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You face the 1942 film The Moon and Sixpence and you come away pondering the career arcs and obsessions of three men, none of whom are seen in the film proper: Albert Lewin, W. Somerset Maugham and Paul Gauguin. The film's director, the original novelist and the ostensible subject, the three men had little in common beyond an abiding interest - in Gauguin a life-dominating passion - in the mechanics of social rebellion and the emotional chemistry of those individuals who are compelled to reject modern conventions. Gauguin, of course, rejected his bourgeois life in Paris for a threadbare bohemian existence painting in Tahiti, a defiant path as glamorously unique in the art world as it is anywhere else, and one that has helped popularize the Gauguin legend just as it's inspired fiction like Maugham's (and Maria Vargas Llosa's 2003 novel The Way to Paradise).
Maugham's book, published in 1919, takes a familiar Maughamian form: the author posits himself as a distant narrator, limning the arc of the contentious central character's life as it is observed in swatches and recollections of people who knew him. This first-person voice is personified by Herbert Marshall, who appeared in four other Maugham adaptations, including two versions of The Letter (1929 & 1940) and, as Maugham himself, in The Razor's Edge (1946), another film that pieces together the story of an off-the-grid anti-social seeker. In The Moon and Sixpence he's merely a Maughamian novelist meeting the acquaintance of one Charles Strickland (George Sanders), a bland London stockbroker who, just like the Gallic Gauguin, suddenly dumps his family in a single misanthropic flourish, in order to reinvent his life as a painter. Marshall's buttoned-down observer is asked to intervene, and so the two men begin a testy relationship, in London and Paris, marked by the inquisitive writer's shocked middle-class values as they're assaulted by Strickland's callous, misogynistic, completely self-absorbed "beast" persona, which itself leads to various suicides and degradations, and eventually steers him toward the tropics, where an asocial white man can be left alone to make art among the sexually available natives.
Lewin's 1942 film adaptation is hardly explicit about much of this, of course, but it is more explicit about it than you'd imagine (Lewin had to produce the film himself, and its low budget is evident). Sexual abuse and exploitation are so close under the surface it seems to make some of the actors uncomfortable. It's a lean film that tries to honor its high-falutin' source novel but at the same time has uncomfortable thematic meat in its teeth. The story, after all, pits Art vs. Society, elitist nihilism vs. civilized community, and in the end, just as in life, the fight is a strange and disquieting draw, as Strickland's cosmic lout finds heaven in Tahiti and then pays for his aesthetic triumphs with a dark twist of fate, heralded by the appearance of infamous Hollywood acromegaly victim Rondo Hatton as a village leper.
Maugham may have been the most mainstream and popular British novelist of the 20th century, but he was clearly fascinated with characters who discard lives and priorities like his and march to the edge of oblivion. For his sake, Lewin had a similar yen, as exhibited in the six films he directed, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) - an obsession with transgression, with violating accepted norms in pursuit of a higher ideal or truer state. In his most famous films, including Sixpence, that translated into portraits of crazy, wholesale, God-defying decadence, leaving you to wonder if Lewin was in fact the one Hollywood director who could have, or would have, adapted Sade. These films don't just present open warfare on human kindness and decency, they lavishly endorse it. Lewin remains something of an unsung auteur, and earned his way inside the machine, having worked his way up in the '20s from script boy to screenwriter to, in the '30s, Irving Thalberg's right-hand man and one of the key producers at MGM during that booming-movietown decade. In effect, Lewin was a power broker who, come the '40s, wanted to pursue his own visions, and with Sixpence he finally carved out his opportunity. You can see Lewin's perverse love for Strickland's heedless all-for-art egomania, for which the character literally throws away everything he has and will ever have, palpitate in virtually every scene, rhyming with Maugham's ultra-civilized inquiry, as if the two of them were visitors at a zoo, watching a content and conscienceless gorilla do what it must, without thought for consequences.
Sanders seems miscast as Strickland at first, during the character's "dull" phase - how could Sanders ever be mistaken for a cipher? Lewin skirts around this by allowing Maugham's Marshall-intoned narration to dominate the film - entire scenes transpire without dialogue, just the Maughamian voice contextualizing the action for us. Lewin and Maugham were both conscious of the self-consciousness - when Marshall's fussy scribe asks Strickland to see his paintings because they may parse out clues to the artist's infuriating character, Strickland replies, with perfect Sanders incisiveness, "You must write pretty bad novels." Lewin's best movies, in fact, are all heavily narrated, by hyperliterate cynics looking back on people and incidents they're still very far from understanding. There's very little "now" in Lewin, but a great deal of the mysterious, maddening "then."
Largely thanks to having fallen into a rights abyss as an independent feature, The Moon and Sixpence has been unavailable in any form for decades, and was only occasionally shown on TV in the '60s and '70s in crummy prints. The new restoration brings back Lewin's unusual color scheme - when the narrative transitions to Tahiti, the film's black-&-white photography gets tinted amber, and the last reel explodes into full-on Technicolor, as Strickland's giant, Gauguinesque paintings are revealed. Lewin pulled a similar stunt in Dorian Gray three years later, when that tale's pivotal canvas is revealed in startling color, and there's no underestimating the sorcerous allure that painting had on Lewin, who pivoted each of his philosophically loaded films on the evasive transcendence of art. In each film, the pursuit of the sublime translates to tragedy, death and, worst-of-all, soullessness, prices only the graced few must pay.
Producer: David L. Loew
Director: Albert Lewin
Screenplay: W. Somerset Maugham (novel); Albert Lewin
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: F. Paul Sylos
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: George Sanders (Charles Strickland), Herbert Marshall (Geoffrey Wolfe), Doris Dudley (Blanche Stroeve), Eric Blore (Capt. Nichols), Albert Bassermann (Dr. Coutras), Florence Bates (Tiare Johnson), Steve Geray (Dirk Stroeve), Elena Verdugo (Ata).
BW and C-89m.
by Michael Atkinson