Monday 31 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (14) - Black Jack (1950) Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Blackjack. Dir: Julien Duvivier, (& Jose Antonio Nieves Conde), Script; Julien Duvivier, With George Sanders/ Mike Alexander, Herbert Marshall/ Doctor James Curtis, Patricia Roc/ Ingrid Dekker, Agnes Moorehead/Emily Birk, Marcel Dalio/ Captain Nikarescu,, 90 minutes, France/Spain, 1950
I have long wanted to watch a full and good copy of this film but had been thwarted for about 20 years. Even for a late middle-aged viewer (myself) an actioner – swashbuckling film was not going to go astray. Although I had seen the film more or less intact, but the prior copies were very poor – so I thought. Now having assured myself that I had a very good copy, it's clear that much of the film is quite poorly recorded. This contrasts sharply with the director's usual (admittedly studio based) high standards of production. I'm very pleased to have seen the film but I doubt that my review will give it significantly higher ratings than have existed previously and largely continuously. This is an able, only just, substantially commercial film, with quite severe technical limitations, which nonetheless ought to be seen by aficionados of this director as a matter of completion. But it is nowhere near any of his best works and contrasts poorly with the film that preceded Au Royaume des Cieux, (1949)) it and that which followed it Sous le Ciel de Paris (1951)).

As an aside, but possibly important to some, the long-standing Cahiers du Cinema criticism of Duvivier as not being an auteur, seems to me, entirely unjustified. His films are redolent of a bleak and pessimistic view of the world. In this film, basically everyone is crooked, even if not overtly criminal.

A group of actors, all pass their prime, at least in terms of repute, star in this film: George Sanders (Mike Alexander), Herbert Marshall (Dr James Curtis), Patricia Roc (Ingrid Decker) and Agnes Moorehead (Emily Birk). The usually excellent Marcel Dalio (Captain Nikarescu) seems to have substantially forgotten the English he used so well during his stay in America in World War II. None is more than serviceable. Mr Sanders shows a louche indifference to his acting which tended to characterise in my view most of his roles throughout the 1950s and beyond. As everyone knows that indifference culminated in his suicide. The very reliable Mr Marshall who is obviously English (and definitely "of our class dear") is an American doctor and I spent far too much of his time on screen trying to work out which of his legs was the wooden one. He displayed quite remarkable balance and I was unable to work out which it was although I believe it is his left. So much for my interaction with his performance! Patricia Roc, a quite beautiful woman, was nonetheless far too old to play the role of ingenue and Agnes Moorehead was quite severely hampered by post sync dubbing which made her voice very sharp, high and brittle.

Other reviewers have drawn parallels between this storyline and To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944). To me it seems more like a latter-day Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) in which there is on offer a prize for him or her who can get it, of escape from poor broken Europe to the high life of America (or something like it). The prize in this case is a large shipment of illicit drugs from Asia which if received by the procurer of it, Mike Alexander, will give him back as he sees it, the three years he spent in war service for America. Apart from being a drug runner (ameliorated by the fact that this is his first and proposed only shipment of heavy drugs), his normal trade is smuggling between Spain and presumably North Africa, a variety of much less toxic materials: silks, and whatever. He falls for Ingrid Decker, apparently a Swede, although for the life of me why a citizen of that country would be forced to be a refugee without passport or money, rather escapes me. Possibly the reason is on the cutting room floor.

No one is as he or she appears. Dr Curtis is in fact a member of the US narcotics administration, tracking the drugs. Emily Birk, apparently a socialite, is in fact a smuggling competitor of Mike, intent on grabbing the loot from him. Nikarescu seems to have his hands full in pretty much every illicit scheme going. His ancient freighter holds a cargo of refugees, whom he sells out and ultimately drowns and for reasons not fully identified, is also after the drugs. The apparent toyboy of Emily Birk, very much the vaseline stud of the period, is in fact an investigating police inspector!

The above would seem to indicate a fairly light handed contempt for the film, but within its limits, I quite enjoyed it. It is what it is and it is of its day. The director hated it. The main production was in Majorca where production dragged on for an interminable seven months. All film stock had to be sent to the mainland for processing so that the director had very late access to his rushes. Unusually for this period of French "professional production", there is a very significant use of location footage. It is very well handled and given that much of the dialogue is post sync (and often very muffled), one suspects that the director did not have access to sufficiently good and relevant equipment. However this has to be contrasted with the fact that some scenes don't mesh very well with their predecessor or successor scenes, so the director was clearly not fully in charge of his material.

Attention should be given to some quite excellent scenes produced on an oceangoing Windjammer (this is the boat upon which our carried the drugs). It looks like the genuine Spanish Navy cadet training ship! On the deck there is a folkloric dancing scene of appropriately dressed peasant dances. That must have pleased the Fascist regime of Gen Franco.

The film is listed as in "English" and this is consistent with the native language of most of the main actors. I would have guessed but have no assurance that there were other prints made in other European languages for consumption in those countries.

The climax of the film is a sea chase on fast motor launches between Mike and Ingrid, trying to get to international waters, being pursued by the police. If examined closely it is not technically very efficient but I was quite enthralled by the fact that the director was prepared to use cameras at sea, even though there is also some evidence of matte work. Naturally there has to be a cruel ending in this director's work, so Mike is shot in escaping and may well have died, just as safety is reached. Ingrid is left to look "all pale and wan".

Examining the film and particularly its script, it is hard to see that the director had high aspirations and he certainly has not achieved high results. But if one accepts this as his sole aspiration, the film is eminently worth watching. I enjoyed it.

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