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Friday, 27 November 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (37) - Max Berghouse reviews The Impostor

The Impostor (aka Strange Confession).  Producer & Director Julien Duvivier, Script, Marc Connelly and Julien Duvivier,  Music, Dimitri Tiomkin 
Cast: Jean Gabin (Clement/Maurice Lefarge), Richard Whorf (Lt Varenne), Alan Joslyn (Bouteau), Ellen Drew (Yvonne), Eddie Quillan (Cochery) and Peter (van) Eyck (Hafner). Universal Pictures, USA, 1944, 92 minutes

This American-made studio production is generally credited as terminating the Hollywood careers of both star and director. This seems worthy of comment. Jean Gabin was just one of many many European actors "stranded" in Hollywood, the bulk of them central European Jews. Most of these actors were fairly proficient in English whereas Gabin was not. And certainly not on the evidence of this film, where his limited grasp of formal language and idiom, accentuates a relatively wooden performance. His English certainly improved in the post-war period but it seems generally acknowledged that his career was set back by about a decade. Both he and the director very much wanted Hollywood success (who wouldn't?). Equally, while being by no means unattractive, he was not handsome in the general Hollywood mould and to some extent his lack of Hollywood success matches that of a similar actor: Maurice Chevalier, a decade before. By contrast and by way of example, Charles Boyer conveyed the smoothness of the boulevardier which American audiences would expect of a French actor. 

Lastly from the studio's perspective (although this is purely conjecture on my part), by 1944, with the war being clearly won, and with the gradual and then increasing return of better-known actors returning from war service, they would have been little need for such a problematical quality as Gabin. Similarly the film is generally credited as destroying any hope of a future that Duvivier had of a continuing Hollywood career but I shall deal with this issue below.

The plot is almost exactly the same as Raoul Walsh's Uncertain Glory (USA,1944). Both concern errant men seeking redemption by service in war to their country. Clement (Gabin) escapes from death row and almost immediate execution by the guillotine when his prison is bombed by the Germans at the very beginning of World War II. He escapes along with many other stranded French soldiers (played presumably by American actors who were considered unfit for military service) to the French Congo at Brazzaville where they construct a new camp in the jungle as a prelude to action against the Germans who were incidentally about 2000 miles away in Libya. 

Setting the action in the colonial jungle provides the opportunity of displaying a more or less imaginary colonial landscape of sun helmets, very long shorts with long socks and some assorted docile black people. It is very hard to take this seriously but it is no worse and no better than many other films of the period. After all what did the average viewer in Boise Idaho know about the French colonies? It is a mixture of studio sets, footage of American woodland, presumably photographed as stock footage in the Californian mountains, some stock footage of genuine jungle and imaginary jungle. All quite typical.

Clement distinguishes himself in service, rising in the ranks to officer level and thus looking very distinguished wearing a Sam Browne belt. Not only is this "interlude" excessively long, it destroys any chance of real connection between the incipient plot of Clement as murderer (even one revealed as having had no real chance at life – of course there has to be some excuse for his crime!) and the denouement of his ultimate exposure and punishment. At the beginning Clement is a man without interest in life and this might be considered reasonable in view of his unhappy upbringing, even if this is simply described by him rather than experienced by us. Whereas Clement derives real purpose and apparent fulfillment in action with his buddies and for "the cause". Yet at the climax of the film, he sacrifices himself in circumstances that may not have been necessary and seem contrary to the enlightenment he has received in service to date. These are infelicities in plot and script which I think would have been corrected were not the director his own producer and scriptwriter.

A major inducement for the director to seek employment in Hollywood was to gain access to the studio system and its infinitely greater resources than those of his home country, France. Within the standards of the time, this is fully shown in the film I saw: the print is exemplary and crisp with clearly delineated gradations of light and shadow. There is only one battle scene, at the climax and perhaps for a film which would have been perceived as a "war film", the general lack of action would have told against audience reaction. That said this climax is exemplary, as least as so far as it concerns the French forces who seemed to be, at least partly in real-life surroundings (whereas their German counterparts are just as clearly in a studio) and done on a considerably larger canvas than I have ever seen before with Duvivier.

The film has only one female actor, Ellen Drew and she is competent. As ever the director extracts much better performances from men.


Certainly not a great film but eminently worthy of being watched by those committed to this director' s oeuvre.

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