Monday, May 23, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) - An Olive Films DVD Review

George Sanders and a deep cast star in THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (1947), just released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films.

I had never seen this film before watching it, thanks to the new Olive DVD. It's interesting and absorbing, if ultimately imperfect and a bit pointless. It plays rather like a Gainsborough melodrama from the UK, although not quite as much fun.

It's Paris in 1880, and Georges Duroy (George Sanders), a former soldier, is broke. By chance he runs into an old friend, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), and Charles generously sets Georges up in a job at his newspaper.

Georges quickly proves himself quite the climber, both socially and careerwise. Georges is loved by Clotilde (Angela Lansbury), a young widow with a little girl (Karolyn Grimes), but when the consumptive Charles dies, Georges sees a better opportunity in marrying Charles's clever widow (Ann Dvorak).

Georges, who acquires the nickname Bel Ami, is also entangled with the wife (Katherine Emery) of his boss (Hugo Haas), her daughter (Susan Douglas), and for good measure a lovely violinist (Frances Dee).

On the career front, Georges tangles with Laroche-Mathieu (Warren William, in his last role). And as if all this wasn't enough, Georges is also out to snag himself a title.

Where will all this loose living and calculated plotting end? On a dueling field, of course!

I'm a big fan of George Sanders, listing him as a favorite actor, but I found him less compelling in this than most of his films. It probably didn't help that he's saddled with an ugly mustache which made him look older than the 40 or 41 he was when he made this.

His character is something of an enigma for much of the film, increasingly revealed to be nothing but grasping and selfish. There's a scene where he explains to Clotilde how important it is for him, coming from a poor background, to conquer Paris, but given that he's turning down a warm future with Clotilde at the time, the viewer is not inclined to be sympathetic.

Sanders plays sort of the male version of a femme fatale, yet somehow he's not especially interesting. George Sanders, dull?! I never thought I'd use that adjective to describe him, yet I was surprised to realize that I was enjoying Carradine and William more than Sanders and his increasingly predictable character.

Lansbury is poignant as a lovely young woman who is taken with Georges at first meeting; she hopes for a future with him, while clearly seeing his flaws. Unfortunately, her Clotilde is too weak to turn her back on Georges and move on to finding a more fulfilling relationship and a healthier father figure for her daughter.

I especially liked Dee, radiant in a small role. Like Lansbury's character, she clearly sees Georges' flaws, but unlike Lansbury's Clotilde, she will not be another enabler. Georges muses that she might be the only really good woman he's ever known.

Dvorak is elegant as the wife Georges uses on his way up the ladder, then discards; in a rather startling scene which shows just how far gone they both are from any sort of decency, they negotiate the terms of their future marriage almost at the foot of her dying husband's bed. Emery is touching as a rigid woman who is wooed by Georges, then thrown over for her own daughter.

The film reunited writer-director Albert Lewin with both Sanders and Lansbury, whom he had directed in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945).

Lewin's script for this film was based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant. The overly flowery dialogue tends, at times, to make one feel the actors are playing at being "literary." There are moments of affecting depth, but at times the movie also feels pretty shallow. Perhaps that's why, in the end, I found myself wondering about the point of it all.

The movie was filmed in black and white by Russell Metty. It runs 112 minutes.

I do feel compelled to note that the dialogue captioning, which I happened to turn on when watching the movie at a low volume late at night, is rather bizarre; there was frequently no attempt to include the words, with "(mumbles)" appearing instead, even when I could understand the dialogue! It was most odd.

Otherwise, this Olive Films DVD is a gorgeous print. There are no extras.

Thanks to Olive Films for providing a review copy of this DVD.


Blogger Jocelyn said...

Hi Laura, I had to comment as I saw this movie for the first time a little over a year ago at the Harvard Film Archive. I 100% agree with your review! I went for George Sanders, and I was disappointed, too. (He rarely disappoints). He seemed to not be able to 'get going' as a character. Odd. It was a film overall gorgeous to look at and had interesting possibilities. Ann Dvorak created a compelling character, as did Warren William, who IMO had too little to do. Interestingly, in the bio of Warren William "Magnificent Scoundrel", the author John Stangeland panned Sanders' performance in the film, saying William would have done a better job and wrestling sympathy from the audience while remaining a cad, and Sanders should have asked him for some pointers! :-)

5:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Jocelyn! Given how much I usually enjoy Sanders, I wondered if I were having an "off" viewing night, so I was really interested that you had the same reaction, even seeing it on a big screen! (It must have looked great!) I agree, Dvorak is always interesting to watch, and William should have had more screen time. An interesting idea if William had played the role (though perhaps too old at the time it was filmed?).

Thanks again!

Best wishes,

8:20 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I have only seen extremely poor prints of this film and look forward to catching this DVD release sometime. It is difficult to enjoy what may be enjoyed when you wish your eyes had windshield wipers.

6:29 PM  

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