Maigret on Screen: The Man on the Eiffel Tower

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Simenon’s relationship with his most famous literary creation was filled with contradictions. Resentful at being primarily known as a crime writer he nonetheless enjoyed the royalty cheques that enabled him to travel widely and savour a comfortable lifestyle.

Despite his publicly proclaimed aversion at being solely identified as the author of the Maigret novels, he recognised that securing a film deal would be profile-boosting and offer the promise of long-term financial security. In interviews, Simenon would frequently claim not to have viewed the adaptations of his work before offering a detailed critique of the actors who had played Maigret. Simenon’s public stance of indifference is at odds with the actions of a man who acquired and destroyed prints of adaptations he thought had failed to convey the true essence of his novels. In interviews, he talked of drawing up contracts that specified the adaptation had to be destroyed after a set number of years.

By the late 1940s, the character of Maigret had already appeared on screen in productions starring Pierre Renoir, Abel Tarride, Harry Baur, Albert Prejan, and Maurice Manson. English-speaking audiences were introduced to the character with the release of an American adaptation of The Man on the Eiffel Tower.

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A versatile actor, Charles Laughton is perhaps best remembered for directing the Film Noir The Night of the Hunter. In the late 1940s he was one of British cinema’s most significant screen talents. Accustomed to playing a wide range of parts the acclaimed performer was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Despite being no stranger to crime drama having also played a gangster in the mould of Al Capone in Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot his casting as Maigret may have surprised audiences but it pleased Laughton’s bank manager.

When Laughton was initially approached to play the part producer Irving Allen was slated to direct the film. The Man on the Eiffel Tower had previously been filmed in 1933 as La Tête d’un Homme. Erroneously reported as the first English language adaptation of a Simenon novel, the 2013 discovery of previously lost quota quickie film Temptation Harbour based on the short story Newhaven-Dieppe starring Robert Newton and future Doctor Who William Hartnell has forced Simenologists to redraft the author’s screen history. Despite the relegation to second English language adaptation of a Simenon story The Man on the Eiffel Tower still holds the notable distinction of being the first American production based on the author’s work.

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Based on the ninth Maigret novel A Man’s Head the film was a joint American-French co-production. In addition to introducing a new audience to the work of Georges Simenon, the film showcased post-war Paris.

At the time of production Simenon was living in Arizona. Yet to achieve anything resembling mainstream success in America he had a dedicated cult readership. With an acclaimed and bankable star on board, the film may have offered the opportunity to attract a wider audience for his books. Surprisingly, considering the film’s importance in establishing the Maigret novels commercial viability in a previously indifferent territory, Simenon elected to be critical of the central star’s performance.

For several decades The Man on the Eiffel Tower was considered to be a lost film. Reports suggest that Simenon ordered the destruction of all prints. Little known among Laughton aficionados and Simenologists, a false perspective about the film and it’s perceived failings became accepted as fact. UCLA’s discovery of two projection prints enables the film to be studied for the first time since its original release. What was previously a minor entry in the history of post-war cinema takes on a fresh significance in terms of offering previously unknown evidence about the French film industry’s strategy for representing Paris within the context of genre cinema and for how approaches taken by the film have influenced subsequent English language adaptations of the Maigret novels.

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According to biographical accounts, Laughton was financially embarrassed when he was offered the opportunity to play Maigret. His acceptance in all likelihood probably was due to the need for an instant cash injection rather than a fondness for Simenon’s novel. Having agreed to play the part Laughton was thorough and diligent in his preparation. Intensely studying all available translated editions of the Maigret novels he soon gained a sense of the detective and his world. Determined to be truthful to Simenon’s creation, Laughton searched multiple Hollywood costumiers for clothing that would enable him to build an accurate and sympathetic character. Having constructed his version of Maigret before the cameras started rolling Laughton may have anticipated a stress-free shoot. According to contemporary press reports, it was a tortuous production.

Precisely who directed The Man on the Eiffel Tower is far from clear-cut. Producer Irving Allen was originally slated to direct the film. After three days of shooting, he was forced to resign the director’s chair when an enraged Laughton threatened to quit the production. To mollify the lead actor Allen agreed to his request that Burgess Meredith who had already been cast in a supporting role oversee the remainder of filming. More recently, reports have suggested Laughton directed several key sequences without credit. Scholars have also claimed that co-producer Franchot Tone directed scenes which featured Laughton and Meredith in the same frame.

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Promoted as the first American colour production to be filmed in Paris, the screenplay was adjusted to showcase the city’s most famous monument. Throughout filming production was held up due to a variety of unforeseen factors. Weather delayed filming, the co-producer and Laughton argued ferociously, and electrical problems led to frequent blackouts.

Praised by Renoir and warmly but not effusively reviewed by critics, the film fell into relative obscurity and for decades the only available information was found in biographies. UCLA’s discovery of two previously unknown prints has resulted in a reappraisal. Now seen not only in terms of its place within the canon of Simenon screen adaptations, critics have suggested that the film is a rare example of a colour film noir.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is available to order from Amazon.

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Blu-ray Review: The Night of the Hunter

Simon Callow’s preface to the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor notes with some sadness that the performer is rapidly being forgotten by a generation of viewers who perhaps due to increasingly infrequent TV screenings have yet to see and appreciate the magnificence of his craft. Even amongst acting professionals Laughton’s name does not elicit any significant levels of recognition in anyone under 40.

Whilst his multitude of screen performances await reappraisal, Laughton’s sole stab at directing has undergone a complete critical rehabilitation since its release. Treated with scorn by pundits and ignored by audiences, The Night of the Hunter’s stature has steadily grown and this once derided movie is now regarded by cinephiles as being one of the finest examples of Film Noir. Proof that The Night of the Hunter is now celebrated by the very elite which once rejected it was offered in 1992 when the film was selected by the United Sates Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The re-evaluation, particularly with regards cinematography, is somewhat ironic as for decades the film has been presented in an alternate aspect ratio which removed picture information and neutered a carefully constructed cinematic canvas. For the first time since its original release viewers now have the opportunity to view the movie as it was intended thanks to the release on Blu-ray of a restored edition sourced from 35mm film elements.

In 1954 Charles Laughton enjoyed his most significant Broadway success directing Henry Ford in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Recognizing his talent and keen for Laughton to forge a career away from acting producer Paul Gregory began actively seeking out projects which might be suitable for a debut behind the camera lens; ‘I wanted to bring Charlie into focus as a top director and have him quit performing; the performances were what was killing him; he needed to find something where he could direct one or two things a year and make all the money he needed. That was the goal I had for Charles. With me producing and him directing, and when he didn’t direct, we’d be co-producers.’ No doubt planning a multimedia empire which would conquer stage and screen, Gregory optioned a best selling novel by Davis Grubb about a murderous preacher. Inspired by the true life story of serial killer Harry Powers who placed adverts in local newspapers fully intending to slay anyone who replied and steal their money, Grubb’s novel was short-listed for the National Book Award.

Armed with development funds from United Artists, Gregory and Laughton recruited James Agee to translate Grubb’s prose into a story that would electrify movie audiences. An influential film critic and author of the screenplay for The African Queen, Agee had descended into a life dominated by alcohol abuse and would be dead within a year of the film’s release. For decades Agee’s authorship of the script has been contested, apocryphal tales have circulated of an elaborate but unfilmable draft which was rejected and replaced by one written in haste by Laughton. Agee’s contribution was further cast into doubt by unverifiable accounts of him being excluded from the set due to drunken behaviour. Additional confusion was caused by the publication of the filmed version in James Agee’s Five Film Scripts. More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the

More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the long lost first draft of Agee’s script was discovered and whilst being over-length it is reported to contain each scene present in the finished film and carefully delineates the precise division of acts. Surviving production memorandums suggest a far more cordial relationship with Laughton than has been previously hinted at and a greater presence by Agee throughout the film’s production. Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of

Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter accords Laughton his rightful status as the film’s sole director and in doing so shatters many falsehoods which have been reported in biographies and articles over the years.

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Made towards the end of the Film Noir movement, The Night of the Hunter is a dark and twisted nightmarish view of small-town America shot through with black humour and sexual innuendo. Undeniably influenced by German Expressionism in terms of framing and the use of light, shade, and distorted perspectives alongside various techniques accrued during the course of Laughton’s experiences directing for the stage .

During pre-production Laughton (alongside Welles alumni Stanley Cortez) rejected excessive theorizing about stylistic approaches and instead screened whatever D.W.Griffiths films were available. In seeking to learn how to the rules of film grammar through studying a pioneer’s work Laughton was echoing the behaviour of Orson Welles who alongside cinematographer Gregg Toland watched John Ford’s Stagecoach a reported forty times during production of Citizen Kane. The extent to which this parallel with Welles’ own research methodology is coincidental or deliberate is unrecorded.

Set within depression era America, the film combines the tropes of Southern Gothic with themes present in the more grotesque Brothers Grimm folk tales. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested by police following a bank robbery in which two people were slain. Wishing for his children to avoid the levels of deprivation that were becoming increasingly commonplace during the 1930s Ben conceals the money with daughter Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) ragdoll making her and brother John (Billy Chapin) vow to never reveal the location of the stolen stash. Whilst in prison awaiting execution Ben shares his cell with confidence artist Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is eager to get his hand on the on the cash. Upon release from the penitentiary Powell inveigles widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters) into marrying him and begins a campaign of psychological and physical torture in order to find the proceeds from Ben’s robbery.

During initial conversations about the part Laughton told Mitchum ‘this character I want you to play is a diabolical shit.’ Understanding what the director wanted from him Mitchum gave what may be his most intense screen performance, constantly diabolical and ghoulish whilst a lesser actor might have given a more arch reading of the part.

Told from the perspective of two children Ben and Pearl, The Night of the Hunter‘s macabre flourishes recall Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Paul Wegener alonside the aforementioned D.W. Griffiths. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had already experienced greatness working alongside Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and would say of his time with Laughton; ‘… the most exciting experience I’ve had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter … every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can’t be described. Of the directors I’ve worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.’

Dejected by the critical and commercial disappointment Laughton never again directed a feature film leaving us this solitary glimpse into the promise of genius which might have transformed the cinematic landscape. A deeply personal work informed by the director’s love of cinema (he had a teenage crush on Lillian Gish who appears in this film).

Arrow Films’ package includes an archive interview with Stanley Cortez and a feature length documentary, Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” which is compiled from rushes discovered by Robert Gitt. In several interviews Mitchum diminished Laughton’s contribution, claiming that the director did not get along with the child actors and handed these sequences over to other personnel but thanks to this bonus feature we can see that the reverse is in fact a more accurate account; great care was taken to coax honest performances from the children and throughout the director is in total control of the proceedings.

The Night of the Hunter can be ordered from Amazon