Saturday, July 31, 2010

A William Powell movie that didn't air on his birthday

Last Thursday was the anniversary of William Powell's birth, and as I mentioned, TCM marked the occasion by showing a bunch of his movies. Of course, Powell made far too many movies to show in just one day, so they couldn't all be shown on his birthday. One that didn't get shown then is Crossroads, which is airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET on TCM.

Powell plays David Talbot, a prominent French diplomat with a lovely wife Lucienne (Hedy Lamarr). He's about to celebrate his anniversary with her, but the party is disturbed by a strange letter. A man is asking for one million francs, obviously implying that he knows a secret about Talbot's past. Talbot and the police set up a plan to catch the extortionist, but that's not the end of the story. The extortionist claims that Talbot is in fact the famous criminal Jean Pelletier from a dozen years ago! Talbot doesn't have a good way of disproving this, as Talbot and Pelletier were both involved in a train crash shortly after the celebrated crime, in which one of them died, and the now-Talbot suffered a curious case of amnesia that prevents him from remembering anything that happened before the crash. Doctors debate the nature of amnesia and memory, but the case is only resolved when a man named Sarrou (Basil Rathbone) testifies that he was with Pelletier at his death several years later.

The extortionist is duly convicted, but this of course is not the end of the problem for Talbot. Sarrou and his girlfriend Michelle (Claire Trevor) inform Talbot that Sarrou lied on the stand: Talbot is in fact not Talbot, but Pelletier! And Sarrou was involved in the crime with Pelletier! And Sarrou wants that one million francs the extortionist tried to get, since it is in fact Sarrou's share of the proceeds from the crime. If the now Talbot doesn't pay off, Sarrou threatens to go to the police, even though it will mean prison for him as well. At least the police will be more lenient on somebody who turns state's evidence. Is Talbot who he claims to be? Well, he can't remember who the hell he is, so maybe not. And Sarrou and Michelle have more than enough evidence that Talbot may in fact be Pelletier.

It goes without saying that I won't give away the ending to the movie. Let's just say that it's entertaining enough, although it comes across as a bit formulaic. It's also a movie that would work a bit better as a true noir; instead, the movie was made at MGM, the studio that had too much glitz back in 1942 to make anything really approaching noir. The performances are all just fine though; in addition to those I've named I should add character actors Felix Bressart as Talbot's personal physician; Sig Ruman as a doctor who testifies against Bressart at the opening trial; and Margaret Wycherly as an elderly lady who says she's Jean Pelletier's mother.

Fans of classic cinema will certainly enjoy Crossroads, although if I were trying to introduce people to the good mysteries of that era I'd pick something better. Crossroads has gotten a DVD release, although it's as part of the Warner Archive collection.

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