Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick a movie from that era that’s airing on TCM.
Pre-Codes showing on TCM this month include The Blue Angel (1930), but for this month’s pick, I’m going with the delightfully classy crime-romance Arsène Lupin (1932), one of the many film and TV adaptations featuring the title character. Arsène robs the rich people of Paris. He’s clever, has managed to evade capture, and grows bolder with each successful heist, but he takes special delight in personally taunting the great detective Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore). Guerchard’s been able to solve every case in his long career, but his inability to capture Arsène Lupin, combined with the mocking notes and public humiliation has led to a rather unfair ultimatum from the prefect: Guerchard must capture Arsène Lupin within a week or be fired. So, he tries a new tactic and paroles a beautiful and glamorous convict, Sonia (Karen Morley) and has her go undercover at Arsene’s next declared target and seduce the man he suspects of being Arsene, the charming and debonair Duke of Charmerace (John Barrymore).
The heists and investigation are the main events of this story, so you’re treated to some daring exploits like a party crowd getting robbed while a birthday cake is wheeled in, or the Mona Lisa getting stolen from the Louvre thanks to a disguise, flower basket and umbrella. The main appeal of this movie, though, is watching a bunch of smart people playing games with each other, and with the nice balance of crime, comedy and romance, those games feel like equal parts The Pink Panther and The Thomas Crown Affair. Lionel and John’s natural rapport adds so much to their characters’ duel of wits and mutual respect. Guerchard’s no dummy, but he plays into the misconception that he’s a buffoon and bumbling cop so he can draw out an overconfident Arsène, who likewise is well aware of and never underestimates the old detective’s intelligence and persistence. In the end, when Arsène is truly cornered and about to be arrested, he resorts to a measure so desperate and serious, and potentially so personally hurtful to Guerchard, that it’s out of character and threatens to suck all the fun out of the film. But that turns out to be a satisfying twist that redeems Arsène and sets up the ending in which both detective and criminal can win.
The chemistry between Morley and John Barrymore is fabulous and playfully naughty. Though she’s meant to trap Arsène, sparks fly from their very first meeting when he finds her literally under cover, sitting naked in his bed waiting for her party gown to be repaired, through the couple’s sleepwalking bit which has Arsène “waking” Sonia up with a pitcher of water, and to the end when she lies to keep him from going to jail. They can’t resist each other, because as Arsène told her, he’s an intoxicating, delightful champagne that can be enjoyed at any time of day with no aftereffects like a nasty headache, and all rivals are flat, stale, warm mugs of beer. Lines and gags like those are threads picked up throughout the film, making for pleasant character development and relationship building.
Tully Marshall is hilarious as Gourney-Martin, a likably silly and unashamed poseur who’s quick to catch on to all things illicit, and shows his understanding of such with a wink and a high-pitched giggle. He inadvertently shows Arsène how to open his electrified safe, and takes great pride in the wall of portraits in his country manor. When Arsene asks him if ALL of those people in frames are his ancestors, Gourney replies, “why certainly, I bought them!” It’s silly and sophisticated comedy, romance, glamour and crime, with smart and likable characters; you’re bound to enjoy it or I’m the “Queen of Romania.”
Catch Arsène Lupin on TCM, April 26th, and head over to Karen’s blog, Shadows and Satin, to see which movie she’s picked up for you to watch this month.