Domini, an heiress who has led a cloistered life, visits the North African desert for spiritual renewal. There she meets Boris, recently escaped from a Trappist monastery. Their friendship ripens into love, but he conceals his past from her. Then in a remote oasis, they meet a man who knows his secret. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
This is, I believe, only the second movie to be made in the gloriously new three-strip Technicolor process, and it must be said that cinematographer Howard Greene and Selznick's always reliable crew of art directors turned in a stunning performance. At a time when color was not well understood by most technicians, these guys pulled off a virtuoso turn. The thing looks fabulous from end to end; lovely desert shots under all kinds of lighting conditions, and a generally underplayed and painterly use of color.
Then there is the music: one of Max Steiner's most magical scores, although unfortunately renters of the video will not quite be able to appreciate it as it deserves to be. Max wrote nearly two hours of music for what turned out to be a 79 minute picture; a good deal of it was lost and Selznick's sound engineers had a tendency to mix it under in such a way that its distinctiveness is much muted. This problem is exacerbated in the usually reliable Anchor Bay's VHS issue; they went overboard with the noise reduction filters and the result in many places is a blurry mush that does scant justice to Steiner's often piquant scoring. (Later: In the DVD this has been largely rectified). Some of the best passages were left on the cutting room floor altogether... All of this visual and audible loveliness has been lavished on a story of truly astonishing triviality, which is a pity, as the Robert Hichens novel had rather more depth. (Count Antioni, for instance, is a converted Muslim in the book; but 1936 Hollywood would not tolerate that. Would they today, I wonder?) Marlene Dietrich has to be the only woman on earth who would wander about the uncharted depths of the Sahara in high heels and a Travis Banton silk confection of a gown; the most horrendous sandstorms fail to displace a single hair of her coiffure. Charles Boyer strives manfully with awful dialogue and almost brings it off. Second tier characters like Joseph Schildkraut and the ever stalwart C. Aubrey Smith fare better, and Basil Rathbone is always good to see. Tilly Losch's hoochie- koochie dance in the Arab dive is positively embarrassing. The whole thing was definitely a miscalculation on Selznick's part, and he lost a bundle. Nevertheless it is well worth a look if you are a student of early color. Film music aficionados will have to take my word for it on the superb qualities of the score; the existing movie barely hints at them. This music cries out for a good new recording, like the many others that are coming out these days of classic picture scores.
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