Featuring: John Blythe and the Moliere Players.
HOUSTON –“Bon Voyage,” one of two near-legendary shorts directed by Alfred Hitchcock for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, has resurfaced nearly a half-century after it was produced and quickly shelved.
Recently unearthed by the British Film Institute, pic is currently having its U.S. premiere as part of a touring Hitchcock retrospective sponsored by Piper-Heidsieck champagne. It also has been picked up for specialized theatrical and vid release by Milestone Films, and should attract respectable numbers of film buffs, academics and Hitchcock completists.
Without the Hitchcock imprimatur, it’s debatable whether anyone (except, possibly, World War II historians) would think “Bon Voyage” worth all the bother. A briskly paced, heavily ironic drama about a downed RAF pilot who’s smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France, pic resembles nothing so much as an above-average episode of some TV anthology series of the 1950s. A series, perhaps, not unlike “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
English actor John Blythe is the only member of the cast identified by name either onscreen or in the few remaining production records. Other members of the cast are introduced collectively as members of the Moliere Players, a theatrical troupe formed by French actors resettled in England during the war. Reportedly, the players were eager to appear in any tribute to the French Resistance. But, fearing reprisals against friends and relatives still in Occupied France, they asked that their identities not be revealed.
Blythe plays John Dougall, an RAF officer who’s interrogated by the Free French in England after his escape from Occupied France. In subjective flashbacks, he recalls the heroic efforts of a fellow escapee, a Polish Army sergeant named Godowski, to guide him to contacts with various agents of the French underground.
Trouble is, the Polish officer really was actually a Gestapo agent who used Dougall to smoke out Resistance fighters. As soon as Dougall learns this, Hitchcock segues into a rerun of the RAF officer’s journey, this time from the viewpoint of the Gestapo agent. Events and dialogue that previously seemed innocuous turn out to have darker alternative meanings when re-examined in a new light.
It’s tempting to theorize that Hitchcock’s experiments with perspective here were a kind of warm-up exercise for “Vertigo” (1958), and that sort of speculation will no doubt be indulged in by Hitchcock scholars.
More likely, however, is that Hitchcock was motivated more by patriotism than by artistic experimentation on “Bon Voyage.” This was his contribution to the war effort — a propaganda short intended to encourage resistance in France and her colonies, not a work of art destined for the ages.
Like “Aventure Malgache,” the other Ministry of Information propaganda short directed by Hitchcock, “Bon Voyage” was filmed in French, for French audiences, and never intended for exhibition in England. Film historian Tom Milne is credited with the English subtitles for the film’s current, long-delayed release.
Tech credits, especially the first-rate black-and-white cinematography by former UFA cameraman Gunther Krampf, are above and beyond the call of duty.