Thursday 15 February 2007

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) James Whale

It's 1939, the greatest year of Hollywood, but it's also 1638, in the Royal Palace of Louis XIII of France. His wife, Queen Anne, has given birth to twin sons, but more than one Dauphin of France would apparently lead to civil war, so he has to send the younger away with his friend D'Artagnan, to raise as his own. Unfortunately twenty years later the first born, now King Louis IV, has become a cruel and twisted spendthrift. With the assistance of the greedy Minister of Finance, Fouquet, who is one of only four people alive who know about son number two, he causes no end of trouble for the people in his realm.

Most notably, and at the instigation of Fouquet, he tries it on with D'Artagnan and the king's unknown younger brother, by revoking Louis XIII's gift to them of a tax free town. Even though the famous three musketeers, Porthos, Athos and Aramis, are there at the time of the arrest, they manage to arrest them with the powerful help of overwhelming odds, but we get some good old fashioned swashbuckling in the process, with the film sped up just a little to highlight the lack of real fencing ability.

This is very much a Hollywood production, so there's absolutely no pretense to sound remotely French. Even in the early scenes, people like Albert Dekker and Warren William sound exactly as you'd expect them to sound. Nobody in the entire picture sounds anything but American and it's also amazing how much solid oak furniture and heavy iron carriages can bend and move under the slightest strain. These are not solid sets, that's for sure. The acting is unremarkable for the most part too, even though here are a lot of names here. Warren William is good, though this is hardly a role of precode depth, and Joseph Schildkraut makes a superb Fouquet, the man behind the throne, but it's Louis Hayward who really shines in the dual role of both the twin boys: the arrogant King Louis XIV and the dashing Philippe of Gascony.

Given that the director is James Whale, it's hardly surprising to see many thirties horror regulars here: D'Arcy Corrigan was in Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, and there are also more recognisable names like Albert Dekker, Dr Cyclops himself, and Dwight Frye, the best Renfield ever. The most surprising horror regular though is Peter Cushing, here as the King's messenger in his debut role on film. I had to rewind bck to certain sections to find Cushing: it wasn't a very big part. Either that, or the fact that he's listed in IMDb as 'King's messenger' but in the credits as 'Second officer'. He's really the officer with the feather in his hat at the forefront of the attack to arrest the musketeers early on.

Also unfortunately, there's not a lot of swashbuckling going on here. There's a lot of romance and a good deal of fun political shenanigans, but not much swordfighting, and that's rather an untenable position for a film that features not just D'Artagnan, but also Porthos, Athos and Aramis. James Whale was a genius at making horror movies, and he loved his musicals, but he doesn't seem to have anwhere near as much understanding of what makes an action film. This is fun but doesn't make it much above average, which makes it pretty awful for 1939!

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