Saturday, July 4, 2015

In short: Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)

Someone attempts to steal a particularly valuable emerald necklace from the de Grissac family just when they’ve come to the USA to sell it, yet only manages to steal a copy of it. The would-be jewel thief leaves all the hallmarks of the famed Arsène Lupin behind, if you ignore the fact he’d never by so unstylish in his approach as he’s shown to be here, would hardly confuse a copy with the original, and that he’s supposed to be dead.

Of course, Lupin (this time around Melvyn Douglas) is still around and kicking (see the first film from six years earlier), having settled down in the guise of gentleman farmer Rene Farrand. Ironically, Lupin/Farrand is attempting to woo de Grissac’s niece Lorrain (Virginia Bruce), despite her being the most boring character alive. So quite naturally, former lamplight addicted FBI agent, now insurance security man, Steve Emerson (Warren William), quickly gets it into his head that not only is Farrand Lupin but also trying to steal the necklace. At least he’s half right. I’m sure the fact that Emerson also has taken an interest in Lorraine has nothing at all to do with his ideas.

Lupin, particularly once someone pretending to be him is still trying to steal the necklace when everyone is back in France and even that unstylish crime known as murder happens, has to take on the unfamiliar role of detective, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with Emerson and wooing Lorraine.

George Fitzmaurice’s Arsene Lupin Returns is quite an example of how stupid the production code holding Hollywood back for a few decades actually was, with its gentleman thief (in the first, pre-code film still very much that) not being allowed to be an actual thief anymore (no charming people stealing from the rich for you, America!), and instead having reformed and doing the whole amateur detective bit. It would be a thing easily to get annoyed about, but the film at hand doesn’t actually deserve anyone’s ire.

It is, indeed, quite a fun little flick, with Douglas and William both doing different variations on the suave detective character, fighting each other over a cause and a woman with such enthusiasm and camaraderie it’s always clear these guys are doing what they do because they enjoy themselves so much. On the negative side, this leaves Lorraine as not much more than a trophy and a prop, and a particularly boring one at that. But then, criticizing this means applying deeper thought than the film actually merits.

This, after all, is meant to be slight, slick diversion that makes you smile (and probably swoon) about its smart leads while being entertained and a bit excited by their plotting and counterplotting, and at that Arsene Lupin Returns is quite adept indeed.

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