Wednesday, April 10, 2013


This interesting but flawed adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel based loosely on the life of artist Paul Gauguin opens with a scene of the writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall, playing a thinly disguised Maugham as he did a few years later in THE RAZOR'S EDGE) wandering about his apartment, washing and getting dressed and talking to us (as his butler picks up after Wolfe) about a famous artist named Charles Strickland. In flashback, we see that Strickland (George Sanders) is a quiet, unassuming stockbroker until one day when he picks up out of the blue, leaves his wife and children, and goes to Paris.  His wife Amy assumes the cause is another woman, but when Wolfe goes to Paris to talk to Strickland, he discovers that Strickland has left to become a painter. He has no qualms about leaving everything and everyone behind—when Wolfe asks if he doesn't care for his wife anymore, Strickland replies, "Not a bit." Strickland paints but winds up on the edge of starvation until a good-natured painter named Dirk (Steven Geray), who sees the potential in his work, takes him in; Strickland repays him by taking Dirk's wife from him. When Strickland tires of her, she kills herself. Eventually the restless, penniless Strickland heads off for Tahiti where he finally finds some measure of happiness, married to an undemanding native woman and painting to his heart's content until he contracts leprosy. After he dies, his wife, obeying his wishes, burns the hut that contained his final paintings.

I know nothing about Gauguin and I have not read Maugham's novel, but this film adaptation is striking in at least one respect: it is the rare Hollywood film in which the lead character is a nasty, unrepentant shit who isn't really redeemed by the end. There is a final title card, inserted certainly to get around the Production Code, which calls him out for ignoring his wife and children and notes that all of his talent couldn't "hide the ugliness of his life, an ugliness which finally destroyed him." (The real Gauguin died of syphilis, which would have been a more punishing ending for the movie, but that would most certainly have been a Code no-no.) George Sanders is always good playing cads (MAN HUNT, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and most fabulously and perfectly in ALL ABOUT EVE) and he doesn't disappoint here—he's the main reason for watching. The character of Strickland remains unexamined so we get little depth in the portrayal, but that's a problem with the writing—and I'm not even sure it’s a problem, as I imagine that's how the passive, recording eye of Maugham rendered Strickland in the novel. Marshall (pictured above to the right of Sanders) plays Maugham with a little more zest than he did in THE RAZOR'S EDGE. Geray is believable and heartbreaking as the man willing to be stepped on and betrayed by someone he saw as an artistic genius. The restored print I saw on TCM was in a mild sepia tone, which shifted to a bright yellow in the Tahiti scenes (though everyone looked like they had jaundice) and full color for just a moment when we see Strickland's final paintings, full of bare-breasted women but without anything approaching Gauguin’s style. [TCM]

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