Young Raymond Floriot, following in his father Louis Floriot's professional footsteps, he now France's attorney general, has just passed the bar exam. Raymond's first case, appointed to him by the courts, is a murder case. His pitiful and poor Jane Doe client, who refers to herself only as Madame X, admits to killing the scoundrel of a man named Laroque, but won't disclose why or in turn defend herself in court. Raymond knows nothing of her past, which includes once being a woman of class, married to man of prestige. But that marriage ended because he treated her without love, which resulted in her leaving him for another man, who in turn passed away shortly thereafter. Her first marriage produced a son, who her husband refused to let her see. Her son never knew she was alive, he being told by his father that she died. The consequence of his action left Madame X on a downward path where she never found love. Now, in turn, she hopes her silence will protect the one that she really ... Written by
This first talking film version of the venerable Madame X takes a full one-third of its running time to get started as a proper movie. The first 30 minutes suffer horribly from atrocious miking, unbelievably stilted acting and frozen camera placement that was all too common in the early talkie era. It's as if the actors were on morphine laced with acid and performing under water. The one scene that takes place outdoors in a public park is crudely recorded and more jarring than revelatory in its effect.
When the locale finally shifts to southeast Asia the juicy part of the story begins with the star Ruth Chatterton on the first leg of her debauched round-the-world journey to oblivion as the wayward official's spouse whose life is ruined by an extramarital tryst. Chatterton's performance careens from laughably, abysmally dated posturings at the beginning to incandescent hyper-realism as she portrays the dissolution and ravages of absinthe addiction and self loathing. It is a brave and even startling tour de force, especially for its time. And the extreme contrast between the awful and the sublime is itself a phenomenon worth observing for its own sake. It speaks to the transition in acting styles that was taking place in the 1920s, a time of deep cultural change. Usually a movie from this era will contain different styles of acting coming from different actors - but here the differences are all within Chatterton herself.
The rest of the cast simply falls by the wayside, although in the early minutes it is Lewis Stone who registers more strongly, due to his deeper and more mike- friendly voice. Raymond Hackett as Madame X's clueless son is suitably earnest and sympathetic in his bravado courtroom climax scene. Ullrich Haupt is effective as the con man who befriends the heroine in South America, but Burgess Meredith's rendition of the same character in the 1966 version was more chillingly repulsive.
Toward the end Chatterton's performance begins to slip back into treacly mode (not helped by the overwrought dialogue), but for about 45 minutes she delivers one of the most entertaining acting jobs of 1929.
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