Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Cine-Simenon: The Man on the Eiffel Tower

Georges Simenon remains one of the best known Belgian writers, but his signature detective, French Police Commissaire Jules Maigret has been played by French, British, Dutch, Italian, Armenian, Czech, Russian, and Japanese actors.  British born Hollywood legend Charles Laughton also picked up Maigret’s trademark pipe for a memorable one-off, The Man on the Eiffel Tower, directed by the Burgess Meredith, which screens as part of Anthology Film Archives new retrospective, Cine-Simenon.

It is post-war Paris, where expat Bill Kirby has a wife, a mistress, a rich but prickly old aunt, and an aversion to work.  After he complains about the old dear’s longevity in a crowded cafĂ©, a mystery man slips him a note.  His problem can be solved for 100,000 Francs.  He need only mail her key to an anonymous postal drop—and so he does.

For Maigret, the most suspicious aspect of the crime scene is how thoroughly it implicates the Joseph Heurtin. The bespectacled knife-grinder simply does not strike Maigret as a killer.  Playing a hunch, the Inspector allows Heurtin to escape, hoping he will lead the police to the master criminal pulling his strings.  Maigret soon concludes the real murderer is the Czech Johann Radek, a dissolute former medical student.  However, proving it will be a trickier matter.  Thus commences a game of cat and mouse that will indeed take both men to the famous Parisian landmark.

All AFA screenings will be in 35mm, which is good to know, since there are some pretty scruffy prints of Eiffel in circulation.  Evidently, it was one of the few films shot on a certain brand of color stock that has not aged gracefully.  Nonetheless, it is jolly good little suspenser, as well as an evocative time-capsule of post-war Paris.

Frankly, it is a shame Charles Laughton went one-and-done as Maigret, because he fits the part like a comfortably rumpled suit.  It would make a good double feature with his classic performance as the not-quite-as-crafty-as-he-thinks-he-is Sir Wilfrid in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution.  In addition to helming with economy and style (reportedly with the occasional assist from his two big name co-stars), Burgess Meredith is effectively squirrely as Heurtin, even foreshadowing hints of Henry Bemis in the classic Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last.  Yet, perhaps the greatest revelation is Franchot Tone’s diabolically manic Radek.

Indeed, Laughton’s shrewd persona, Simenon’s clever plotting, and the still impressively dizzying climax promised by the title are hard combination to beat.  An all-around entertaining classic, Eiffel does right by the source novel, which was also the basis for an earlier French adaptation duly included in Cine-Simenon as well.  Highly recommended regardless of the condition of its surviving prints, The Man on the Eiffel Tower screens this Friday (8/9) and Sunday the 18th at the Anthology Film Archives.