Tuesday, August 18, 2015

DVR Diary: THE EXILE (1947)

It's hard not to believe that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Max Ophuls didn't appreciate where they were, which was Universal Studios, where Ophuls, freshly fired by Howard Hughes and still hoping to make his American directorial debut, would film Fairbanks's screenplay -- he received sole credit for a collaboration with Ophuls and Clemence Dane, among others -- as Junior's first film as an independent producer. The Exile is often described as Junior's homage to his swashbuckling father, but it could as easily be seen as the two auteurs' tribute to Universal itself, as if Ophuls + Fairbanks = James Whale. Why, there's a climactic fight in a windmill a la Frankenstein and IMDB confirms my fleeting glimpse of Michael Mark, Little Maria's poor father, in a bit part. Like Ophuls, Whale liked to move the camera around, though his were halting steps compared to the later master. Perhaps most reminiscent of Whale are the obvious backdrop skies of this setbound yet expressionist picture, which is, to be fair, only superficially an homage to Whale or Universal. The auteurs are greater romantics than Whale or any of the Universal crew ever were and put their personal stamp -- presumably Fairbanks's as much as Ophuls's -- on what looks very much like a Universal film, down to the participation of Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez, Nigel (Dr. Watson) Bruce and Henry (Prof. Moriarty) Daniell in key roles. Moreover, it has more heart, or at least a different kind of heart, than any of Fairbanks Senior's pictures did.

You may know The Exile by its alias, Bonnie Prince Charlie, a title that eliminates any uncertainty over who the film is about. Fairbanks and company adapted a novel about the eventual Charles II by Cosmo Hamilton, portraying the prince in Dutch exile late in the Protectorate and wearying of the grim responsibility his remaining loyalists impose upon him. He doesn't want to risk their lives in another attempt to reclaim England by force and appears content to live a simpler life as an assistant innkeeper, having fallen for the innkeeper's daughter (Pauline Crosset aka Rita Corday). The first half of the picture is doubly comic as the regime in England trembles at the thought of Charles' plots while he romps with his new love Katie, and Charles has to help entertain a preposterous imposter (Robert Coote) calling himself Charles Stuart only so he can mooch meals off the fools who trust his letters of credit. Katie herself doesn't know the truth, despite the appearance of the flamboyant Countess Arabella (Montez), who lavishes attentions on humble Charlie.

Things turn deadly serious once the English government's agent, Col. Ingram (Daniell) arrives at the inn. Daniell, one of the great villain actors, is such a baleful presence that Ophuls's gliding camera seems frozen in his presence as Ingram has a guarded, loaded talk with the inn's English employee. The film hits a peak of suspense as Charlie is about to walk away with Ingram none the wiser on his true identity, and the impostor strolls in and affects a royal tantrum at the sight of a Roundhead. For a moment Charlie seems willing to let this idiot get his comeuppance, but once it becomes apparent that Ingram is credulous enough to kill the fool our hero must stop hiding in plain sight. Now the film becomes the sort of swashbuckler Fairbanks Senior would have recognized, with Ophuls sharing credit with "action scene designer" David Sharpe for some bravura sequences climaxing in the windmill fight. Credit is also due to cinematographer Fritz Planer (and two undredited collaborators) for adding an extra expressionist, almost noir aspect to these night battles. While his collaborators arguably are looking backward, Planer shoots as if he wanted this, rather than Anthony Mann's Black Book, to be the first historical costume noir film. It's not at all inappropriate, of course, in a film that in many ways looks like the last Universal film in the studio's classical manner.

Still, neither Fairbanks nor Ophuls really had noir in his heart. The heart of their picture is the romance of the exiled king and the inkeeper's daughter, Charlie realizing that he really could live out his life happily there, only to face unavoidable responsibility once the once-hoped-for summons comes from England. This sort of bittersweetness is Ophuls's meat, and for all that this is Fairbanks's film as producer and writer, it's also clearly an Ophuls film in its sentiments as well as its mobility. The two worked so well together that it's a shame that their film's flop at the box office kept them from teaming up again. Ophuls went on to greater victories, of course, but Fairbanks, whose career grows more interesting the more I see of it, probably was never as good after this. It's a bigger shame that he's remembered more for Sinbad the Sailor, where he more blatantly apes his father, than for The Exile, perhaps his most personal work of art.

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