Thursday 18 August 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare rediscovers the qualities of Albert Lewin's THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI

On a coach ride after their first night out, the youthful widow Angela Lansbury (Clotidle) says to de Maupassant's supreme cad, George Sanders (Georges DuRoy): “At carnival time I want to dress up... as a young man in a full dress suit. You have no idea of what a charming young man I can be”. In a voice that might have scored him the Oscar for 1946, George curls his lips and throat around the words "Haven't I?!" while fully vocalising both the question and the explanation marks. Of such delivery is a star made.

The cap below of Sanders is from a gorgeous new Blu-ray from Olive films of Albert Lewin's The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, taken from a superb fine grain archival 35mm master, restored by Scorsese and Film Foundation and others with immaculate skill. The movie now looks like Russell Metty just wrapped filming yesterday, and indeed it sounds like Darius Milhaud has just put down the music track with its completely breathtaking quartet of woodwinds, whose voices tootle and hum in constant reference to the major characters, while the strings and bass provide the ballast to one of the great, unsung movie scores.

I have to say Lewin has never been one of my enthusiasms, and indeed this movie doesn't escape some of his barely competent mismanagement of basic decoupage and mise-en-scene. The first eight minute dialogue between Sanders and John Carradine, with one wide set up and two, and later three angle/reverse setups for the duration has more pointless and distracting cutting and editing than the shower scene in Psycho, all to absolutely no purpose.

But the pedigree for this film, even more than any other Lewin picture I feel, is so great - the cast from paradise, the screenplay by the director himself - a masterwork of censor dodging which he largely covers with barely held reaction shots, or curls of the lip, and simply terrific lighting cues that meaningfully open and close so many sequences from Metty. The material is great because the original Maupassant was great, and the nominal "scoundrel" himself is irresistible because he brings undone so much towering hypocrisy and evil all around him to the point that his own inevitable demise, in another, last wonderful carriage ride, calls for all our sympathy. It's one of Dame George's five best performances to be sure.

And lest I be assailed by the sisterhood for neglect, this is a movie and text in which women are sexually responsive, indeed they more often than not initiate the encounters and affairs and marriages that drive the narrative. Although the picture was made in 46 and not released until April 1947, it still seems too "grown up" for most people these days. It needed a director of Lewin's sophistication to keep the drama running with such mordant comedy.

Far and away Lewin's best picture.

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