George Melford's reputation has risen sharply in recent years. For decades, his best-known film was 'The Sheik', starring Valentino. In the 1990s, a Cuban archive released a rare print of the Spanish-language version of 'Dracula' which Melford directed concurrently with Tod Browning's English-language version, using the same sets and costumes. Melford's production is widely considered superior to the Browning version. And yet, Melford's CV ends with a long list of undistinguished low-budgeters. Is he an underrated director, or was he a mediocre talent who just occasionally had bursts of inspiration?
'A Man's Past' shows Melford to be an extremely variable director. There are some impressive frame compositions here, and the overall pacing is good, but two of the leading cast members overact so badly that Melford must be faulted for failing to restrain them. Fortunately the central role in this drama is played by Conrad Veidt, who never gave a bad performance.
SPOILERS COMING. Veidt stars as Dr Paul La Roche, a French surgeon who intentionally killed a terminally-ill patient who was in chronic pain. It's clear to us that this was euthanasia, and that La Roche's motives were good, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to ten years' hard labour in a prison on an island off the coast of France. Of course, the prison governor is corrupt and the warders are sadists. We see Veidt looking like Edmond Dantes: gaunt, with long stringy hair and beard. The governor's assistant is Lieutenant Destin, played in epicene manner by Arthur Edmund Carewe.
When a prisoner snatches a warder's gun and shoots the prison governor, the resident medical officer is unable to remove the bullet. (This sawbones is played by Charles Puffy, who was Puffy by name and puffy by nature: a coarse-looking man who simply fails to radiate the intellect appropriate for this role.) Destin offers La Roche a pardon if he saves the governor's life. Of course, La Roche succeeds. Of course, the governor reneges on the deal. Up until now, La Roche has stoically accepted his sentence ... but now that his personal honour has been blemished, he decides to escape. Vive la France! Donnez-moi le fromage!
La Roche washes up in Marseilles, where he meets the beauteous Yvonne Fontaine, sister of a prominent surgeon. Dr Fontaine's eyesight is failing, so La Roche steps in and does the surgery for him. Brilliantly, of course. This gives Yvonne an idea: they can maintain La Roche's freedom and her brother's reputation by moving to Algeria, where nobody knows them. La Roche will live openly as Dr Fontaine, performing surgery in his name. Fade in, and now the 'Fontaine' clinic in Algeria has become world-famous. La Roche is now attracted to Yvonne, but the relationship is stymied because he's pretending to be her brother.
Eventually, guess who shows up in Algeria. Zut Alors, it's Lieutenant Destin. Of course he meets Yvonne and is attracted to her. Then he meets her 'brother', whom he recognises as escaped convict La Roche. The rivals square off. It would be satisfying to see La Roche kill Destin, but then he would be guilty of a murder less defensible than the one that got him nicked in the first place. So, the scriptwriter hands a firearm to the blind Dr Fontaine, who uses his last remaining remnant of retina to aim his weapon and kill Destin.
Veidt's performance is (as always) impressive, and Ian Keith as Dr Fontaine offers a goodish turn in a role that gives him an excuse to chew the scenery. Far more annoying are Barbara Bedford and Carewe, both of whom seem to think this movie is Amateur Night. It doesn't help that every plot development in this story seems to trundle into place like clockwork. It's too bad that Veidt's restrained performance isn't in a better movie with a different script. As it stands, I'll rate this film 4 out of 10.
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