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Lon Chaney Jr.,
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Fatherly ship's captain finds triumph over tragedy
This is the story of Captain Mollenard (Harry Baur), loved by his crew, hated by his wife and the company officials. He's in Shanghai, selling arms on the side, which is likely to being him and the crew a suspension.
It's an unusual story. Part 1 is set mostly in Shanghai, part 2 back in Dunkirk. In part 1, we get a good many night scenes, seedy landscapes, a few shootings, an excellent cabaret song and Dalio, playing a pianist scumbag. Before that, at the outset, we get an incisive portrait of Mollenard's hated wife and the bureaucratic company and town element.
An unusual turn of events brings Mollenard back to accolades, which he rejects, before falling ill. The most touching scene in the movie occurs between him and his daughter, whom, with his son, his wife has attempted to turn against him.
A basic element of the movie is the camaraderie and loyalty of the crew to their commander and vice versa. There is in this a larger theme: the celebration of the working man and a side of socialism that does not involve ownership of the means of production, but shows a recognition of the critical role of captain and crew in supplying the labor to get the job done. Mollenard has nothing but friction with all bourgeois, ownership and political figures, and that includes his wife. He disrespects them all, their pomp and falsity. There is definitely an element of left-wing versus conservative-fascist elements in this story.
I didn't quite know how to take what I was seeing on the screen. There are parts that seemed to me so close to parody that they are comic. This includes, at times, Mollenard's wife, Dalio's behavior, Mollenard's son and the proposal made by a company official to Mollenard's wife. She, by the way, was excellently portrayed. Then there are parts that are in dead earnest. I was not even sure that Mollenard was ill or how ill he was. Gradually the serious element prevailed.
I thought that the movie didn't succeed in integrating these changes in tone, but yet it remained entertaining and captivating.
I consider this a drama, not a film noir. It would be quite a few years before the director, Robert Siodmak, would direct full-fledged film noirs. Port of Shadows from the same year is much more a film with a consistent tone, an emotional impact, and an early noir. Mollenard needed more work on the script in order to integrate all of its elements and make it more tragic. It needed to bring out the emotional elements and stir the viewer more than it does. It needed to involve the viewer more with the characters. Despite these lacks, it's a good film that's well worth seeing.
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