Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

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.


katiedid said...

Love Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum was incomparable in it. I don't suppose you take requests do you? I'd love to hear you expound on that one.

Campaspe said...

We bought Night of the Hunter because Mr. Campaspe has never seen it, and we plan to watch it soon. Almost did last night, but life intervened. I am hugely flattered. If I can think of a thing to say about it that hasn't been said better already, I will certainly do it. After all, I have done briefs on The Searchers and Tokyo Story and now even Citizen Kane, so what is there to be afraid of, really? :D

Peter Nellhaus said...

I finally got around to seeing Jamaica Inn. Kind of cute. I enjoyed the performaces of Laughton, Newton and Williams. As for Night of the Hunter, do you think Laughton had Miss Lillian on the set to ask what D.W. would do?

Campaspe said...

Peter, Gish said Laughton told her that audiences were too comfortable, sitting back in their seats, munching popcorn. Laughton said he wanted them to jump out of their seats, as they did in David Wark's day.

I'm not sure what he asked her on set; she had a dispute over her billing (god, actors get SO bent out of shape over billing) and wouldn't do publicity for the film, and I assume maybe that's why she gives this classic maybe 2 grafs in her memoirs.

Jamaica Inn is fun, isn't it? More a curio than anything else. But I really did like Emlyn Williams, and of course Laughton is a hoot.

Exiled in NJ said...

I believe there is something about Maigret that will not translate to the screen. I love the man and his surroundings, where we are always told of the weather but nothing of what is really going on around him: the Depression, the Popular Front-National Front tensions, the Nazis or the student revolts of 1968. Even in his first books like 'Stonewall', he is of late middle age, and while Janvier and 'young' laPoint eventually join Lucas, and prosecutor Comelieu(?) fades out, nothing really changes. Maigret goes on solving cases, or letting the 'criminal' walk if he thinks the victim deserves it. In 'Maigret Stonewalled', which is the English title, he solves the case for his own self-respect but lets the widow keep her insurance money rather than let the big company know it was suicide.

BBC tried to capture him with Gambon, but in that BBC way, everything was too spot on and he did not come alive. Too much of his work takes place in his brain, in his emotional reaction to the matter at hand, but emotions that do not boil over into real life.

I see on IMDB that Jean Gabin played him, as did others. I have heard rumors that Phillippe Noiret made a wonderful Maiget, but can't find where.

Thanks for the wonderful crit of Eiffel Tower. Now I shall have to go looking for it. And note that 'Hunter' was screenplayed by James Agee, along with Davis Grubb, the author of the book.

surlyh said...

Laughton and Meredith are two slices from different ends of the ham. Though often over-the-top, Laughton was capable of good work, and work that was scaled to the camera. Meredith was destined to play The Penguin.

Preston Neal Jones said...

As a matter of fact, EIFFEL TOWER has now been restored by Robert Gitt's celebrated team at UCLA. I don't know if it's been made available on DVD.

I only saw the film once, when UCLA screened their restored version a few years ago, so I don't feel secure commenting on particular scenes or performances. I will say that Laughton directed more pieces of EIFFEL TOWER than just the scenes with Burgess Meredith. And, while it's true that Laughton and his production team on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER viewed a lot of Griffith films -- plus OTHER silent classics, from a period in movie-making Laughton generally admired -- by the time this "demonstrably lousy director" got around to making HUNTER he had directed several outstandingly successful Broadway stage productions. But I do concur in your general theory about the benefits of watching great movies.

I can't concur in Surlyh's general low opinion of Burgess Meredith's acting career, nor I daresay would Laughton, but as Mark Twain said, it's a difference of opinion that makes horse races. Like his friend and occasional colleague Laughton, Meredith was a masterful storyteller/narrator, and his best work, including OF MICE AND MEN and that famous Twilight Zone episode, have stood the test of time.

As to why Irving Allan was removed, the conjecture that Laughton may have wanted somebody he could push around is countered by the memory of actor William Phipps, as reported in my book, "Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER." According to Phipps, it was inexperienced, insecure Allan who was pushing the actors around; plus which, his ineffectual use of Paris locations left a lot to be desired. When he stood up Laughton on two separate occasions, that was the last straw.

Incidentally, Allan was not the only casualty of those first few weeks' shooting. The original cinematographer was fired and replaced by Stanley Cortez. When star and cameraman met in Paris, Laughton's first words were, "So you're taking the picture over. Well, I'm very happy to meet you, you big bastard." To which Cortez answered, "I'm very happy to meet you, you fat son of a bitch." From that moment, according to Cortez, "We became the dearest of friends." The rest is history -- and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.