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William Powell - 8/9
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Crossroads

Crossroads (1942)

Crossroads was written by Guy Trosper from an original story by Howard Emmett Rogers and John Kafka, and while it's just a coincidence, that last-mentioned name – calling to mind novelist Franz Kafka, the master of enigmatic fiction – fits right in with this unusual suspense movie. Directed by Jack Conway and full of unexpected twists, the 1942 production gets terrific mileage out of a whodunit plot that pushes the idea of mistaken identity to such an extreme that the hero gets to thinking he's mistaken his own identity, with regrettable results.

Ambiguity kicks in as soon as Crossroads starts. Rising young diplomat David Talbot, played by William Powell with his usual unflappable charm, walks out of a posh Paris soirée, slides into a car already occupied by a beautiful woman, and joins her in a volley of slyly salacious banter. Not to worry, though, lovely Lucienne turns out to be none other than Mrs. Talbot, his mischievous and adoring spouse, played by Hedy Lamarr with excellent comic-dramatic timing. They've been married a mere three months, and David is on a fast track to the French ambassadorship in Brazil, as long as no unexpected obstacles arise. So imagine their chagrin when an anonymous message comes to them, demanding a million francs in return for keeping David's criminal past a secret from the authorities. This comes as quite a surprise to David, who insists – with complete sincerity, it seems – that he has no criminal past. But one thing leads to another, and David lands in court, charged with participating in a robbery and murder thirteen years earlier. The best witness on his behalf is his friend Dr. Tessier, a slightly nutty psychiatrist who testifies that a head injury gave David permanent amnesia right around that time, leaving him unable to remember anything that had happened to him before. The prosecution comes on strong, however, asserting that before his disappearance thirteen years ago David Talbot was in reality Jean Pelletier, an all-around crook and scoundrel – and this could be true, despite David's honest denials, since he doesn't know what he may have done before suffering his fateful injury. It appears that all is lost, until one Henri Sarrou arrives at the courthouse, swearing that the crimes were committed by a completely different man who then died in Henri's presence some time later.

Whew! David is vindicated, the false witnesses are routed, the blackmail scheme is sunk. But the movie has a long way to go, so another shoe is bound to drop. Sure enough, Henri shows up at David's house and completely changes his tune. (We should have guessed, since Henri is played by Basil Rathbone, who made even Sherlock Holmes seem sinister at times.) Henri now says his trial testimony was false, David is indeed Jean Pelletier, and the million francs – Henri's half of a two-million-franc theft the two of them pulled off – must immediately be paid, or else. What's more, Henri and another trial witness named Michelle Allaine have evidence to prove all this: They know that David has a powder burn from a gunshot on his hand, and Michelle has a locket containing a photo of her and David, or rather Jean, in a compromising pose. She also has the address of his lonely old mother, Madame Pelletier, who's been moldering away in poverty and solitude. David pays the old woman a visit, and yes, she is definitely moldering away. By this time David – or is it Jean? – is at a loss to explain all this away, and so are we. Franz Kafka would have felt right at home with this situation, which is frequently bizarre and sometimes almost nightmarish. That's what makes the story so intriguing, and it stays that way when the truth finally comes clear in a series of last-minute switcheroos, some of which are actually plausible.

Powell is perfect as David and/or Jean, expressing the character's perplexity without sacrificing any of the understated dignity that was his trademark in the lighter roles he was famous for in this phase of his career. Lamarr also earned high marks from critics for her breezy yet earnest portrayal of the diplomat's resourceful wife, and the praise must have been welcome, since according to Powell expert Lawrence J. Quirk, she was at that time "a notoriously weak actress hampered by an Austrian accent," who despite her "reserved, rather wooden" presence became "animated and sparkling" when Powell's poise and fluency rubbed off on her. Be that as it may, Lamarr doesn't seem to have relished Crossroads; in her autobiography she has little to say about it, noting only that "the story was not very strong, though some Basil Rathbone courtroom scenes came off well." Still, she didn't mind teaming with Powell again in The Heavenly Body (1944) the following year.

Claire Trevor makes the most of her supporting role as the mysterious Michelle, and sings "`Til You Return" in a nightclub as a bonus. MGM reportedly offered this part to Marlene Dietrich, who fumed at the idea of playing second banana to Lamarr, growling, "I share my glamour with nobody!" Also in the supporting cast are Felix Bressart as the helpful psychiatrist, Sig Ruman as a less helpful one, Margaret Wycherly as the moldering mom, and some people who, like Powell, started in silent films: Anna Q. Nilsson, Fritz Leiber, and Gibson Gowland in bit parts, plus H.B. Warner in the small but important role of the prosecutor.

John Kafka, an active follower of Sigmund Freud's theories, first used the aristocratic-amnesiac story idea in a novel that was adapted into the French melodrama Carrefour in 1938; it has been seen as an ancestor of The Return of Martin Guerre, a French production with Gérard Depardieu released in 1982, and Sommersby, the French-American remake of Martin Guerre with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, made in 1993. Crossroads is an overlooked but absorbing treatment of related issues, not always believable but directed and acted with unfailing panache.

Producer: Edwin Knopf
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Guy Trosper
Based on the story by John Kafka and Howard Emmett Rogers Cinematographer: Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
With: William Powell (David Talbot and/or Jean Pelletier), Hedy Lamarr (Lucienne Talbot), Claire Trevor (Michelle Allaine), Basil Rathbone (Henri Sarrou), Margaret Wycherly (Madame Pelletier), Felix Bressart (Dr. André Tessier), Sig Ruman (Dr. Alex Dubroc), H.B. Warner (prosecuting attorney), Philip Merivale (commissaire).
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