After starting his career with Irwin Thalberg at MGM, producing such classics as Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), Albert Lewin eventually struck out on his own with some notable independent projects, beginning with a trio of literary adaptations. Somerset Maugham’s Moon And Sixpence (1943) was followed by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945), and then came this version of Guy de Maupassant’s best novel, Bel-Ami, in 1947. Actor George Sanders appeared in all three, giving them all a distinct flavour by his presence. A self-obsessed and destructive individual appears in each, increasingly prepared to isolate himself from conscience or morality in order to achieve his goals – at least until an ending brings some comeuppance or resolution. In the first, Sanders plays a painter, loosely based on Gauguin, who deserts his family to work in Tahiti. In the second, Dorian Gray pursues his famously immoral activities, Sanders in attendance, whilst Gray’s famous painting grows ugly in the attic. In The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami (aka: Women Of Paris, 1947), Sanders returns to centre stage, this time portraying a man climbing to social success over the backs of a succession of suffering women.
Scriptwriter-director Lewin brought to each of these films characteristic qualities: literate dialogue, visual excellence and a representation of interior states, notably through colourful moments of formal art among them. In the fin de siècle worlds of Dorian Gray and Bel Ami, Lewin sharpens the unease and implicit questioning of mores shown in his earlier Maugham adaptation and, avoiding the temptations of melodrama, he chooses specific historical milieu by which to communicate the ennui of the privileged and the corrupt. Sanders is excellent as George Duroy, the title’s charming and unscrupulous social climber, who cannot be trusted with hearts – or come to that, much else: one in the words of the title song “..who will be leaving me, [and] who will be deceiving me..”
We first see Duroy down to his last few francs in 1880 Paris. His suave looks continually make him irresistible to women but, as yet, have brought him little in the way of fortune. Offered a chance job in journalism by his ex-army friend Forestier (John Carradine), Duroy asks Forestier’s independently minded wife Madeline to help with the creation of a first article, while also entering into a relationship with the far more doting Clotilde (Angela Lansbury). Soon the seductive antihero is on his way up the social scale after marrying Madeline (a suggestion he promptly broached in the hapless Forestier’s death chamber). Later, after engineering a scandal, he divorces this first wife, and acquires a defunct aristocratic title with a view to moving on and up again.
“You’re a sneak thief… you take advantage of everyone, you deceive everyone,” is the way the disillusioned Clotilde eventually personifies Duroy towards the end of the film, after he callously steals her heart, another man’s wife and half her inheritance in turn, then the family name of a missing heir, and finally inveigles the hand of a rich innocent. This single-minded obsession in reaching the top of the social ladder echoes that of the ambitious Horace Vendig in Ulmer’s Ruthless, made the following year. Duroy’s manipulative, seductive charm brings echoes too of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, also from 1947. But while Duroy’s progress does not directly lead to murder, it is more detestable and insidious. Whereas at the close of his film Verdoux offers reasonable apology for his actions, Bel Ami (although saddled with a ending more in line with the demands of the censor than the original novel) still seems unrepentant, merely equating his final misfortunate as being “scratched… by an old cat.”
There are several elements that make Lewin’s film interesting today, besides being the independent work of a minor, if idiosyncratic auteur when such a thing was relatively unusual. Even though the aspirational cad makes use of the women he gets to know, Madeline at least remains a strong and talented character in her own right. Besides helping Duroy with his writing at the very start, there is a strong suggestion that she has actually been doing much of her first husband’s journalism for him too. And despite her final betrayal, she continues to impress as an individually motivated female, in contrast to the ever-loving and forgiving Clotilde. Both are victims but Duroy’s emotional abuse and subjugation of them and others is both a comment on his own coldness as well as on the liabilities of females in a prejudiced society, made especially keen by the knowledge each woman has of her own predicament. For men, the answer to honour slighted is a duel. Women at best are obliged to fall back on subterfuge or, at worst, live with the grief of a broken heart.
Each of Lewin’s first three films was made in black and white. But they also included moments when the screen bursts startlingly into colour, as the audience contemplates painting central to the theme. The Moon And Sixpence brings a final sequence showing the artist’s work, a form of artistic justification for preceding events. In The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, the painting in question reflects back directly the moral dissolution of the subject. Bel Amis’ canvas occupies a more complex position in its narrative than its predecessors. It’s an expensive work of art bought by a wealthy patron and admired by Duroy, in fact one the few moments in which, half to himself, he evidently expresses an honest undisguised opinion on anything. Painted by Max Ernst (his Temptation Of St Anthony) its appearance reflects back the decadence of its admirers as well as continuing the subtle thread of damnation that runs though the plot.
An excellent cast includes a young Angela Lansbury as Duroy’s one true love, as well as John Carradine as his tuberculosis-ridden journalist friend. Audiences today will be impressed by how modern the feel of it all is, whether in the depiction of Duroy’s amoral, manipulative character, completely unfazed at being disliked, or the film’s sophisticated and sympathetic treatment of women. Lewin’s next work was the weirdly romantic Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951), his most ambitious film, the reception of which proved a disappointment and he never rose to such heights again. For this viewer at least The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami, less flamboyant perhaps but just as unforgettable, remains his most satisfying work, recommended with enthusiasm.