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The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence(1942)

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Albert Lewin was both praised and derided as a 'cultured' writer-director in the forties and early fifties. He brought a short string of highly regarded films to the screen, the most popular of which was The Portrait of Dorian Gray for MGM. Although fans of amour fou have a liking for his Ava Gardner/James Mason fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, perhaps the best of Lewin's literary adaptations is this picture, his first directing effort.

For quality, VCI's DVD of this public domain (?) orphan leaves a lot to be desired. The movie is so seldom shown, however, that this may be a good opportunity for Lewin fans to catch up with it.

Synopsis: Writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) takes a personal interest when Englishman Charles Strickland (George Sanders) deserts his wife and runs away to Paris. He finds Strickland struggling to become a painter; the previously unassuming man has now disavowed his ties to everything but his art. Fellow artist and friend Dirk Stroeve (Steven Geray) supports Strickland's genius even though the man is abusive and eventually walks away with Dirk's wife, Blanche (Doris Dudley). Geoffrey is repulsed by Strickland's lack of basic decency but remains fascinated after he sees the man's work, which indeed inspires thoughts of genius. After a number of years Geoffrey tracks Charles to Tahiti and hears from three local witnesses (Eric Blore, Florence Bates, Albert Basserman) the story of the artist's strange adventure in paradise.

Writing movies about artistic geniuses is a known filmic trap. How many pictures have tried to pass off unimpressive paintings or forgettable composed music as the work of a genius? Albert Lewin's sensitive adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1919 book tells the story of a difficult artist who bears only a superficial resemblance to the life of Paul Gauguin, the famous painter who journeyed to the South Seas.

Lewin's unlikable main character is presented through second-hand testimony and Citizen Kane- like expository flashbacks. Herbert Marshall literally played Somerset Maugham in 1947's The Razor's Edge and here serves the exact same function as an equally thoughtful writer-narrator. Geoffrey Wolfe seeks out the elusive Charles Strickland first as a favor to a friend and visits him again out of curiosity. By the time he tracks down Strickland to a tiny island, we have to figure that the artist has become a major theme for him.

The theme Lewin handles best is the relationship of Artist to Society. Unlike Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Strickland wants to prove nothing to anyone but himself and paints as an inward quest for the truth. He shuns society but doesn't see himself as better than it. Thinking this attitude a disguise for an exaggerated ego, Wolfe chides Strickland by suggesting that he wants to shut himself off in a room and never show his paintings to anyone. That literally becomes the truth. Geoffrey sees no connection between the innocuous stockbroker he first meets and the antisocial artist he eventually becomes, but they are indeed the same - each seeks isolation to pursue a private obsession.

Lewin does many things exactly right: we never see Strickland's paintings until the end of the film and have only the reactions of others to judge them by. The use of the book's narration and second-hand witnesses plays well enough, and George Sanders is excellent as the driven and sometimes infuriating Strickland. Sanders was quick to develop into a specialist in aloof and frequently villainous characters, haughty sophisticates quick to chill a room with a sneer or an insult. Lewin uses Sanders' cool disdain to keep him emotionally distant. We spend most of the movie disapproving of everything Strickland does and waiting for him to get his comeuppance.

Maugham makes Charles Strickland pay for his sins rather harshly. Lewin reinforces an anachronistic (even for 1919) vision of leprosy as a death sentence. When The Moon and Sixpence was released in 1943, I wonder how many wives and girlfriends thought their soldiers in the Pacific theater were going to be turned into unsightly monsters - Lewin uses noted acromegalic actor Rondo Hatton as a pitiful 'unclean' beggar. The implication is that leprosy (aka Hansen's Disease) is a punishment for Strickland's abhorrent personal philosophy.

The Moon and Sixpence begins and ends with moralizing text scrolls, perhaps indicating that the Breen censorship office was alerted to the film's inconclusive attitude - the text provides a condemnation of Strickland that the film itself doesn't offer.

London, Paris and Papeete are all stage constructions augmented with stock shots. Lewin and cameraman John Seitz create interesting but closed little worlds where we never quite believe that anything is happening off screen. Along with an excellent supporting cast, the claustrophobia helps us enter into the film's character exploration. Familiar actor Stephen Geray (Frenchy in Howard Hawks' The Big Sky) is the main standout as Strickland's constitutional opposite, a soft-hearted fellow destined to be hurt by relationships.

Albert Basserman (Foreign Correspondent) has an unusually proactive role as a doctor of the islands and Elena Verdugo (House of Frankenstein) switches from her usual sultry Gypsy roles to play a dusky tropical naïf: devoted, unspoiled and fully made up by Max Factor. Doris Dudley is low-key as Dirk Stroeve's weak-willed spouse. The always-good Florence Bates (the obnoxious radio lady in A Letter to Three Wives) anchors the Tahitian sequence with her turn as a lusty matchmaker. Familiar butlers Robert Grieg and Eric Blore are in to lighten the mood.

As for George Sanders, Lewin would give him perfect roles in his two next movies as a cad and a sinister manipulator. Only Joseph Mankiewicz would use Sanders better, in his classic All About Eve.

Albert Lewin's films were known for their symbolic imagery and flamboyant design ideas. Jack Cardiff's delirious color photography is the best thing in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman but Lewin used Technicolor inserts in all of his previous B&W features for shock value and sheer novelty. The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami is as seldom shown as The Moon and Sixpence, but the conclusion of Lewin's The Portrait of Dorian Gray is well-remembered for its terrifying color close-up of the gore-ridden haunted painting. In Sixpence the screen cuts to Technicolor for a few seconds as Charles Strickland's final masterpiece goes up in flames. It's the only time we get a clear look at his work.

VCI's DVD of The Moon and Sixpence cheats us out of that spectacle, for even though the box text lists the film as "B&W/Color" the print offered stays in B&W. This show is yet another United Artists release for which good elements have disappeared forever, and VCI's battered but intact source may be as good as can be found. A few early scenes have grossly bad contrast. Faces are devoid of detail and in one shot a newspaper 'disappears' into a white wall behind it. The transfer element may be several dupe generations away from a release print kept from circulation because of printing flaws. It's easy to spot where the film was supposed to change to Technicolor -- the contrast jumps about 200%.

On the positive side, the audio track is unusually clear for a film resurrected from a surviving print. The dialogue is easy to understand and Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar®-nominated score is a reasonably good listen.

VCI's extras are text bios on Lewin, Sanders and Marshall. The packaging apparently uses United Artists' original poster art, which couldn't have been chosen to attract a class audience -- the tagline is "Women are Strange Little Beasts!"

A gallery of coming attractions for other VCI product presents a perfect trailer for Edgar G. Ulmer's Hannibal, an epic in Widescreen and color that still looks as if it were shot on a shoestring.

For more information about The Moon and Sixpence, visit VCI Entertainment. To order The Moon and Sixpence, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson