When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

Recently, my friend David was excitedly looking forward to the DVD release of M-G-M’s 1945 THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, directed by Albert Lewin.  That got me thinking of the next collaboration by the DORIAN GRAY creative team: an independent film called THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (1947).

Lewin startled THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY‘s audiences in 1945 by having the final shot of the black-and-white film leaping into full-screaming Technicolor when the camera finally revealed the titular painting in all its putrid splendor.  In BEL AMI, Lewin reused that trope (this time not an Ivan Albright painting, but a surrealist Max Ernst piece); and instead of Oscar Wilde source material, this time it was a Guy de Maupassant story.  To then raise the artistic cachet of the project a few notches higher, the score was composed by Darius Milhaud. 

Again as in DORIAN GRAY, Lewin directed Angela Lansbury and George Sanders.  He also returned to his theme of the personification of Decadence in this story of a consciousless and debonair silver-tongued seducer during the Belle Epoque.

DORIAN GRAY is the smoother view because of M-G-M’s customary obsessive reviews and retakes in all the films it released in that era.  As an independent production without that studio control, BEL AMI shows some holes in Lewin’s direction:  some shots don’t match up, some scenes could have used one more re-write, etc.  However, the independence of the production created some intriguing out-of-the-box choices in collageing the various parts of the production, e.g., Depression Era siren Ann Dvorak was cast as a lady-of-a-certain-age; Katherine Emery had a more intriguing, expansive role (but perhaps not as memorable) than she did in Val Lewton’s ISLE OF THE DEAD, and then there was the aforementioned bonus of a Milhaud score.  In some ways BEL AMI is a more engrossing view than DORIAN GRAY because it’s fascinating to witness the construction of a high concept independent production from Hollywood in the 1940s, when most movies weren’t allowed to color outside the lines.

Here in Austin, there are TWO video rental stores that carry this rare-as-hen’s-teeth-not-available-on-DVD film.  The only letdown is that the VHS copy (which states on the box that it has been restored by UCLA Film Archives) has neither color nor sound at the point where the film is supposed to jump from B+W to color.  You can see the Ernst painting (in B+W) but the dialog over the shot is totally missing.  Hopefully, if the DVD is ever released, this omission will be corrected.

While Albert Lewin (Harvard grad, chum of Djuna Barnes, and friend of the Surrealists) was overseeing A-List films such as THE GOOD EARTH and the Garbo classic silent movie THE KISS, director Paul Landres was toiling away on films such as SQUARE DANCE JUBILEE, JUKE BOX JENNIE, and BAD MAN FROM RED BUTTEThe double-sided DVD of Paul Landres’ RETURN OF DRACULA and THE VAMPIRE, released on M-G-M’s Midnight Movies home video line contains the movie where he used the same trick of inserting a single color shot into a black-and-white film; and the DVD does include this leap to screaming color at the film’s goriest moment.  [For those who haven’t seen these films, I won’t spoil the shock by naming which of the 2 movies on this disc contains the sudden shock of color.]  I can testify to the shock value of the color shot because, as a Boomer preschooler, I saw this film:  the theatre shook with shrieks as the gloomy black-and-white was pulled out from under the audience and a fullframe of gold-and-red carnage spread across the screen. 

The horror films of Landres are an interesting read:  they take place in 1950s Middle America, and include some scenes shot in pristine Southern California daylight, which (in departing from the haunted castle or science laboratory settings of most horror films) give a slightly queasy feeling to these opuses of bloodsuckers in Leave It to Beaver Land.  Landres hired Gerald Fried as composer for these horror films (Fried had previously scored Kubrick’s first two films), a choice which brings out more drama than the occasionally workman-like images of the director.  The casting also makes for interesting viewing, as former major stars hustle for a buck during the days of major studios in collapse, including film noir great Colleen Gray and pretty-boy Francis Lederer (who played opposite Louise Brooks in PANDORA’S BOX).  These movies don’t have the luxurious cachet of the Lewin films but, unlike his works, the two Landres films crystalize the demands and concerns of 1950s film production and the desires of its audience .

Doug / PoMo Joan

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