Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Arsène Lupin (1932)

Supremely grumpy Parisian police inspector Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) has been hunting for gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (?) for quite some time now without ever even coming close to catching his man, leaving the police quite embarrassed. After his newest failure, during which he arrests the Duke of Charmerace (John Barrymore) as Lupin, an idea that is of course utterly impossible, Guerchard is given one final week to catch Lupin.

Guerchard is convinced the Duke actually is the thief, and the duke certainly doesn’t act like he isn’t, so it’s a helpful “coincidence” for everyone involved when Charmerace heroically volunteers for helping protect the jewellery and paintings of one Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) - rich people must help each other out, dontcha know – Lupin seems to be after next. The thief doesn’t have to cope with a tenacious, if sometimes ridiculous, detective who is now very close on his trail now alone, though, there’s also danger for his heart in form of Russian noblewoman Sonia (Karen Morley).

But romancing his perfect woman, thwarting the police in anti-authoritarian ways, and stealing various valuables is all in a night’s work for him.

It’s pretty curious that what seems to be the first really successful screen adventure of French master thief Arsène Lupin was not made in France but by MGM. But then, the early 30s were – at least quality-wise – one of the high points of this sort of light, somewhat pulpy, mystery film in Hollywood, so the character just fit the vibe of its surroundings quite nicely, if one can excuse the horrible things some of the actors involved do to French names. I suspect these films – at least when they involve highly moral law-breakers - were becoming increasingly difficult to make once the production code began its sad reign, for how do you make a film a bout a thief hero when the rules you have to work under say that criminal behaviour on screen has to be punished. Which is pretty much the opposite of what’s happening here, where even Guerchard is in the very end so charmed by his eternal opponent he helps his arch enemy escape. I’m actually quite interested in how the production code Lupin films that do exist got around the problem, and will report once I’ve found out. I very much suspect just letting him get hitched like this film does won’t be enough, and am right now betting on the old “thief who only steals from thieves”.

John Barrymore certainly is a wonderful Lupin, embodying the humour, the verve, and the strange morality (because at least this version of Lupin is far from being amoral, he’s just working from different ethical assumptions) of the character, as well as the romance inherent in its basic concept; and all this while looking good in early 30s evening wear. Casting John’s brother Lionel as his eternal nemesis Guerchard also turns out to be quite a coup. These two have a highly enjoyable screen chemistry going on as antagonists, which makes at least half the fun in a piece like this.

I’m also quite fond of how in Lionel Barrymore’s hands  Guerchard is not one of these bumbling cops that usual hunt the loveable rogues, but clearly a capable, if sometimes cynical and perhaps even cruel, man who is probably only missing a bit of luck to catch his prey. This makes the whole plot of “in which delightful way will Lupin fool the policeman next?” quite a bit more exciting than it could otherwise be, leading to a game of silly yet awesome, sometimes eyebrow-raising, fun.

For once the script (by Lenore Coffee, Bayard Veiller and Carey Wilson) is up to the task too, going about its business with the appropriate breakneck speed, while throwing out one witty line after the other. Because this is the pre-code era, there’s also some fun sexual innuendo between Morley and John Barrymore, with a kind of matter-of-fact positivity towards sex you won’t even find all that often in films today (we’re really much more interested in seeing people punished for their sexual behaviour today than watching them enjoy it, it seems).

Jack Conway’s direction finishes off Arsène Lupin’s all-around excellence with an approach that’s as sprightly as you could away with in a talkie made in 1932, doing justice to the actors, the often clever sets, and each and every fun idea the script throws at its audience.

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