corner. On the other hand, I first saw this movie less than a decade ago, and only remembered one scene, in which one character pushes another out of a skyscraper window and then calmly walks to his dentist appointment. I have pretty good recall, especially when it comes to films, but I didn’t remember anything about this movie, not even after watching it again. Nothing came back. And I have a feeling that I won’t remember much about it 10 years from now, either.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the heck out of it while I was watching it. Mark Stevens isn’t an actor who ever made a big impression on me, but he’s a passable lead. As private investigator Bradford Galt, he delivers his lines with the speed and regularity of a gal in the steno pool pounding the keys of a Smith Corona typewriter. Galt is the kind of guy who makes himself a cocktail by grabbing two bottles with one hand and pouring them into a highball glass together. He’s also the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t do well in today’s litigious corporate environment. When he tells his newly hired secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) that he’s taking her out on a date, she asks, “Is this part of the job?” He responds, “It is tonight.”

It turns out that he’s (mostly) telling the truth, and the reason he’s taking her out on the town is to draw out a tail he’s spotted; a big mug in a hard-to-miss white suit played by William Bendix. Their date was one of my favorite sequences in the movie. There’s a lot of great location footage of New York in The Dark Corner, but the scenes in the Tudor Penny Arcade take the cake. I don’t know if any of the scenes in the arcade were shot in back lots, but the batting cages, the Skeebowl, and the coin-operated Mutoscopes with titles like “Tahitian Nights” and “The Virgin of Bagdad” all looked pretty authentic.

Once Galt gets his hands on the guy tailing him and roughs him up for information, the plot kicks into gear. Bendix’s character, “Fred Foss,” is a heavy who claims to have been hired by a man named Jardine. Galt starts to panic as soon as he hears the name. Jardine was Galt’s partner when he was a P.I. in San Francisco. Jardine had Galt framed, which led to Galt doing two years in the pokey. Jardine (played by the blond, German-accented Kurt Kreuger) is now in New York, but still up to his old tricks, seducing married women and running blackmail schemes. The current object of his affection, Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), is married to the effete art dealer Hardy Cathcart, who is played by Clifton Webb. In The Dark Corner, Webb essentially reprises his role from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944); another film noir in which a painting of a beautiful brunette played a major role.

I won’t summarize the Byzantine plot any further, but it should go without saying that all the pieces tie together. As I said, The Dark Corner isn’t the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty enjoyable to watch, and it looks fantastic. The dialogue is especially cracking, and consistently verges on the ridiculous. For instance, when Cathcart tells Foss (who is on the phone with Galt) to tell Galt that he wants $200 to leave town, Foss repeats the information to Galt by saying, “I need two yards. Powder money.”