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I do not intend to place this movie in Siodmak's career, neither to relate it to other French creations of the period, probably the most creative of French cinema. The other reviewers did it quite well.
I would just like to send some words about what I saw tonight.
The film is obviously a diptych. There is enough matter to make two complete movies. Or two "époques" of one, like were made "Les enfants du paradis".
The two stories, having their own mood and a complete background, could be seen independently.
The first is of exotic adventures, where fast women, arms smuggling, big money, betrayals, fights, near death by many ways and hazardous salvation are mixed in a convincing studio recreation. All the sub-plots are here, waiting for a bit more space to develop: a desperate romance between an out-cast and a lounge singer, the war at the gates of the 'Concession internationale', the 'Chinese' cruelty of the local tycoons (the biggest happening to be French and played by Pierre Renoir), the hypocrisy of the company owing Mollenard's ship, ready to discard him since he's trafficking weapons, yes, but no more for the company's interests. Harry Baur is at ease, more than I ever saw him, on this part, playing with loquacity and a physical tensity surprisingly high for someone of his shape. The side-kicks are perfect, even in their most clichéd moments. Suffice to name just one: Marcel Dalio.
The second époque is of solitary confinement and domestic hatred. Elements of this struggle were fore-said through the prologue of the movie. But when Commandant Mollenard, back to Dunkerque, on the verge to win his fight against the company, is badly hit by a sudden illness, his most feared future seems to become reality, as he can't escape from his wife, supremely incarnated by a Gabrielle Dorziat at the top of her art. The fight, anxiously anticipated by Mollenard, promise to be much harder an ordeal than any street fighting in Shanghai for the eponymous hero.
Two halves for one united work, each part being nourished by allusions, events, talks, referring to the other. The main recall of the first in the second is Mollenard's crew which plays a collective part, with the help of intelligently crafted dialogs. The second part of the film is announced in the first when Mollenard says to the representative of the company that he fears only one thing, to die "in her home, at Dunkerque".
Hence, the conclusion, superbly lead by the narration, in a collective bravado, is perfect.
Something about the music: there is none, or almost. And I have to think about it to notice that no music was needed. Actually, there is some music heard: in the opening and final credits, and also a song, 'Shanghai magic city', sung in the jet-set lounge, and most notably a short piece during the last minute, where two violins, a flute, an organ are enough to enhance emotion.
Some words on the actors. Harry Baur, I'll say it again, is in his best role, in my opinion. He is Mollenard in every square inch of his skin. Gabrielle Dorziat is great too, serving excellently a part which is absolutely not one-dimensional. Albert Préjean, as the second, Kérotré, is much more restrained than usually, and it fits him very well.
All the others, Devère, Baumer, and so on, are used for the best effects. This bunch of French screen second-tier players are what also makes this cinema so valuable.
And there is the short but smashing presence of Ludmilla Pitoëff (Marie, Mollenard's daughter). Never seen before on screen, never to appear again, the stellar beauty of the actress is one sufficient reason to watch the film.
I hope I made you understand that there are many other reasons.
"Mollenard"? Un grand film, tout simplement.
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