Confronted with the old problem of cleaning up a classic novel to conform to strict censorship codes, the production outfit has come up with a scrubbed-face version of the complete scoundrel depicted in Guy de Maupassant’s novel Private Affairs of Bel Ami. The title character pays for his sins by being killed in a duel which he brought on himself, in strict compliance with the Production Code’s ‘crime doesn’t pay’ edict. Prosties, which had a feature part in the story, emerge as dancers of questionable character.
Entire tempo of the story is slow-paced. Director Albert Lewin’s script builds up little sympathy for George Sanders, the Bel Ami of the piece, who climbs to the top of Paris social and political circles in the 1880s over the broken hearts of five women whom he uses to advance himself and then discards.
Cast is exceptionally strong and, under Lewin’s skilled direction, is mostly responsible for the film’s merits. Sanders plays it with the correct hammy touch, emoting with de Maupassant epigrams for sock effect. Angela Lansbury is beauteous and competent as the young widow with whom he’s probably in love all the time. Ann Dvorak, Frances Dee, Susan Douglas, Katherine Emery and Marie Wilson all show well as the other women in his path. John Carradine, as the comrade, and Hugo Haas and Albert Basserman handle the male roles in okay fashion.
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Painting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Max Ernst, which forms one of the focal points of the story a la Dorian Gray, is flashed on the screen the first time it’s shown in brilliant Technicolor for good effect. Darius Milhaud’s score is excellent and Russell Metty’s camera work, spotlighting shadows and gas-lit interiors, is good.