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Sunday, August 17, 2014

'Arsene Lupin Double Feature' DVD: Noir Films With Awesome French Connection

Arsene Lupin Double Feature
The Warner Archive double-feature DVD release of the 1932 film "Arsene Lupin" and the 1938 sequel "Arsene Lupin Returns" is the second summer-time WAC release of a collection of screen adaptations of mystery novels. The films are based on the written works of French writer Maurice LeBlanc, who receives a writing credit on both films.

The recently reviewed WAC Blu-Ray release of the first and second seasons of the current A&E mystery series "Longmire" is based on detective novels by Craig Johnson.

Especially in the first "Lupin," the big-screen version of this titular character is a very sophisticated and witty individual who uses (primarily jewel) thefts both to maintain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed and derive amusement from outsmarting the best detectives that the police and private entities place on his trail. The code by which this gentleman in the true sense of the word lives also makes him an object of admiration among the general public and said law enforcement officials.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of a promo. for the WAC double-feature offers an excellent sense of the premise and noir style of "Returns." However, it also includes spoilers regarding the original.

The first film is especially awesome because it is the first on-screen pairing of brothers John and Lionel Barrymore.  (Sorry, Ethel is no where to be seen.) John plays the Duke of Charmerace, a.k.a. Suspect Number One, with awesome witty and style; Lionel does equally well as the intrepid Detective Guerchard.

Watching les freres Barrymore verbally spar throughout "Lupin" and share a "must-see" scene in the final moments of the film provide some of the best film-related entertainment ever. They make the on-screen chemistry between '90s film "brothers" Matt Damon and Ben "I am Batman" Affleck greatly pale in comparison.

"Lupin" additionally stands out regarding an incredibly racy pre-Code scene that starts when Charmerace discovers the beautiful Sonia in his bedroom presumably wearing nothing but a sheet and a wry grin. Their banter is hilarious, and the scene ends with an extraordinarily suggestive exchange in pitch darkness.

As an aside, the fate that befalls the titular scoundrel at the end of the film also reflects the pre-Code treatment of some criminals. This is an era in which the adage "crime does not pay" does not always fully apply.

"Lupin" provides further entertainment in the form of watching the central gentleman thief  wonderfully manipulate Guerchard and others both to further his goals and show his superior intelligence. These include hilariously making Guerchard a suspect and taking advantage of predictable responses to pull off a (charitable) theft of the Mona Lisa.

These elements and the overall feel of a sophisticated noir comedy along the lines of the "Thin Man" film series from the same era make "Lupin" one of the best classic films to hit DVD this summer. You will be almost certain "whodunit" but will love seeing "howdunit."

"Returns" is a decent film that suffers both from the absence of the Barrymores and the more general fate regarding sequels. The truly talented and well-cast Melvyn Douglas simply lacks the level of sophistication and wit as his predecessor who portrays Lupin, and Warren William makes a perfectly fine accomplished American detective, but his Steve Emerson simply is no Guerchard.

"Returns" opens with then New York City police detective Emerson making a big bust that unexpectedly ends his government job; meanwhile, across town, an attempted robbery seems to be the work of the believed deceased Lupin.

This leads to Emerson landing a private gig traveling to France with the owners of the legendary emerald that is the subject of the thwarted theft. The audience soon learns that gentleman pig farmer Rene Farrand is Lupin. A series of unfortunate incidents throws this gentleman into the midst of the turmoil regarding the gem that apparently is making at least one person green with envy.

The sad truth is that the "Returns," which does not have LeBlanc as a credited writer, is not as clever as the original. Additionally, the introduction of peripheral murder dilutes the fun spirit that pervades "Lupin." It is also possible that implementing the Hays Code in the interim between the films unduly hampers the makers of the later one.

Common elements of the two films include casting suspicion on the investigating detective and making a blonde a central part of the action. Both are just more interesting in the first.

The final debriefing regarding this double feature is that "Lupin" easily earns top marks and  "Returns" merits a slightly lower grade but is still entertaining; together, they provide a nice evening of entertainment.

Anyone with questions regarding the "Lupin" series is welcome to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.