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Director Leisen, who started out as Cecil B. De Mille’s art director, was one of Hollywood’s supreme stylists throughout the 1930s and 1940s; unfortunately, his reputation has dwindled in recent years and, consequently, much of his filmography has so far been neglected on DVD (only DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY , HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE  and GOLDEN EARRINGS  are available – with EASY LIVING  and MIDNIGHT  coming up)! While he’s best-known for sophisticated comedies in the vein of Lubitsch, Sturges, Wilder et al – all four, incidentally, worked most often at Paramount – he also dabbled in other genres (or mixed them with utmost confidence) and, this, in fact is a costumer/romance/swashbuckler all in one!
The film is based on a novel by Daphne DuMaurier – very popular around this time, including two Hitchcock adaptations (JAMAICA INN  and REBECCA ); the latter had made a star of Joan Fontaine, who also fills the leading role here – throughout the decade, she would appear in a number of costumers (JANE EYRE , IVY , LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN  and, later on, IVANHOE  and CASANOVA’S BIG NIGHT ). Lavishly-mounted (copping an Oscar for Hans Dreier’s production design) and shot in rich Technicolor (as was the case with THE Spanish MAIN  by George Barnes and an Academy Award winner, incidentally, for the afore-mentioned REBECCA), Leisen is ably served by the fine cast he managed to assemble in this case.
Even if he’s supposed to be French, Arturo de Cordova is a most interesting choice for the dashing and virile pirate; I acquired a soft spot the Spanish actor after viewing his impressively nuanced central performance in Luis Bunuel’s study of pathological jealousy EL (1952) – still one of the most fascinating character studies ever put on film! Basil Rathbone is a stalwart in this type of film, though he’s a lecherous aristocratic villain here rather than a rival swordsman for the hero; his startling death scene at the hands of Fontaine is an undeniable dramatic highlight. Cecil Kellaway is terrific as Fontaine’s amiable but mysterious butler, who’s eventually revealed to be a foremost member of de Cordova’s pirate entourage; the popular Australian character actor would soon after play the painter Gainsborough in another costumer by Leisen, KITTY (1945) – a variation on “Pygmalion” starring Ray Milland and Paulette Goddard which remains one of the director’s finest films. Smaller roles were given to Nigel Bruce, typically obtuse and pompous as an aristocratic pirate victim (interestingly, this is the only film he and Rathbone would make together outside of their classic, and long-running, “Sherlock Holmes” series) and Ralph Forbes in the role of Fontaine’s insufferably fey husband. Incidentally, being aware of Mitchell Leisen’s homosexual tendencies (together with those of executive producer David Lewis), one can hardly escape the film’s gay subtext: apart from the afore-mentioned character of Fontaine’s husband (who is clearly more interested in his best friend Rathbone), Fontaine herself dresses up as a cabin boy for a chunk of the movie, De Cordova is often seen bare-chested and surrounded by his handsome lieutenants, his crew gleefully dress up in the women’s clothing they’ve just pillaged, etc.
With a not inconsiderable length of 112 minutes, the film’s first half – more akin to the so-called “woman’s picture” – is somewhat leisurely-paced and rather dreary. However, it eventually bursts into satisfying excitement and suspense – with such sequences as the pirates’ theft of a merchant ship from the docks, de Cordova’s decision to confront the nobility gathered at Forbes’ estate to plan his apprehension, the ensuing scuffle between the two factions and, finally, after the hero has been cornered and jailed, his shrewdly-organized flight from captivity with the help of the loving Fontaine and the devoted Kellaway. The CASABLANCA-like finale, in which the dutiful mother Fontaine sacrifices her own happiness to return to a repentant husband and their children, is unusual for this type of film and only adds to its already apparent value as a superior example of the genre(s).
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