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Victor Sjostrom's final directorial effort is made in England by the resourceful silent film taskmaster, and he is aided by a competent cast, magnificent score (Arthur Benjamin) and a clever scenario (Arthur Wimperis) in this engrossing historic drama which deals with the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu (Raymond Massey) to quell rebellious Huguenots in 17th century southeastern France. To achieve his purposes, Richelieu employs the services of Gil de Berault (Conrad Veidt), a dashing swordsman, to serve as a spy for Catholic King Louis XIII, assigning the duellist to travel to Foix in order to infiltrate the castle of the Huguenot leader, the Duke of Foix, wherein Berault falls in love with Lady Marguerite (Annabella), the Duke's sister, and where many adventures take place during the course of this romantic, witty and exciting film.
This is an enjoyable period drama that combines a little history, some
action, some romance, some dry and occasionally macabre humor, and most
of all plenty of intrigue. It has an interesting historical setting,
centering on the devious Cardinal Richelieu, one of history's more
interesting (if hardly admirable) figures. While there isn't much here
to take seriously, it is good light entertainment.
Conrad Veidt stars as a dreaded duelist under sentence of death, to whom Richelieu offers a pardon if he can bring in a Huguenot duke whose plans for an uprising have the Cardinal in a panic. Raymond Massey is very well cast as the Cardinal, and he does full justice to the role. Veidt is believable as Gil, and his deadpan style works rather well with some of the occasional lines of dry humor.
Veidt's character is accompanied by a slippery servant played with good humor by Romney Brent. The heart of the movie comes in Veidt's interactions with the duke's sister, played by Annabella, who makes her a worthy adversary for the swordsman, both with her beauty and with her brains.
Beyond the basic details of the anticipated conflict, the story relies less on the historical background than on the easily understood human drams among the characters. Veidt finds himself torn between his word, his affection for Annabella, and his fear of death. The servant and the duke's sister likewise have their own dilemmas to face, and these give some depth to the story, which is nothing deep, but is rather entertaining and interesting in its own right.
Told with deft comic timing from Veidt (as the feared duellist known as
the 'Black Death') and his faithful sidekick (Brent) as they try to
fulfil the Cardinal's (Massey) hopeless mission to infiltrate the enemy
and bring back the Duke of Fiox alive from behind enemy lines. Though
he initially charges like a bull with impunity, and for the exoneration
offered to him if he should succeed, things get complicated when the
fiercely patriotic and honourable Veidt falls for the Duke's sister
(Annabella), forcing him to improvise tactics that will not only fulfil
his agreement, but deliver also the damsel with whom he is now
Veidt delivers his dialogue with precision displaying a keen sense of comic timing with a lightly-parodied chivalry, while dialogue director and veteran stage actor Brent is a scene-stealer from first to last (don't miss the hilarious closing scene) as the faithful 'puppy' like servant with a sleight of hand and an uncanny knack for acquiring information. Annabella is a classy characterisation of the aristocratic resistance and Massey plays his role of perceived cruelty and dictatorial ambivalence with aplomb.
There's more than meets the eye here (as I found) and contrary to some reviews claiming the opposite, this Baroque-era romantic swashbuckling yarn is funny, exciting, sometimes tense and remains true to form throughout thanks to enthusiastic direction from a noted director (Sjostrom) and an accomplished cast who keep the momentum energetic and entertaining throughout.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Even though I was quite entertained by this film, I couldn't help
thinking about who the target audience might have been back in the late
1930's, or who, other than old time film nuts like myself might be the
slightest bit interested in it today. It's part of an eclectic genre
that might appeal to a fan base of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" or any
other movie dealing with stories of sixteenth century France, which is
to say, virtually non-existent. Still, it's an interesting story on a
number of levels, including mystery, intrigue, and romance, with a cast
that includes a host of well known professionals.
This was my first look at the actress Annabella, and quite honestly, I think she could have held her own against some of the current greats of the day in the looks department. She's the romantic interest at the center of the story as Gil de Berault's (Conrad Veidt) mission to arrest the Duke of Foix (Wyndham Goldie) is met with one challenge after another. Berault's nick name is 'The Black Death' as regards his skill with the sword, and he's spared his life following an edict against dueling if he brings in the rebel Huguenot leader to Cardinal Richelieu (Raymond Massey). For Berault it would have been a relatively easy task if not for Lady Marguerite (Annabella), but alas, love is blind. His nobility and loyalty is severely tested, to the point of sending the Duke on his way instead of certain death at the hands of the Cardinal. That he himself is spared at the film's finale might be considered almost a twist ending considering the temperament of the power lusting Richelieu. Chalk one up for the romantics.
Actor Romney Brent provides just the right amount of comic relief in an otherwise rather serious enterprise, utilizing a pick pocket routine and clever conversation with his mentor Berault. He's at the center of the old missing bag of diamonds trick, which Berault uses to his advantage when his back's against the wall. It's another humorous diversion that cements the relationship between the undercover swashbuckler and his lady love, and it pretty much works. I guess the only question I would have, given all the subterfuge at the Foix castle, is why was the missing Duke's sister calling all the shots instead of the Duchess?
Congenital swashbuckler Conrad Veidt (as Gil de Berault) can't keep his
sword in its sheath, despite a law against dueling; so, he is sentenced
to death. Mr. Veidt receives an offer of exoneration from ruthless and
powerful Raymond Massey (as Cardinal Richelieu); but, he must first
capture Mr. Massey's enemy, a revolutionary Duke. Veidt manages to
install himself as a guest in the Duke's castle, with its master away.
While waiting for his prey to return, Veidt becomes smitten with the
Duke's sister, Annabella (as Lady Marguerite).
Notable as Victor Sjöström final film as director; and, the direction of "Under the Red Robe" is certainly a highlight. The performances of the three leads are also excellent, intensified by Mr. Sjöström, a master filmmaker. Unfortunately, this re-make of a 1923 swashbuckling silent doesn't offer very much action, which doesn't help its already slow-moving story. Romney Brent (as Marius) contrasts the intense lead performances, as Veidt's light-heeled lackey.
****** Under the Red Robe (5/31/37) Victor Sjöström ~ Conrad Veidt, Annabella, Raymond Massey
This 1937 film was the third version of a rather creaky Victorian era
play Under The Red Robe written by Edward E. Rose and debuting on
Broadway in 1896. This British production is the only sound version and
given the material is rather arcane we're not likely to see another
The Red Robe of the title refers to the vestments of Cardinal Richelieu, minister to King Louis XIII in 17th century France and first statesman of Europe. The man who said on his deathbed that he had no enemies save those of the state is played with a combination of subtlety and fanaticism by Raymond Massey, two qualities normally not compatible.
Massey has a mission and it requires a guy who can think fast on his feet and be both a courtier and a duelist. He's got such a man in Conrad Veidt. But Veidt is under a death sentence for violating the Cardinal's edict against dueling.
But if Veidt brings in the leader of the Huguenot Protestants who hops back and forth over the Pyrenees to Spain stirring up revolt, he can get the sentence commuted. To aid and assist Veidt, Massey assigns his man Romney Brent.
One small complication Veidt falls for Annabella whom he thinks is the Countess. A real mess all around.
The cast does well by the material, but it's ancient and dated and some of the motivations are a bit hard to follow. The play was written in a far more romantic era and was old fashioned when it got to the screen in 1937 let alone seeing it now.
But as a curiosity it might be worth a look.
With the aid of the Swedish Film Institute, a collection of Victor
Sjöström's movies will "tour" around the world to various film clubs and
like so I have had the pleasure of watching most of the movies he directed.
Sadly though, Sjöström's final effort proves to be the most disappointing.
Conrad Veidt is without a doubt less dashing than Errol Flynn playing a
debonair French swordsman - with a German accent.
He's not the only one though with an accent, Annabella with a thick French one, her sister the countess speaks the Queen's English and the men at the inn sounds like peasants from the English countryside. It is all rather confusing.
I don't know why Sjöström accepted the direct this movie, perhaps he was eager to direct again but too many constraints were put on him. The end result looks like any movie that includes musketeers or cardinal Richeliu.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Conrad Veidt plays Gil De Berault, a duelist and rogue who occasionally
helps Cardinal Richelieu (Raymond Massey). Needing to have an opponent
to the crown found and killed, Richelieu sends De Berault on a mission.
However De Berault finds romance with his enemies sister and must find
away to keep everyone, especially himself, alive.
Veidt makes an odd swashbuckling hero. To be honest he may have been a bit too long in the tooth, but he still manages to give a good performance as man who knows his way around a sticky situation. His witty delivery and occasional bits of daring do make up for any short comings his age may have inferred. While far from perfect it is the sort of thing thats perfect at 1am when you can't sleep, though odds are you'll be like me and end up really past your bad time waiting for the no always certain conclusion.
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