The first thing that strikes you about George Sanders' filmography, after you get over its length, is that he worked with a lot of great directors. Renoir, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Duvivier, De Mille, Ulmer, Siodmak. Three good movies for Douglas Sirk, two more good movies for John Brahm. George Cukor, albeit on the misbegotten Her Cardboard Lover. Otto Preminger, for Forever Amber and The Fan--and wouldn't you have loved to see Preminger trying his Prussian dictator act with the unflappable Sanders? For that matter, the Siren yearns to learn whether Sanders bothered to hit any of Fritz Lang's chalkmarks on Man Hunt, or if he just raised an eyebrow and stood where he jolly well pleased. The Siren does know, thanks to Brian Kellow, that Sanders infuriated Joan Bennett by sitting in the director's chair and letting the ladies stand. If you knew nothing else about Sanders, this alone would confirm his sang-froid. I mean, would you sit in Fritz Lang's chair?
Sanders did great work for many of those directors, and even in the lesser movies he was never boring. But he gave three of his best performances for a director judged guilty of vulgarizing literature and "cultural evangelism" by Andrew Sarris and called "that idiosyncrat" by David Thomson. That would be Albert Lewin, the man at right in the still above, a vividly original artist whom the Siren thinks merits more consideration than he usually gets. Of the three Lewin/Sanders films, the Siren ranks The Moon and Sixpence third, although it's interesting and deserves a better fate than the cut-rate DVD currently circulating. The best is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a supremely atmospheric evocation of Oscar Wilde that spooks the bejesus out of the Siren whenever she catches it. Sanders is perfect as the mephistophelian Lord Henry Wotton, who lures Dorian into degradation only to recoil at the results. It is as hard to imagine another actor as Lord Henry as it is to picture Gary Cooper playing Addison DeWitt.
So the Siren has now seen Sanders in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which languishes in only-on-crappy-VHS hell. Some say this is his best performance. It isn't--the best are still Addison and Viaggio in Italia--but it is excellent all the same.
The Siren has mentioned her love for Guy de Maupassant, one of those writers Hollywood was always adapting with merry disregard for the fact that the Production Code kept his best bits off-screen. Lewin, who started as a producer, must have known Joe Breen was never going to countenance the ending of the original novel, wherein homme fatal Georges Duroy marries the daughter of his boss and looks at all he has wrought without a trace of self-reproach. Lewin must also have realized he would have to add some version of True Love for his amoral hero because the studios always wanted some lovers around, whether the star was George Sanders or Groucho Marx.
Still, it's easy to see why Lewin would choose this novel. For one thing, the setting must have been irresistible. Lewin takes on the Belle Epoque with the eye of an art collector, and as in all of his movies, he creates a dreamy parallel world where you are supposed to believe in the aesthetics, not the history. The sets on Bel-Ami look like sets, the backdrops look like backdrops, the proportions of the rooms are always slightly off and not one street or cafe recalls anything the Siren has seen in Paris. Probably the underlying reason was a low budget, but the Siren firmly believes that Lewin knew exactly what he was creating with production designer Gordon Wiles, art director Frank Paul Sylos and cinematographer Russell Metty. The effect is still beautiful, like watching characters in dollhouses. You aren't supposed to look and say, "Ah yes, that's exactly what Paris looked like in 1880." Rather, Lewin signals the lack of reality at every turn--this is a fable, decorated with a moral that you can either accept or snip off like the ribbon on a corset.
Sanders' Georges Duroy is nicknamed Bel-Ami by the women he climbs over to get to the top of Parisian society. The Siren's favorite line comes early on. "I have need of a stout stick," says Duroy at the beginning, as he looks at a Punch doll, "to beat my way." He even repeats that bit of subtlety not three minutes later.
Duroy starts his ascent by accepting a job from his friend Forestier, played by John Carradine, whose characters always look as though they are dying of consumption even when they aren't. In Bel Ami, Carradine coughs and signals another tubercular turn, although he is good in the part. Duroy realizes Forestier is dying. Duroy also sees quickly that his friend's writing owes a great deal, maybe everything, to his clever wife Madeleine (Ann Dvorak, a perfect Art Nouveau beauty and delicious in the role). Duroy sets his sights on marrying Madeleine, to the point that he proposes to her by Forestier's deathbed almost before that unfortunate gentleman has completed the formality of dying. Madeleine accepts, and they become quite the Parisian power couple, until Georges is ready to move on via an affair with his boss's wife (an affecting Katherine Emery).
Madeleine tries to ease her loneliness with an affair, and Georges arranges to have a photographer catch the lovers' assignation. (Did Sanders file this idea away for future reference?) In the book Madeleine sleeps with a minister; in the movie it's Duroy's sworn enemy Laroche-Mathieu, and Bel Ami has thrown her together with him. As soon as you see that Laroche-Mathieu is played by Warren William (looking rather ill in this, his last role) you realize Duroy is a gone goose. But before the tale ends, with a well-executed duel, Duroy will dump his boss's wife and attempt to marry the boss's daughter.
Are you confused? Because I forgot the subplot about Bel Ami buying a title. Not to mention the love of faithful Clothilde, who meets Bel Ami early on, falls in love with him and thaws his heart a bit, but not enough for him to stop his cheatin' ways. Can she save his soul?
Clothilde is played by Angela Lansbury, here in the full flower of her peculiar, doll's-head beauty, and almost as moving as she was in Dorian Gray. She has great chemistry with Sanders, particularly in a scene where she persuades him to take her to a down-and-dirty boîte--very Toulouse-Lautrec, just as a later scene will evoke Manet. Lewin manages great fake-out shot, panning over a seemingly passed-out woman. The music starts, the woman picks her head up off the table, and it turns out she's the floor show, as she sings the Bel-Ami theme song that recurs through the movie.
Before that, Sanders and Lansbury dance the can-can in one of the Siren's favorite Sanders moments of all time. He and Clothilde are dancing away very nicely, and for a minute he looks almost grim, even as he's kicking (and he had a pretty good leg extension, did George). Then his face softens as--for the only time in the movie--you see Duroy thinking hmm, this is...what is the word I'm looking for...tip of my tongue...hop-kick, hop-kick...why, it's FUN. The Bel Ami/Clothilde romance takes on life after that. Duroy's behavior toward Clothilde will get worse, and her devotion to him less explainable, until you think back to this moment.
Bel-Ami is the spiritual cousin not of Lord Henry, but of Dorian, a man whose sexual allure makes him both art object and instrument of destruction. In Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield's affectless beauty and near-uniform line readings keep things abstract; in the Private Affairs of Bel Ami, that's the job of the sets. Sanders was good-looking and he had that prowling baritone voice, but he didn't have Hatfield's perfect face. So he has to convince us of Duroy's sex appeal by some other means.
In the first scene, Duroy has just returned from being a soldier in Algeria. He enters a sidewalk cafe and brushes past a seated woman. She looks up, likes what she sees and saunters over. Sanders barely bothers to size her up--aside from sex, she can give him nothing, so she is nothing, and at first he brushes her off like Cardinal Richilieu dismissing a scullery maid. And, despite the fact that the character is a Frenchman, moreover a Frenchman who has been in the army for several years, you believe it--that Sanders is instantly appealing to a pretty woman, the brush-off, everything. The force of Sanders' charisma is that strong, and it's there because he doesn't care that it's there. And when he goes back to her, and gets her a drink after all, and she beams at him, it makes sense as well. "I've noticed that women take to men who have the look of wickedness," he muses.
More than the air of bored cynicism that Sarris cites, what made Sanders the ideal actor for Lewin was his presentational style. Sanders was so much wittier, so much more clued-in than anyone else on screen that he skewed reality just by showing up (that is, until he met his match in Roberto Rossellini). There are only a handful of actors who could give as much zip to a witticism ("I disapprove of hypocrisy in other people") no matter how labored or wordy.
In addition to deliberately overwrought art direction, Lewin always worked from ornate scripts. And when Sarris and Thomson disparage Bel Ami as too literary, they miss the irony. Duroy speaks almost in a series of epigrams, and yet Duroy can't write. An early, well-shot scene shows Duroy in his meager flat, trying to write an article commissioned as an act of kindness by Forestier, and Duroy can't do it. He has to enlist Madeleine, who in turn has been helping Forestier write all this time as well. Duroy is an artist without artistic talent, working instead to create a life of perfect selfishness. In this he will no more succeed than he does in writing an article, and for that reason the Code-mandated ending works for Lewin's Bel Ami, even if it turns Maupassant's novel upside-down.
Thwarted love and thwarted art is something that pops up, in Technicolor, in all of Lewin's movies, from the burning masterpiece in Moon and Sixpence, to poor lovelorn Basil's Picture of Dorian Gray, to the Flying Dutchman painting the same face down the centuries. In Bel Ami, the Technicolor picture is an anachronistic Max Ernst.
This cheery daub, according to a very amusing blog post, was chosen in a publicity contest sponsored by Lewin's production company. Pitting Surrealists against one another was Lewin's idea of how to lure the American public. No wonder he eventually went broke. The Ernst picture is an obvious summary of the temptations gnawing at all the characters, but it's also a typical Lewin flourish, another way of jolting the audience out of comfy notions about a period piece. How many other Hollywood filmmakers, in 1947, were deliberately reminding the audience of the artificiality of the very thing they are watching?*
The Siren really, really liked this movie, for Sanders, the dialogue, the strong female performances, and for the intoxicated and (yes, Mr. Sarris) evangelical way Lewin throws his artiness at you. Unfortunately, the VHS copy provided to the Siren by an extremely kind reader doesn't do it justice. It's like watching a movie through clear Jell-o. The Technicolor shot of the Ernst looks like early Tex Avery. The even more delirious, equally original Pandora and the Flying Dutchman got a restoration and revival last year, courtesy of Martin Scorsese and George Eastman House. Is it too much to ask that someone complete the reassessment of Lewin, and release a restored Bel Ami?
*Perhaps we will get the answer from the excellent 1947 Project at Category D.
Note: Clear, marvelous images from The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami, as well as some publicity stills, are available at this comprehensive Ann Dvorak site. In particular, dig the fantastic set here, the Siren's favorite in the movie, and the composition here and here. The catch: hideous watermarks. However, the site's proprietor says that she will send un-marked scans to people for personal use.