Thursday, April 10, 2008


No, not the so-so magician movie from 2006, but a so-so tropical melodrama from the heyday of that genre (RED DUST, CHINA SEAS, KONGO) with a chunk of Devil’s Island drama tossed in. Melvyn Douglas is an officer in the French Army, stationed in Paris; we see him reprimand an officer for failure of duty back at a penal camp at Lao Bao in Vietnam. Then, on the eve of his wedding to Ann Harding, Douglas is assigned to the same camp. She keeps a stiff upper lip, delays the wedding, and decides not to accompany him, but when one year later his stay is extended indefinitely, she opts to go live with him. Her father (Ian MacLaren) warns her that her "prestige" as a white person is the only tool she will have to fight the dangers of the jungle (and, it's implied, the physical lure of the dusky races--this in an era when even the appearance of "miscegenation" was strictly against the Production Code). In Lao Bao, she finds Douglas has become a shambling, sweaty, drunken wreck--there’s a great shot of Douglas drinking and collapsing in the shadows just before she arrives. They get married in a native ceremony but Douglas' decline continues; Harding tries to go over Douglas' superiors heads in requesting a transfer, but it is denied, and the messenger of that news is an officer stationed in Saigon (Adolphe Menjou) who has always loved Harding. Harding tries some "tough love" and tells Douglas he needs to get some backbone and quit drinking, but it doesn't work and when Harding decides to leave with Menjou, things come to a head and the climax involves a murder, restless natives, and Douglas trying to regain control over his life and his career. What's most notable about this film isn't the plot (predictable) or the acting (OK), but the cinematography; director Tay Garnett's camera is restless, constantly on the prowl, climaxing in a great crane shot at the end. Clarence Muse has the small but crucial role of Douglas' servant. [TCM]

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