Sunday, January 8, 2012
A Scandal in Paris (1946)
Douglas Sirk’s 1946 film A Scandal in Paris (Thieves' Holiday) is a fictionalised account of the extraordinary career of François Eugène Vidocq, a famous criminal who became an even more famous policeman.
Vidocq’s misspent youth was very misspent indeed. He allegedly killed a fencing instructor at the age of 14, joined the army several times and was cashiered just as many times, fought many duels, was a professional gambler, a thief, a forger and a pirate. After which he became a police spy and went on to found the French criminal investigation department of the Paris police, the Sûreté. He was one of the pioneers of modern police methods, especially the use of undercover operations and was renowned as a master of disguise
When I say the film fictionalises his life it should be noted that most of what is known about Vidocq comes from his own accounts of his life and is most likely highly unreliable. Either way he was obviously perfect material for a movie, and who better to play a charming rogue than George Sanders?
In the movie version Vidocq is as notorious for his pursuit of the ladies as for his pursuit of dishonest money, and ideally prefers to combine both. Stealing the ruby-studded garter of the girlfriend of the chief of the Paris police is one of his more colourful exploits, although it’s one that will come back to haunt him.
Vidocq actually starts the movie in prison. He escapes along with his cell-mate, Emile Vernet (Akim Tamiroff). He gets a job, posing as a model for an equestrian painting of St George and the dragon, and promptly steals both horse and costume. A chance encounter in a graveyard brings him into contact with the family of the Minister of Police. He naturally takes the opportunity to rob their house. And then an idea occurs to him. The Minister has fired his Chief of Police for being unable to solve the crime - if Vidocq could present him with the solution, and the stolen jewels, the Minister might be persuaded to appoint him as Chief of Police. Just imagine the possibilities that might open up for criminal activities on a scale he has not previously even been able to contemplate.
There is a complication however. The beautiful daughter of the Minister, Therese (Signe Hasso), has fallen in love with the man in the painting of St George, who is of course Vidocq. When she meets the actual Vidocq she discovers he really is the man she wants, but she’s a virtuous young woman and could never marry a thief. In fact she wants to save him from his life of wickedness. Will he choose love or crime?
This movie is a delight from start to finish. It’s a complete romp, and makes no concessions to anything as boring as realism. Vidocq’s biography is outrageous and fanciful and the movie takes its cue from that. The dialogue sparkles. The sets and costumes are extravagant. The tone is light-hearted, sophisticated and good-natured. The scene on the Chinese carousel is a nice touch.
George Sanders is of course superb in a role that allows him full scope for his talents. He gets fine support from Gene Lockhart as Richet, the former Chief of Police, and Carole Landis as Richet’s wife.
This movie is total entertainment and I can’t recommend it too highly. Absolute joy.
Odeon’s all-region UK DVD release boasts no extras but sound and picture quality are generally good.