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The Forgotten: Forgotten Laughton

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Ansco Color! How shall I sing thy praises? You were a cheap-ass alternative to beautiful, cumbrous three-strip Technicolor, and what you lacked in radiance and romance you made up for in smeary murk. But it's hard to know: since you saved the studios money by dispensing with a negative at all, producing a positive print from which dupes were made, lowering the quality threshold, and since like nearly everything that's been used to capture moving images, you were not chemically stable, it's hard to know if the blurry, shadowy forms that have come down to us in such films as The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) accurately reflect the original look.

The movie, adapted from the same convoluted Georges Simenon novel as Julien Duvivier's moody La tête d'un homme (1933) casts Charles Laughton as Inspector Maigret, with Franchot Tone as a rather well-observed psychopath, and Burgess Meredith as a hapless suspect. The production got off to a fine start when director Irving Allen was fired. An excellent first step for any production. Subsequently, according to Simon Callow's Laughton bio, Meredith took over direction, with Tone handling scenes in which Meredith had to act, and Laughton handling scenes where both men appeared. Thus, the most talented of the three took on the least creative input, but the film became Laughton's only other cinematic work as a director asides from Night of the Hunter (1955). You see, there is a reason to take an interest in this film.

But make no mistake, the film is seriously problematic. The central problem is Laughton's performance, which in no way evokes the Maigret of the novels. The character is such a quiet, bourgeois professional that any actor with definite qualities of his own, or the need to assume a set of characteristics, is apt to overwhelm the part. Pierre Renoir, in his brother Jean's La nuit du carrefour (1932), is just bland enough, whereas Harry Baur's sombre work for Duvivier hits the right note except that Baur, like Jean Gabin in his later three Maigret films, has to show the volcano erupt at least once.

Laughton's performance can be enjoyed if you forget who Maigret is supposed to be: it's a fussy, twitchy piece of work, never boring to watch, but it does rather displace what should be the film's solid center, and clashes somewhat with Burgess Meredith's equally nervous, scuttling character. Tone, meanwhile, skillfully uses his innate creep factor to embody the stone killer, discovered at a crime scene with bags on his feet and surgical gloves on his hands, a rather nightmarish spectacle. His only uncertain moment is when he's required to stand on a girder of the Eiffel Tower, thousands of feet above Paris (no rear projection here!) and look unafraid, a feat few actors could pull off as the wind whips their pants legs about like pennants. Ansco Color can result in an unhealthy pallor in skin tones, but Tone's bilious hue in this case owes nothing to photochemical limitations.

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The state of the picture is especially tragic because this is the movie where Laughton met Stanley Cortez, great photographer of The Magnificent Ambersons and later Night of the Hunter. Cortez's imagery varies in quality here, no doubt due to the vagaries of Ansco Color or the ravages of time, but some of it is very fine. Reversal film tends to produce very high contrast, which results in deep black shadows even in some daylight scenes, and sometimes the more muted tones of the street scenes (mostly supervised by Laughton after the other principles had flown home) sometimes fade into near-monochrome, save for bright spots of chroma from the costumes of passers by. The process seems to inadvertently achieve a kind of black and white in color effect of the kind some modern cinematographers have struggled hard to achieve. Intentional or not, it is sometimes weirdly beautiful.

In some of the scenes Laughton may have directed, a strong noir flavor and feeling of the uncanny permeates the Parisian decor, especially in the scene where Meredith breaks into a mansion and discovers the murderous Tone, in human gore imbued. A later scene where Laughton searches the building, hears a sound, and strides from room to room seeking the unseen intruder, catching sight of a door just as it swings shut, barging through it, seeing the next door close, and the next, feels like it must be Laughton's work, even if he's in it. Or maybe it's just a good situation, ably filmed by Cortez. When the credits are this confused, it's tempting to go on instinct, but we can't really know. The work of the film detective rarely leads to a complete solution.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Ansco color began as the American arm of Agfacolor, the world’s first colour-based film stock, manufactured in Nazi Germany and initially accessed by film-makers through theft. Eisenstein used his contraband for the colour scene of Ivan the Terrible Part II.
Indeed. Fortunately, Ivan has been better preserved than Eiffel.
I had always believed – perhaps because I wanted to believe – that Laughton met Cortez on the set of Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd… but sadly, no. Fascinating piece, David.
I know, one wants to believe that film served SOME purpose…
I have this on the Alpha Video label in what is possibly the worst looking DVD ever made. It’s like someone made it from a worn out 16mm print and then didn’t attend to it as it skipped and fluttered in the transfer process. And then because of the poor film quality it has really washed out colors is blurry and has distorted sound. I’d like to see it some day in a better transfer.

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