Friday, June 16, 2017

A Scandal in Paris

Another recent watch off my DVR was A Scandal in Paris. It's available on DVD as part of a two-movie set of early Douglas Sirk movies, the other being the excellent Lured. So I'm OK doing a full-length post on it.

A Scandal in Paris is loosely based on the life of Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857), played here by George Sanders. The real-life Vidocq was a criminal in Napoleonic France who went straight, eventually reforming the Paris police force and starting his own private detective agency. That story is made rather more fanciful in this telling, with the later-life part about the detective agency completely ommitted.

The story begins with an exaggerated introduction with voice-over by Sanders, leading up to Vidocq's escape from jail, which is how he meets Émile (Akim Tamiroff) who becomes his lifelong right-hand man. The two make their way to the south of France to serve in Napoleon's army, which is how Vidocq meets Loretta (Carole Landis). She's the late 18th century equivalent of a nightclub singer, and she's got a garter with precious stones that Vidocq is of course going to steal.

After serving in the military, Vidocq and Émile make their way back north to Paris, meeting the Pierremont family. The father Houdon (Alan Napier) is roughly equivalent to an Attorney-General type or a European Minister of the Interior. The women in the house: the grandmother/marquise (Alma Kruger) and daughter Thérèse (Signe Hasso) have lovely jewels, and Vidocq plans to steal those. The theft creates a scandal, and the Prefect of the Parisian police, Richet (Gene Lockhart), is unable to solve it. Of course, Vidocq can. Riche resigns, and Houdon names Vidocq the new Prefect.

Of course, this was all a ruse for Vidocq, Émile, and Émile's family and friends to rob the vault at the Bank of Paris. Along the way to robbing it, however, a couple of things happen. The first is that Vidocq begins to fall in love with Thérèse. Secondly is that one day, Vidocq runs into Loretta in Paris. That would be bad enough. But far worse is that she's married to Richet! Richet knows that something is up with Loretta, and that she must be seeing another man. He sets out to find out who she's seeing, and that of course threatens to unmask Vidocq.

A Scandal in Paris is well-enough made, although it doesn't really seem like what you'd normally think of when you think of Douglas Sirk, that being the combination of lush melodrama and social commentary. This is pretty much a straightforward costume drama. George Sanders is quite good as Vidocq, as the same sort of charm mixed with stealth that he brought to so many roles is something he puts to excellent use here. Everybody else ranges from adequate to the quality you'd expect from the great character actors.

Ultimately, however, there's something I can't quite put my finger on that to me keeps A Scandal in Paris from rising above the good and well-made to the point of greatness. Perhaps Sanders is just a bit too smarmy this time. We're supposed to view him as a hero, and not a threat like his later Addison DeWitt. Hasso is also slightly off. Still, A Scandal in Paris more than succeeds in entertaining and keeping you guessing until the end.

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