May 24, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: George Sanders Steals Everything in A Scandal in Paris (1946)

This past Sunday, while Captain America boomed away in the next theater, a near-capacity crowd enjoyed George Sanders being his slippery best in Douglas Sirk's A Scandal in Paris (1946). It felt like a minor victory that a small part of Pacific Place Theaters was given to such an unusual classic.

Long one of my favorite films, I thought this was an interesting choice for the festival. A film starring a character actor most famous for playing villains in one of his rare starring roles, and helmed by a director most famous for mid-century melodramas with vivid hues and heartbreaking plot twists, is just the sort of treasure you hope to discover at a film festival.

Set in 18th-century France, it is a loosely-adapted biography of a thief who went by the name Eugène François Vidocq, and had a long career in crime before he switched sides and became a criminologist (in the film he becomes the Parisian chief of police). Here he is accompanied by his accomplice Emile, played by Akim Tamiroff with a magnificent monobrow, troll's face and the twinkling, long-lashed eyes of a pretty girl.

Vidocq is born in prison, and continues to spend his youth there, honing his skill as a thief and increasing his prospects with each attempt. When he agrees to pose for a portrait with Tamiroff, astride a horse dressed as St. George, while his pal plays the dragon, he unknowingly consents to a sort of police sketch. Though he takes off with the steed, the excellent likeness painted by a priest comes back to haunt him.

Until then, he steals jeweled garters while seducing ladies in carriages and gains invitations to country estates where he can clean out the family jewels while enjoying the luxuries of his gullible hosts. He falls for one of his victims though, the seemingly innocent Therese (Signe Hasso) who is the daughter of his host, the police minister (Alan Napier).

At first, Vidocq is enchanted by Therese's placid beauty. He slips into her room at night to kiss her cheek, a moment which she later remembers. She also sees his resemblance in the St. George portrait and with a little detective work begins to understand this handsome stranger. His adoration changes to respect when he realize the object of his affection is smarter than he is.

Playing a sexier, more outrageous counterpart to Therese is Carole Landis, as showgirl and gold-digger Loretta, who fascinates Vidocq as much as she arouses his need to steal. The actress would make only a few more films before she committed suicide in 1948. Here she is at her best, and demonstrates a unique combination of beauty and comic ability too quickly lost to the world. I like to think she would have been a great sitcom star.

A jumbled cast of wry and hapless characters supports Sanders and his ladies. While I could be content gazing at Sanders and Landis for an entire film, this group is one of the great pleasures of the film.

I especially liked Emile's criminal family, who all have fascinatingly bizarre, bushy-eyebrowed faces that look like they were molded out of clay. The visages of Cousin Pierre (Skelton Knaggs), Cousin Gabriel (Fred Nurney) and Aunt Ernestine (Gisella Werbisek), not to mention Emile, would not be out of place in a horror film. And yet, there's something loveable about them all; they are so determined and diligent in their larceny.

Also intriguing is the child actress Jo Ann Marlowe as Therese's pre-teen sister Mimi. There's no cuteness in this sophisticated and charming performer, she has some of the sharpest lines and she bites into them with precocious delight. You know that when this kid grows up she's going to subvert the restrictions of 18th-century society to her own desires. As her high-living marquise grandmother, Alma Krueger perhaps provides a glimpse into the girl's future.

The story is played lightly, with wry humor, intrigue and tantalizing romance. I always wonder if I'm reading more sex into it than is intended. There's something so erotic about the way Therese caresses a rose with increasing intensity while attempting to seem casual as she discusses her possible sins with a country priest. It also seems like an unmistakably vaginal shape that opens in a paper screen that Loretta sets aflame during her act, before she steps through it to go flirt with the men in the audience.

Of course, I could just be reacting to the sensual gaze of Sanders, which seems to mesmerize both the male and female members of his circle. He is such an appealing romantic lead, a little dangerous, but not so intimidating that you fear for his conquests. He is a gentleman cad and you want them to sample the excitement he offers.

All the romanticism, innocence and violence of the story are nicely symbolized by an early version of a merry-go-round run by pulleys, which is the setting for some of Vidocq's most intense moments. The trilling, but sly musical theme for these scenes ties them together smoothly, setting the stage for a delightfully sophisticated conclusion.

I thought this was a wonderfully unusual choice for the festival. It was a perfect Sunday movie.

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