Signe Hasso and George Sanders in A Scandal in Paris (1946)

The Kindness of Scoundrels: Douglas Sirk in the ’40s

A Scandal in Paris and Lured mix Hollywood with European sensibility.

When Douglas Sirk fled from Nazi Germany and arrived in California, he spent a few years settling in before taking some independent assignments. Two of his United Artists releases starring George Sanders are now available in a Blu-ray double feature, and one of these films is among the greatest of the ’40s.

That’s A Scandal in Paris (1946), an elegant wonder about a criminal whose roguish life equips him to become an effective Prefect of Police. It’s loosely inspired by the real life of Eugène Francois Vidocq, a legendary figure who inspired numerous fictional mavericks and anti-heroes, as discussed in Wade Major’s bonus commentary.

The sardonically dashing Sanders was made for the role. Even his voice-over narration is delightful, as scripted by Ellis St. Joseph. An early sample: “Like many great men, I came of a poor but honest family, a little poorer than honest. The difference accounted for my being born in prison. Whenever poor Mama expected another baby and consequently needed shelter, it was her custom to steal a loaf of bread.”

That comes in between his remark that the midwife created the only blot on his family ‘scutcheon (an ink blot where his father’s name should be) and discussing “my brilliant career of love and crime” by “studying the classics” — Casanova’s memoirs.

Vidocqu and his constant companion (Akim Tamiroff), who is simultaneously his Sancho Panza and the demon on his shoulder, inveigle their way into a wealthy family where the awestruck daughter (Signe Hasso) recognizes him as the model for their church’s window of St. George. His theft of the family jewels leads to a wonderful send-up of Sherlock Holmes (complete with the “elementary” line), while his appointment as Prefect covers his plans to rob the Bank of Paris. It may all be dished by his former flirtation with a silhouette dancer (Carole Landis) currently married to the former Prefect (Gene Lockhart).

Producer Arnold Pressburger (transplanted from Austria) came together with Sirk (transplanted from Germany) in the middle of Hollywood to fabricate a suave, impertinent movie whose thoroughly European sensibility drips with cultural references and epigrams that might have been left over from Sanders’ hit of the previous year, Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. “We always have the strength to bear the misfortunes of others”, declares Vidocq, and “It isn’t a question of morals but of manners. Anyone who is capable of killing with a knife is quite liable to eat with one.”

Another element from Dorian Gray is production designer Gordon Wiles, who also designed the other two Sanders/Lewin films, The Moon and Sixpence (1942) and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), the latter very similar to A Scandal in Paris. In Sirk’s film, Wiles’ crowded yet spacious design genius shows in every frame in collaboration with expressionist photographer Eugen Schüfftan (credited as “production supervisor” because he wasn’t in the cinematographer’s union yet), so that every composition is a gorgeous eyeful. Together, the artists balance the light ironies and cynicisms with the darker moments of melodrama and shadow, all equally heightened.

George Zucco and Lucille Ball in Lured (1947)

One year later, Sirk and Sanders reunited for another balancing act called Lured, a good-looking thriller with an excellent role for Lucille Ball amid a brace of sterling character actors. Producer Hunt Stromberg was remaking Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French film Pieges, and this is pretty much a scene for scene translation, as attested by Jeremy Arnold’s commentary. However, he insists on calling it a period film when it’s clearly set in ’40s London to judge by the clothes, cars and telephones. Because it came out in 1947, some historians call it a noir film, which isn’t very useful; it’s a comic thriller with certain expressive elements associated with noir, and perhaps this leads some to underestimate it.

A beautifully chiaroscuro opening features a woman (Tanis Chandler) having a rendezvous with a man carefully hidden from the camera. As she speaks to him, someone walks by with a sandwich board advertising a play called Murder in Soho, a typically witty touch. She turns out to be friends with Sandra Carpenter (Ball), an American taxi-dancer in a ballroom full of sailors. Sandra, a plucky and snappy and world-weary and very glamorous working gal, goes to the police when her chum disappears and promptly gets hired as an undercover detective whose job is to answer the classified ads for lonely hearts, since this is how eligible young women have been vanishing.

Sandra goes on an odyssey through lonely-hearts London, including what amounts to a cameo by fourth-billed Boris Karloff as a crazed couturier, and finds it both a whimsical and dangerous underworld. She proves well-equipped to confront either element, sometimes within the same scene, and it’s intriguing to witness her insouciance as she goes on dates amid the security of holding the secret power in the scenario. She is always being watched by her “guardian angel” flatfoot, as played by a surprisingly light George Zucco, who usually played villains.

While embroiled with a white-slavery racket in a respectable lord’s kitchen, Sandra falls for a dashing restaurant impressario (Sanders, announcing himself with “I’m an unmitigated cad”) who might or might not be the killer. The last act bogs down from the busy whirlwind of episodes and red herrings into less plausible developments that leave Ball offscreen for a while, although at least the screenplay credits the audience with being smart enough to figure out who’s guilty before love conquers all.

The sparkling Charles Coburn plays Sandra’s boss, while Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Mowbray and Joseph Calleia are suspects. Alan Napier (also in A Scandal in Paris) and Robert Coote are more flatfoots. Just as much stars of the production are brilliant black-and-white photographer William Daniels, epigram-ready scriptwriter Leo Rosten, and composer Michel Michelet, re-orchestrating his own score from the 1939 film under Sirk’s quietly smooth and kinetic direction.

This film is a diverting bonbon that makes a pleasant appetizer for the sumptuous main course that is A Scandal in Paris. Alas, both prints suffer from hissy soundtracks, and it’s worse on Scandal. This masterwork deserves a dazzling restoration for its glittering air of artificiality, sophistication and decadence, and this HD transfer from an interpositive could use further work. Anyway, it’s good to have them in any watchable form.

RATING 8 / 10