Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

Enjoyable, light mystery, starring Charles Laughton as Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Laughton as Maigret is inspired casting, but unfortunately he is hindered by weaknesses in the script and direction. It is highly uneven; there is much that works, but just as much that doesn't. The improbable plot involves a man, torn between his mistress and his wife, who wants to see his aunt killed in order to collect an inheritance. The murder is carried out by a stranger who perhaps seems a little too eager to help, and it soon becomes clear that the killer sees it all as something of a sport, as he manipulates the different parties involved in a kind of intellectual gamesmanship.

Franchot Tone (who also produced) is superb as the somewhat fey, coldly intellectual criminal mastermind who leads Maigret on a merry chase, throwing out red herrings and false flags to trip up the inspector in his investigation, but whose own cunning proves to be his undoing. Burgess Meredith (who also directed) is the timid, poor man framed for murder, and brings a certain amount of pathos to the part of the man trapped in circumstances beyond his control. Laughton does his usual fine job as Maigret, but because of the shortcomings of the script, is reduced to often playing the role as an eyeball-popping, sputtering caricature, rather than being able to really mine the part for the little bits of character business that could have made this one of his great roles.

Then there is the City of Paris itself, photographed in the Anscocolor process by the great Stanley Cortez (though the photography is not well-served in existing prints of the film, which are quite faded and battered). Treated like a picture-postcard version of the city, Cortez isn't given the opportunity to do much more than capture the surface-level beauty of the city, especially around the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. But it fails to move beyond this kind of "tourist's" perspective of familiar landmarks.

This is typified by the climax, a thrilling chase atop the Eiffel Tower, in which the characters clamber over the majestic structure like a massive jungle gym. While undoubtedly impressive at a purely visual level, the use of the Eiffel Tower feels arbitrary. It is tempting to speculate what a more skilled director could have done with the scene. There are certainly some suspenseful moments, but by this point in the film, there is too little invested in either the plot or the characters for the outcome to be of much concern to anyone, and is not helped by clunky staging and slack editing. The entire sequence ends rather weakly and anti-climactically, too, as if the filmmakers couldn't think of what to do when the characters finally reached the top of the tower. And, as in other scenes, Laughton is too often given little to do beyond sit by and watch the proceedings.

In the right hands, THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER could have probably emerged as a very effective mystery and even a minor classic of its kind. As it is, there are too many problems in the script and direction that keep it from ever being much more than a trifling, if nicely-photographed, diversion.

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