Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Fake (Pallos Productions/United Artists, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched was The Fake, a 1953 British production whose producers, Ambrose Grayson and Steven Pallos, borrowed two American stars, Dennis O’Keefe and Coleen Gray, for the leads but cast the rest of the parts with the great British character actors abundantly available to the London studios when they weren’t doing stage work. Directed by Godfrey Grayson (presumably Ambrose’s brother) from a script by James Daplyn (“original” story) and Patrick Kirwan (screenplay), The Fake is a pretty familiar story that seems to have been based at least in part on some of the legendary real-life art frauds documented in Lawrence Jeppson’s book The Fabulous Fakes and other sources, notably the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 (it was recovered three years later, but in the meantime six fake versions had been sold to private collectors, each of whom were told they were getting the stolen original, and there are people who believe to this day that the original Mona Lisa is still in the hands of a private owner and the one hanging in the Louvre today is one of the fakes — and that doesn’t even get into the earlier version of Mona Lisa Leonardo da Vinci painted himself and which is in a private collection in London) and the recurring stories of naïve artists who paint or sculpt new works in the style of the Old Masters (and deliberately use antiquated techniques), who intend to sell their works as what they are — new pieces made in the old styles — but instead their pieces are bought by unscrupulous dealers or crooks who pass them off as originals from the period.

Dennis O’Keefe plays American private detective Paul Mitchell, charged with bringing over a Leonardo called Madonna and Child from New York to the Tate Gallery in London. When the crate carrying it is stolen off the London dock Mitchell produces the real painting, which he’s carried himself — only is it the real painting? Previously there were thefts of Leonardos from musea in New York and Florence, and in each case the stolen painting was replaced with a nearly exact copy. Mitchell starts hanging out at the Tate (which gets a screen credit; the producers acknowledged the assistance of the real gallery) and meets librarian Mary Mason (Coleen Gray), daughter of painter Henry Mason (John Laurie), who had enough of a reputation that in 1939 he had a one-man show, but by 1953 is considered hopelessly out-of-date because he’s so convinced that art history has gone steadily downhill since the Renaissance that he’s adopted the techniques used then, including making his own blue paint from lapis lazuli pigment and clove-oil and beeswax medium (which means that, at least in 1953, people couldn’t have told one of his works from a genuine Renaissance piece just by chemically analyzing the paint — more recent techniques have been discovered that can document when paint was applied to a canvas, thereby exposing forgers that used period canvas as well as period-style paints, but those didn’t exist when this film was made).

Of course Mitchell falls in love with Mary, and she resists him, then accepts him, then rejects him again when she figures he’s only courting her to get evidence against her dad, who it turns out painted copies of Leonardo’s works that were used by an art-theft ring to substitute for the originals when they stole them. Mitchell wonders why anyone would steal such valuable works that were so famous they couldn’t be sold or fenced — it’s obvious to us that there’s a private collector somewhere who wants them, plans to display them secretly in a space only he can access, and is willing not only to pay through the nose for them but will countenance any crime, including murder, to make sure he gets the paintings and they can’t be traced back to him. By the end of the movie it’s revealed that the private collector is Sir Richard Aldingham (Hugh Williams), and though we missed the ending because TCM’s equipment glitched out, it’s pretty obvious that Aldingham was either captured or killed and Mitchell and Mary Mason kissed and made up following the death of her father (her dad’s death provided the clue Mitchell needed — he painted a picture of Aldingham’s sitting room with the Leonardos plainly visible instead of hidden behind the sliding panels in his wall that usually concealed them from ordinary visitors, and somehow his killer missed it) and his exoneration when he noticed the “Leonardo” on display at the Tate was actually the copy he had painted himself. The Fake is well made, though its debt to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (set in the British Museum) is pretty obvious, especially in the vertiginous chase sequences in the Tate in which Mitchell futilely pursues one of Aldingham’s minions as he steals the real Leonardo and substitutes Henry Mason’s copy. I’d love to see the ending of this sometime, but even in truncated form Charles and I enjoyed The Fake even though it did seem awfully familiar through much of its running time!