The Man on the Eiffel Tower was made during what most describe as a bad time in Charles Laughton's career. The Siren says if this was Laughton's lowest ebb, he did much better than other fine actors with bumpy careers (see Richard Burton). This movie ultimately doesn't work, due largely to a novice director who made some bad choices. But it is a fascinating failure.
This was on another DVD in my Mystery 50-pack, and as I mentioned before, the print is atrocious, with poorly synchronized sound in the first reel, lousy sound overall, splices and washed-out color that fades in and out. It was shot using a process called "Ansco Color" that might have been interesting when it was released but now is sheer horror. The film has plenty of historical and artistic interest and absolutely deserves better treatment. Here's hoping someone cleans it up before releasing it to the world again.
The print quality detracts from what might otherwise be strong points. The Man on the Eiffel Tower was shot on location, and the look, feel and street noises of postwar Paris are incredible. (The city even gets its own credit line in the title sequence.) The movie also showcases the drop-dead designs of Robert Piguet, the Swiss-born couturier best remembered for launching the classic perfumes Fracas and Bandit under his name. Both those concoctions are notice-me-now-damnit scents, and judging by the costumes here that was Piguet's dress-design ethos as well. You would have to go back to Adrian's prewar glory days at MGM or Travis Banton at Paramount to find such extravagance. The gowns don't really suit the female characters' station in life, personalities or anything else, but they look so divine you don't care. Seeing these dresses through the fog of this awful print could drive a vintage-fashion lover batty.
I have read only one of George Simenon's Inspector Maigret books, and that was a long time ago. I don't think Laughton's characterization is especially true to the book. Simenon's Maigret is detached and methodical. Laughton's Maigret makes faces, makes mistakes, charges around in an excitable manner. It works perfectly well within the world of the movie, but I am not surprised that Simenon fans take a dim view of this adaptation. Laughton's rendition of Maigret's famous moustache is much fuller than the ratty little thing he sported in The Big Clock, thank goodness. One movie with that monstrosity was enough.
This thriller has a simple plot. Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) is faced with a grasping mistress and a wife who won't go away for cheap (those ladies get the spectacular Piguet frocks). Kirby hires a medical student to dispatch his wealthy aunt. The medical student is played by a wonderfully psychotic Franchot Tone, who looks far more drawn and ill in this movie than he did as the dying President years later in Advise and Consent. Tone really gives the standout performance here, refraining from scenery-chewing but managing to convey Radek's suave, remorseless and intelligent personality as well as his barely hidden desire to be caught. The Siren found herself reflecting on Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and thinking how hammy the Brit seemed in comparison. The interplay between Laughton and Tone gives the movie its best scenes.
Alas, all of this good stuff is undone by Burgess Meredith, both as an actor and as a director. Meredith plays a student whom Radek tries to frame for the murder. His performance is a twitching mess of indication and obviousness, compounded by a shock of carroty hair that seems to be the only thing on the print that hasn't faded. Narrative coherence withers in many places and the viewer starts to get a touch of vertigo from all the disjointed, oddly placed and bizarre shots. By the time Meredith's character unaccountably joins in on the final chase across the titular landmark, the Siren was kind of hoping he would fall off so she could concentrate on Tone and Laughton once more.
The invaluable IMDB tells me Irving Allen was the original director of The Man on the Eiffel Tower, but was replaced by Meredith at Laughton's insistence. I cannot fathom why Laughton thought that would be a good idea. Maybe he wanted someone he could push around.
And Laughton directed Meredith's scenes, which are uniformly the worst in the movie. So let us reflect on that a moment. In 1949, Laughton was a demonstrably lousy director. In 1954 and 1955 Laughton screened D.W. Griffith's movies over and over again as he prepared to direct The Night of the Hunter. The Siren relishes yet more evidence backing up her belief that watching a great movie does more for us than we even dare hope.