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Aventure Malgache was the second of two short films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1944 for the British Ministry of Information. Intended as propaganda, Hitchcock actually injected enough thoughtful entertainment value into the two films that they were deemed ineffective, even "inflammatory," and shelved for many years. Rescued from the vaults of the British Film Institute in the early 1990s, the two shorts are precursors to the short-form stories Hitchcock would later present on his famed television series, and remain fascinating as relatively objective snapshots of the Free French Forces at work during the war.
Alfred Hitchcock was completing his movie Lifeboat (1944) in Hollywood in late 1943 when he agreed to a request from Sidney Bernstein in England to help the war effort. Hitchcock had already been the object of some criticism for leaving Britain in the critical early years of the war for a safe career in Hollywood and a contract with independent producer David O. Selznick. With Selznick's permission, Hitchcock took a leave of absence to fulfill what he saw as an obligation, and to remove the sting of previous jabs about his patriotism. As Hitchcock later told interviewer Francois Truffaut, "I felt the need to make a little contribution to the war effort, and I was both overweight and overage for military service. I knew that if I did nothing I'd regret it for the rest of my life; it was important to me to do something also to get right into the atmosphere of war." Sidney Bernstein owned the large Granada theater chain in England, and was an old friend of Hitchcock's; Selznick was justifiably worried that the two would make future business plans together. Donald Spoto, in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, quoted a Selznick cable in which the producer said, "I hope that one of the motives behind bringing Mr. Hitchcock back to England is not a desire to negotiate a private deal with him for the future." In fact, Bernstein and Hitchcock did later go on to form a production entity called Trans-Atlantic Pictures which resulted in the films Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949).
Hitchcock made the difficult trip to London in December of 1943. With the war's end in Europe in sight, the British Ministry of Information charged Hitchcock with making films encouraging the unity of the French Resistance, the resulting movies to be shown in France following the anticipated Liberation. A colony of Free French actors calling themselves The Moliere Players worked in exile in London and would be tapped to perform in Hitchcock's pictures.
Hitchcock set up shop in London's Claridges Hotel, and worked with writer and friend Angus MacPhail. Their first film was the short Bon Voyage (1944), which cleverly told the story of an RAF pilot being debriefed on his escape from German-occupied territory with help from the Resistance. A Rashomon (1950) style recap of the same escape reveals an infiltration of the Gestapo within the ranks of the Free French. In preparing Bon Voyage, Hitchcock noted the divisions that existed within the Resistance, and the animosity they could harbor against their allies. He decided to make this the subject of his second film, Aventure Malgache. Based on a true story, we are introduced to the exiled Moliere Players, applying makeup in preparation for a performance in London. One of the actors, Clarousse, had formerly been a lawyer in Madagascar, the French colony off the African coast, now fallen to Axis control. Clarousse tells of his clashes with Jean Michel, the Madagascar chief of police who finds it personally and politically convenient to give in to the Vichy rule. Clarousse operates an underground railway, but grapples with Resistance infighting and incompetence in addition to his Vichy nemesis.
Hitchcock shot the films at Associated British Studios at Welwyn Garden City, and was paid a token salary of ten British pounds a week. In Aventure Malgache he made the Vichy collaborators in Madagascar look foolish, but in the process he shows the Resistance infested with Nazi spies and depicts a Frenchman as being so loose-lipped as to spill vital information to his girlfriend. The director also manages to include content guaranteed to offend his hosts and sponsors, the British Ministry of Information: in one pivotal scene, the members of the Resistance discuss their own hostility toward the British, calling an alignment with them the "least worst" of their options.
Given the task of producing effective Allied propaganda, Hitchcock instead followed his own muse and delivered films containing irony, moral ambiguity, subtle nuance, and all the shades of gray that work against the black-and-white goals of propaganda. It is not clear whether the films were ever shown in France at war's end. Francois Truffaut claims to have seen Bon Voyage, but apparently Aventure Malgache was immediately shelved and remained unseen for almost fifty years. In the meantime, David O. Selznick did immediately benefit from Hitchcock's wartime duties. Writer Angus MacPhail was recruited following completion of the two shorts to write an adaptation of Francis Beeding's novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes, which was to become Hitchcock's next film, the Selznick pet project Spellbound (1945).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Angus MacPhail
Cinematography: Gunther Krampf
Production Design: Charles Gilbert
Cast: Moliere Players
by John M. Miller