Sunday 1 February 2009

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Director: Douglas Sirk
Stars: George Sanders, Signe Hasso and Carole Landis

I couldn't resist this one: an independently produced adaptation of the life and unique career of Eugéne François Vidocq, based on his imaginative 'autobiography' with suave and sophisticated George Sanders in the role. Vidocq was one of the most fascinating figures in European history: a professional criminal and inveterate womaniser who ended up serving as the first director of the Sûreté, who introduced many scientific techniques in routine use today by criminologists and who provided the basis for various famous fictional detectives, not least Poe's C Auguste Dupin.

We start early, with Vidocq's birth in a prison thirty miles from Paris, and progress quickly through to the main focus of our story. Vidocq and his partner in crime, Emile Vernet, has returned to a town in which they had previously rested during their escape from prison and from which they had stolen a horse with which to reach Paris. Unfortunately to get the horse they had to pose for an artist painting St George and the Dragon on a church panel, making them rather recognisable. They also plan a daring robbery, to steal the jewels of the Marquise de Pierremont while guests in her home, only to find that she's the mother in law of the minister of police and her granddaughter Therese has already fallen in love with St George, even before meeting the model.

Yes, this is all highly convenient and it's hardly an accurate rendering of Vidocq's life, but then this is Hollywood, after all. We aren't here to learn accurate history, we're here to watch George Sanders get up to no end of villainy while remaining our hero. The supporting cast is decent without ever being stunning: Akim Tamiroff as Emile, Signe Hasso as Therese, Gene Lockhart as the prefect of police, Alan Napier as the minister and Carole Landis as a dancer called Loretta who happens to become the wife of the prefect of police, yet another convenience to smile at.

It's a fun ride but it's definitely a ride, Hollywood style. It isn't worthy of the life of the real Vidocq, whose story would be fascinating to see done properly on the big screen, and it isn't worthy of the talents of George Sanders, who could do this sort of thing in his sleep. I was hoping for something with depth enough to warrant a great Sanders performance but it just isn't there. It's enjoyable but it's predictable fluff, easy for the eyes to stray away from. The little monkey called Satan steals the show, and while it's great fun when he does so that's no great advert for a film. Everyone involved has done better elsewhere.

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