Saturday, 18 July 2009

Frenchman's Creek (1944)

Still on coincidences, a couple of last minute changes to the Portuguese Cinemateque's programme allowed me to watch Mitchell Leisen's "Frenchman's Creek". It seems it was the most expensive picture at Paramount up to that stage, at $3m and it starred Joan Fontaine. She plays Donna St. Columb a bored noblewoman who decides to leave London for Cornwall and falls in love with a pirate. Not sure how faithfull the whole thing is to Daphne du Maurier's novel but it doesn't really bother me, as it is a rather interesting crossroad of genres - it's part romantic film, part comedy, half heartly disguised as a swashbuckler. I mean disguised because despite that 1) the baddy is Basil Rathbone (the second best baddy ever, after Conrad Veit); 2) there is a pirate and; 3) there is a poor excuse of a sword fight at some stage, our focus is never on the hero, but on the heroine. Arturo de Córdova's pirate is never more than the love interest. And he's less than say, Olivia de Havilland in the Flynn pictures or Maureen O'Hara with Tyrone Power in "The Black Swan", both of which are more interesting characters.

So back to our centre of focus - Joan Fontaine. There's something different here, and she's also neither Maureen nor Olivia. She's openly sexy and certainly not a virgin anymore. She shows her shoulders and clivage, her dresses are very flattering, and she toys with men as she never accustomed me before. Her dialogue and playfullness made me wonder how she passed censor boards - and despite the fact there is a line of dialogue reassuring us that nothing was tainted, I think there are clear indications that the relationship was, well, consumated. (Which would make her an adulteress, something punishable under the Hays code). In summary, Joan Fontaine is not the Joan Fontaine Hitchcock and Ophüls showed the world, is something else. Something much, much sexier.

The film has many flaws - the script goes weak at times, Leisen was probably not the best action sequence director, the leading man was uninspired and Basil Rathbone is not enough on screen. Also Cecil Kellway's wonderful servant of two masters hardly appears during the second half. But it is fun, and not unpleasurable to watch.

As a footnote, my only regret is that for a film celebrated for its Technicolor cinematography I saw a faded 16mm print. Very faded - a lot of salmon going on. And fat chance of watching a better copy in London, as this is the National Film and Television Archive's copy (i.e. the BFI)... Oh well, I hope there is a better preserved copy somewhere.

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