Saturday, June 11, 2011

Secrets of the French Police (RKO, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

So far I’ve watched a rather odd movie on videotape (I made the recording during the wee hours — 3:30 to 4:30 a.m. today!) called Secrets of the French Police, which despite its police-procedural title is actually a pretty wild melodrama, verging (especially towards the end) on horror, in which an expatriate Russian general named Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) kidnaps a Parisian flower girl (Gwili André) and hypnotizes her into believing she is the Princess Anastasia so he can get his hands on the millions of dollars Tsar Nicholas II held in bank accounts in Paris and London. The head of the Surété in this movie is none other than our old friend Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz — The Cop), and with the help of one of those gentlemanly burglars [sic] who’s also the flower seller’s boyfriend, he traces her to Moloff’s castle — where, unable to use her in his plot now that the burglar boyfriend has shown up and reminded her of who she really is, he plans to kill her by draining all her blood and turning her into a statuesque corpse. At this point I was asking myself, “Is this Secrets of the French Police or Mystery of the Wax Museum?”

This movie had a convoluted script by Samuel Ornitz and competent but singularly unexciting direction by A. Edward Sutherland (a former Keystone Kop and usually a first-rate comedy director, but somewhat out of his depth in a thriller), and decent but nothing-special performances by the cast — though there were a few novel sequences, notably one in which one of Moloff’s more bizarre murder schemes is exposed: to kill the Russian Grand Duke who could establish his “Anastasia” as a fraud, he rigged up a movie projector and a screen (disguised as a billboard) on a back road, projected a film of a car approaching (complete with the appropriate soundtrack) and thereby got the Grand Duke’s driver to swerve away from the supposedly oncoming car — off the road altogether and over an embankment, killing both of them. (It might be fun to appropriate the device and write a story suggesting Princess Diana was killed in the same way.) — 2/25/98


The film was Secrets of the French Police, a real weirdie from RKO in 1932 casting the unlikeliest actor in Hollywood, Frank Morgan, as François St. Cyr, a super-detective with the Surété who tracks down the murderer of a fellow cop, Danton. It began as a series of articles in the American Weekly magazine by H. Ashton Wolfe, who claimed to have been a police detective in Lyons, France and to have written the articles based on his real experiences with the force — only while they were checking out the legalities of using real people’s names in the film (including Bertillon, the real-life French criminologist who first explored the possibilities of using fingerprints to identify criminals and doing reconstructed portraits of suspects, based on witness’s descriptions, to provide a visual aid for finding criminals that had never been photographed), RKO’s legal department discovered that Ashton Wolfe was in fact a con artist wanted on swindling charges in both Britain and France (which itself suggests the plot for a very interesting thriller). So Frank Morgan ended up playing the fictitious “St. Cyr” instead of Ashton Wolfe — or at least the glamorous law-enforcer identity Ashton Wolfe had created for himself — and writers Samuel Ornitz (working from an unpublished novel of his called The Lost Empress) and Robert Tasker came up with a wild yarn, a real genre-bender combining police procedural, international intrigue and horror.

To direct it they got A. Edward Sutherland, a former Keystone Kop who was mostly known as a comedy director but, when he made non-comic films, had a penchant for the macabre (as witness his bizarre Paramount horror entry Murders in the Zoo) which made him a near-ideal director for this one. The plot deals with St. Cyr’s search for the murderer of Danton, and also with the rocky relationship between flower seller Eugenie Dorain (Gwili André, top-billed) and her pickpocket boyfriend Leon Renault (John Warburton), who cheekily informs St. Cyr that he’s a patriot and therefore only robs foreigners, not French people. The two storylines intersect when General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff, a surprisingly sinister performance from someone who, like Frank Morgan, was known mostly as a comic character actor!) turns out to be an adventurer and swindler who kidnaps Eugenie because he knows she’s actually Russian by ancestry and he intends to hypnotize her into thinking she’s the Princess Anastasia, pass her off as the real Anastasia to the members of the old Romanoff court in exile in Paris after the Revolution, and thereby get his hands on the millions from the former Czarist treasury still being held in banks in London. Supposedly he killed Danton and Eugenie’s foster-father Anton (Christian Rub) because they were the only people who knew who Eugenie really was.

Moloff, who’s described in the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis as half-Russian and half-Chinese (the latter is apparent mostly in his slant-eyed makeup and deliberate, Charlie Chan-ish mode of speech), has a secret laboratory in the basement of his chateau that includes a spinning wheel with which he hypnotizes Eugenie as well as a rig he seems to have assembled after seeing the movie Frankenstein and thinking, “Gee, it would be cool to try that.” When Leon turns up and blows his plot to pass Eugenie off as Anastasia, Moloff embalms her in formaldehyde and coats her with what appears to be a paste made from marble dust so he can turn her into a statue — I know what you’re thinking, but this was a year before Warners made Mystery of the Wax Museum — and in the end Moloff is literally hoisted on his own petard; as the police break into his lab they push him against the wall, and he either kills himself or is accidentally electrocuted (Sutherland’s direction keeps it a bit ambiguous) by catching his hands on two live electrodes on his control board.

Needless to say, the cops have some equally intriguing gadgets — the Surété had an international reputation as the first law-enforcement agency to use scientific techniques to fight crime, and the movie features the kind of composite sketch-making we’ve seen in police procedurals since, with different people’s descriptions of the missing Eugenie used to construct a drawing of her face — only the reconstruction is done with giant-sized paintings of facial features assembled into place on a wall-sized board, and only once it’s completed in this huge size is it photographed and printed so the cops can hit the streets with it. There’s also a quirky scene in which Moloff tricks Grand Duke Maxim (Arnold Korff), a blood Romanoff who’s about to expose Eugenie as an impostor, into running his car off the road by staging it to look like a car is coming straight at him in the other direction — only it’s really a movie of an approaching car: just about the only time I can think of in cinema history that’s essentially depicted a process screen in a film that wasn’t itself about filmmaking.

Secrets of the French Police is a good thriller, wildly improbable but fast-moving (as a lot of later RKO crime films weren’t) and fun — and Frank Morgan, in a role quite different from what we’re used to seeing him in (basically The Wizard of Oz and all the other goofus authority figures he played before and after), is perfectly credible even though TCM should have shown an even more offbeat credit, The Kiss Before the Mirror, which he made at Universal in 1933 for Frankenstein director James Whale and which also brought a surprisingly effective use of horror iconography to a crime film (Morgan plays a super-attorney who’s defending a client for murdering an unfaithful wife and then finds out his own wife is cheating on him similarly). — 6/11/11