Veronica Lake and Fredric March in I Married a Witch (IMDB)

Sympathy for the Devil: Two Supernatural Fantasies from René Clair

Let’s consider René Clair two supernatural comedies that display sympathy with forces of evil and chaos — as long as they’re charming and sophisticated.

In the ’30s, critics celebrated René Clair as one of the world’s great filmmakers, and his reputation has gone into eclipse ever since. Fortunately, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, however ponderously, and some of his films have been restored for the digital age. Let’s consider two supernatural comedies that display sympathy with forces of evil and chaos — as long as they’re charming and sophisticated.

Clair was lucky enough to spend WWII in Hollywood, where his second American film was I Married a Witch (1941), a fizzy, inebriating concoction with many effects, none more special than Veronica Lake’s trademark hairstyle. Based on a novel by Thorne Smith, the movie became an indirect inspiration for TV’s Bewitched.

The story opens in Puritan times in the township of Roxford, where two witches are being burned. They are clearly sorcerors, for they made sheep dance a minuet. We don’t witness their deaths, but after consigning the daughter’s soul to “the eternal flame”, a town elder announces that there will be a short intermission before the burning of the father, and a vendor begins hawking “popped maize” to the crowd.

This tells us that one year before Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and almost 20 years before Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), wartime Hollywood felt comfortable lampooning the whole witch thing, just as it felt fine spoofing such religious topics as Hell in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Armageddon in Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). Hollywood got away with a lot during the war.

As in Bava’s film, the beautiful witch curses her betrayer’s descendants. She declares they shall never be lucky in love. After a montage of historical husbands browbeaten by shrews, we arrive at modern-day gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), on the cusp of hitching himself to impatient, hard-edged Estelle (Susan Hayward), daughter of big-wheel politico J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick).

The souls of Rebecca (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) have been sealed in an oak tree planted over their ashes. A convenient bolt of lightning frees their smoky forms to wreak mischief, and Rebecca assumes a heavenly body from the flames of the Pilgrim Hotel (arson courtesy of her daddy). Wooley rescues her from the burning edifice after draping her naked form in a fur coat, and he has his hands full for the rest of the movie. Later he finds her in his bed wearing his pajamas; how she got in his pajamas he’ll never know, but the housekeeper (Elizabeth Patterson) is positively scandalized.

With its lightness and technical exuberance, this feels very much like Clair. With its salacious burlesque elements of Lake’s frequent near-nudity and improper implications, it also feels like Thorne Smith — which is a bit surprising. True, it’s based loosely on The Passionate Witch, his unfinished novel completed by Norman Matson, but book and film are quite different. Although Smith was a popular source in Hollywood, as witness the Topper trilogy, his bawdy tendencies were anathema to the Production Code, with the result that the films aren’t all that Thorney.

This film, however, sparkles with naughty mix-ups created by its sexy heroine, who’s gleefully immoral until the brilliant twist when she accidentally swallows her own love philtre, and she remains a minx even then. Well, there was a war on. By the way, the political subplot is handled so lightly, we’re not supposed to care that Rebecca fixes the election for her hubby! Smith’s spirit is also felt via the presence of Robert Benchley, one of his Algonquin Round Table co-drinkers.

According to a 1970 interview in the booklet, Clair says he worked on the script with Robert Pirosh, with co-credited Marc Connelly “more as an adviser”. The film began at Paramount as a Preston Sturges production, and although he left the project, his snappy aura hangs around the edges, especially since he used many of these actors. According to the Criterion website, sets were recycled for Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), which is conveniently Criterion #677 to this film’s #676.

Ann Carter appears at the end as Rebecca’s troublesome daughter, who has inherited witchy talents. She’s not named Tabitha, like the daughter in Bewitched, yet the film does have a Tabitha — at least according to IMDB, since she’s never named onscreen. She’s the forbidding mother of Puritan Jonathan Wooley (March), and played by Eily Malyon, the hatchet-faced librarian in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Clair’s postwar films retain a sense of wit, elegance, and visual flair, though now they were more sedate and had a greater intellectual weight, even melancholy. An excellent example is now available in the Cohen Film Collection, which seems to be trying to rival Criterion in putting out thoughtful packages of classics on DVD and Blu-Ray.

In subverting the Faust legend as a lark with many surprising reversals, Beauty and the Devil (La beauté du diable) calls itself a tragi-comedy. It turns on two great performances by highly contrasting stars of French cinema: rough and lively old rascal Michel Simon, and handsome young idol Gérard Philipe. One of the film’s ingenuities is that both actors play both central roles of Faust and Mephistopheles.

In the beginning, Faust (Simon) is a discontented old professor facing retirement after a lifetime of studying alchemy with nothing to show for it. Philippe is the dashing young devil who tries to tempt him, and at one point Mephistopheles turns himself into Faust’s double so that we face the pleasure of Simon confronting himself. Like a pusher giving away the first samples of his addictive drugs for free, the demon turns Faust into the young looker (Philippe) he will remain for the rest of the film, while himself wearing the guise of the old Faust. Within this masterful confusion of identities, both actors play against each other in a variety of ways, now sauve or serious, now frustrated or capering.

The complicated, unpredictable plot involves at least two romantic interests for young Faust: pixie-ish Gypsy Marguerite (Nicole Besnard) and a Hitchcockian goddess, a married princess (Simone Valère) whose husband (Carlo Ninchi) rules the city. As the scenario passes through games of fame, obscurity, success, peril, love, and regret, both man and devil become literally soul-searching figures. Some nice mirror business recalls Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, made the previous year.

A French-Italian co-production shot at Cinecitta, this film never fails in its beautiful artifice and studied elegance — qualities that made some young critics gripe in their quest for freshness. The final joke is that this film’s themes have worn very well indeed. Clair’s co-writer is noted playwright Armand Salacrou, and this film seems of a piece with his output. According to Martin Seymour-Smith, the 1953 play Time Confounded is “as theatrically clever as anything by Anouilh and with more genuine intellectual content. It postulates a world in which time is reversed and life is lived backwards: people eagerly await their youth, their innocence — and their illusions.” That describes a strong philosophical impulse in this film as well.

Gaston Modot, Raymond Cordy, Tullio Carminati and Paolo Stoppa also appear; the Italian players seem to be dubbed into French. The standard ratio print (described only as “fully remastered”) is clean and sparkling on the Cohen disc, with very black blacks and clear mono sound. One misstep is that the electronic subtitles aren’t removable. Extras are the original trailer, re-release trailer, and a 50-minute making-of consisting largely of critics talking.

As for the Criterion disc, it’s one of their most problematic prints, despite a claim of being scanned from both the original nitrate negative and a nitrate composite fine-grain master with thousands of flaws removed. Those originals must be rough, for visible flaws remain throughout the soft image, including unsteady white flashes that become especially conspicuous around the 38 to 45-minute marks. The mono soundtrack is slightly muffled, again despite assurances about hiss and crackle. If it’s any consolation, the original trailer is truly in wretched shape. There’s a bonus radio interview with Clair in which he says nothing much. The feature has optional subtitles.

We’re sorry I Married a Witch must work against this scrim, although we should stress that it’s still highly watchable. The movie remains a bewitching delight, and both classics should aid the recent revival of Clair’s reputation.

RATING 7 / 10