Monday, August 8, 2011

Journal of a Crime (Warners as “First National,” 1934)

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

The film was Journal of a Crime, a really odd production from 1934 by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag, which on the surface is a typical Ruth Chatterton soap opera that allowed her to suffer nobly and picturesquely, but turns out to have a surprisingly “European” flair. Not only does it take place in Paris (albeit a never-never Paris in which everybody speaks unaccented English — despite the presence of a card-carrying Frenchman, Adolphe Menjou, as the male lead), but it’s based on a film by Jacques Deval (at least that’s what the American Film Institute Catalog says; the actual on-screen credits say Deval’s work was a play) called La Vie Perdue (“The Lost Life”) and filmed under the working title Silence de Mort (“Silence of Death”) and the movie has a visual richness and almost noir-ish chiaroscuro look not at all what we’d expect from a film by William Keighley (pronounced “KEE-lee”), a quite ordinary Warners hack.

While I was watching it I wondered if perhaps William Dieterle had ghost-directed any or all of it — the film was drenched in the visual atmospherics that would have been second nature to Dieterle, with his apprenticeship as actor and director in his native Germany — though according to the AFI Catalog this project was originally intended for an even more illustrious German director than Dieterle: G. W. Pabst, who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and had settled in France, then a year later decided to try his luck in Hollywood and signed with Warners. He made one movie, A Modern Hero, and then was announced for this project — only to be let go when A Modern Hero was a box-office disappointment. Still, I can’t help but wonder if he worked on Journal of a Crime long enough to storyboard it, because even with a stylish “glamour” cameraman like Ernest Haller I can’t imagine Keighley having this much of a visual flair without some sort of help.

The film opens with a mysterious woman waiting outside a closed theatre on a cold night — both someone from the theatre and a police officer ask her if she wouldn’t rather wait inside, but she refuses and says she’s fine (she’s fine). It turns out she’s Françoise Mollet (Ruth Chatterton), whose husband Paul Mollet (Adolphe Menjou) wrote the musical that’s being rehearsed in the theatre for an opening two days hence. Paul has a major reputation as a womanizer (well, he’s an Adolphe Menjou lead — what do you expect?) and his current main extramarital flame is Odette Florey (Claire Dodd), the leading lady of his show. Paul and Odette have an argument outside the theatre, with Paul pleading his undying love (yeah, right) and Odette insisting that she’s had it with him and she won’t continue to date him until he starts divorce proceedings so he can free himself of his current wife and marry her. Of course, Françoise hears all of this, then sees the two of them get in the same car together; she goes home and waits up for Paul, who finally arrives at 3 a.m. with the scent of another woman’s powder on his coat (odd to see that gimmick used seriously the night after we’d seen it in a comic context in The Fuller Brush Girl!).

The next day Françoise sneaks into the theatre with a gun she got from Paul’s end-table drawer and shoots her — only just then the film cuts to a bank that is being robbed by a lone gunman, Costelli (Noel Madison). The teller has a gun behind his desk and tries to get it out and shoot Costelli, but Costelli shoots first and the teller dies. Costelli flees into the theatre and tries to hide out there but is cornered by the cops, and eventually he is convicted not only of the teller’s murder but Odette’s as well and sentenced to the guillotine. Before he dies Françoise visits him in prison and offers to confess to Odette’s murder, but since he’s going to be put to death for the one he did commit he gallantly agrees to take the fall for her for the one he didn’t as well. He’s duly executed, only Françoise is still tormented by guilt and is on her way to confess to the police when she sees a child in the street about to be struck down by a car. She goes into the street to try to rescue the child; she does, but the car hits her. She doesn’t die, but she develops amnesia and Paul is told that she’s forgotten everything she ever knew, including such simple things as how to use flatware to eat and how to read or write. (Amnesia is such a compelling plot gimmick it’s far more common in movies than in real life, but I’ve heard of people who’ve been through heart attacks having this problem, especially if the flow of oxygen to the brain was cut off for more than a split second.)

Even for the cusp of the so-called “pre-Code” era (this was made in November 1933, copyright in March 1934 and released on April 10) this is a pretty nervy ending — apparently the loss of any memory of the murder (or much of anything else) and the struggle she’s going to have to go through to function as a normal member of society again constituted enough “redemption through suffering” to satisfy the Code office even in its less influential pre-Legion of Decency phase. Journal of a Crime suffers from Chatterton’s oddly stagy acting — many of the scenes in the F. Hugh Herbert/Charles Kenyon script require her to hold the stage in silent action, and she’s quite good except that one can see the calculation behind almost every move and gesture; she’s obviously playing these scenes the way she would have on stage and one aches at the thought of what the younger and less stage-bound Bette Davis could have done with this part. But the plot is so compelling (albeit far-fetched) and the overall atmosphere so good it really doesn’t matter how stylized the star’s acting is (and confronted with the relative naturalism of the Warners stock company Chatterton seems even stagier than she would otherwise!); Journal of a Crime is a decidedly odd movie but also a quite good one and well worth watching.