Thursday 17 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (18) - Black Jack, (France/Spain/UK, 1950) - Some further thoughts

Duvivier returned from Hollywood after WW2. His first film was the Simenon adaptation Panique (1946). It is one of his very best, in the top handful, and it was a box-office failure. He went to England to make Anna Karenina (1948) for Alexander Korda, returned to France to make Au Royaume des Cieux/The Sinners  (1949) and then made Black Jack in 1950. Absent any biographical information we dont know what the conditions of this production were nor even why Duvivier should embark upon it, beyond perhaps any need to pay the rent. (For the last couple of years, every time I see a movie like this I am irresistibly reminded of Bruce Beresford's memoir/diary from 2007 "Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this..." with its rich vein of stories about film industry stupidity, greed and avarice. The producer of international co-productions is a particularly malevolent creature.) (Max Berghouse's earlier review of this film is at

Picking at the entrails, you would like to know where this enterprise started. According to the credits, Duvivier produced the film. It seems more likely that the money for the production was cobbled together by Alexander Salkind. (His Alsa Productions gets the opening credit.) Salkind spent a lifetime putting together international co-productions both large and small. Some, like Orson Welles The Trial (1962) have an enduring reputation and some, most especially his Superman (1978) and the two for the price of one  Three & Four Musketeers (1973 & 1974) movies were extremely successful with the crowd.

The main writing credit goes to Charles Spaak, a collaborator with Duvivier from his golden streak in the mid-thirties that started with La Bandera (1935). In the thirties Spaak worked as well with Feyder, Renoir, Gremillon, Allegret and L'Herbier among others. He was a major figure in the French cinema and eventually contributed to over one hundred screenplays.

Anyway, here's the screen with the writing credits:

Screenplay by
Charles Spaak
Julien Duvivier

Based on an idea by
Robert Gaillard

Dialogue by
Michael Perthwee (sic)

Spanish Adviser
Jose A Nieves Conde

Which of course tells us nothing as to how somebody managed to assemble some major Hollywood names (George Sanders, Herbert Marshall and Agnes Moorhead), the British beauty Patricia Roc and others including Marcel Dalio as well as a first rate technical crew. The story would have helped for it was/is right off the front pages. Strangely on the day I watched it,  Hungarian troopers were fire-hosing down refugees trying to cross from the Serbian border. It remains up to the minute.

Ask what Duvivier did to stitch up the 97 minutes of running time is and we're back to square one. It's open to much surmise. Most obviously he added in some musical diversions - flamenco singing and dancing in a night club, some auditions by would be performers taking place while Mike Alexander (George Sanders) is trying to organise something shady, a group folk dance down by the port in celebration of what we know not. There is a credit for some performing group whom I assume supply the personnel for all these incidentals.

The film was made in English and the stars dubbed their own voices. Sanders plays some sort of a variation on Harry Lime, an amoral but charming rogue with a chip on his shoulder about what the war cost him. He is a dabbler in shady matters but his big hope lies in a shipment of drugs he is due to collect. Before that happens he is approached by floundering sea captain Nikarescu (Marcel Dalio) seeking assistance with the offloading of a boat load of refugees he is almost aimlessly piloting round the Mediterranean. Mike agrees to help sort of. He will offload a half dozen or so who can pay a fee. The rest he suggests be dumped on an uninhabited island and the ship sunk. Mike's attention is taken, when he goes aboard to negotiate the handover by the enigmatic Ingrid Dekker (Patricia Roc).

Back on land Mike runs into his old mate Dr James Curtis, a US drug agency chief playing with his usual upper-class accent by the wooden legged Herbert Marshall. (We are a long way from Trouble in Paradise at this point.). He's on the trail of a major drug bust but cant believe his mate Mike is involved. Not so Emily Birk (Agnes Moorehead) a socialite who flies into town in her own plane but who is really an undercover cop trying to get the participants in this major drug deal that clearly everyone know about. She's immediately romanced by some smooth gigolo who turns out to be Inspector Carnero of the Spanish police who has gone undercover because he's trying to foil a major drug bust.

Mike almost gets away with it all not before redeeming himself by tipping out the drugs and falling in love with Ingrid. The drugs, it turns out, have been carried on board the same ship as all those refugees. Nikarescu, it also turns out, locked the refugees in the hold and sank the ship but only part of it went underwater, unfortunately the part containing the refugees.

As you can appreciate whatever Spaak and Duvivier thought they might be doing, a post The Third Man story about a pressing problem, spun out with local colour, doesn't come off. Not really Duvivier's bag this sort of intrigue. He's best at subtle personal relations, tension between friends, irony, pessimism. International intrigue is way out of his comfort zone. Which brings us back to the lack of biographical info and the basic knowledge of how such films get made and why. The mysteries of Duvivier's roller coaster ride and his peripatetic activity remain.

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