Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is a 1949 murder mystery movie with a particularly involved and incoherent plot, but for all its messiness and muddle it’s worth seeing for some very clever action scenes.

This was a very troubled production with star Charles Laughton at one stage threatening to walk off the picture unless the director was replaced. As a result Laughton’s co-star Burgess Meredith took over as director. The chaos of the production is unfortunately reflected on the screen, with nobody seeming to have any clear idea of exactly the type of movie they were trying to make. Laughton and Meredith share top billing with Franchot Tone who was also the co-producer. All three leads give uneven performances but all three have their moments.

The movie was based on a Georges Simenon novel, with Charles Laughton as Inspector Maigret. Maigret was one of the more intellectual of the great fictional detectives and Laughton’s casting was odd to say the least.

The plot starts with an American couple in Paris. Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) and his wife Helen (Patricia Roc) have been living on credit for years, patiently waiting for Bill’s rich aunt to die. Or rather, impatiently waiting for her to die. Bill has also acquired a girlfriend, Edna (Jean Wallace), which has made things even more tense. In a cafe Bill is moved to declare that he’d cheerfully pay a million francs to anyone who would kill his aunt for him. His remark is overheard by someone who takes his offer both literally and seriously.

When Bill’s aunt is subsequently found murdered the chief suspect is an impoverished and ineffectual knife-grinder named Joseph Heurtin (Burgess Meredith). Heurtin is arrested. Heurtin would be more worried but he has been promised help in beating the charges. Heurtin subsequently escapes but his escape is in fact engineered by Inspector Maigret. From this point on the plot becomes less and less clear. The main thrust of the movie is a battle of wills between Maigret and a Czech former medical student named Johann Radek (Franchot Tone). We know from the start that Radek was involved in some way although his motivations and many of his actions are decidedly puzzling.

This movie has two things going for it. The first is the battle of wills between Maigret and Radek, with Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton indulging in elaborate psychological game-playing. Tone and Laughton really do strike sparks off each other in their scenes together and Tone is quite disturbing and convincing as the highly intelligent but thoroughly unhinged Radek.

The second thing the movie has in its favour is the very skillful use of the Paris locations, especially in several clever and imaginative chase sequences. There is a chase across the rooftops of the city, and later a chase on the Eiffel Tower. It’s fairly clear that these sequences, particularly the Eiffel Tower sequence, were inspired by Hitchcock (most notably by his famous Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur). These sequences can’t quite match the brilliance of Hitchcock but they’re worthy attempts and they are quite successful in themselves.

The movie would have a lot more going for it in visual terms if it could be seen in a decent transfer. The copy I watched was from a Mill Creek public domain set and it really was atrocious (and apparently all the other public domain editions floating about are just as awful). The movie was shot in a process called Anscocolor. Unfortunately the colours have faded very very badly. This is a great pity because the movie makes extensive use of location shooting in Paris and at the time it must have been quite stunning. 

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is an oddity. It’s far from being a complete success but it’s undeniably intriguing. It’s a movie that I suspect I’d be a good deal more enthusiastic about if I had the chance to see a restored print. Recommended, although with reservations. If you can find one of the public domain DVD editions of this movie for rental then I’d say to go for it.

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