“This is the story of a scoundrel,” warns an opening disclaimer smack on the tail end of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI’s main credits. This is so you know it takes place in Paris, and that it better star George Sanders. From there, the deliriously debauched proceedings unfold at a merry pace in Albert Lewin’s 1947 scandalous cinematic delight, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
I must say that I have been waiting to see this movie for decades, its elusiveness being a Sanders Holy Grail for me. Long story short: I couldn’t wait to get my mitts on this platter, and, long story shorter, I wasn’t disappointed. Less concisely, BEL AMI could be director Albert “Style-Over-Substance” Lewin’s best movie; a bold claim when one considers his more high-profile titles, 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. But, what the hey, I’m a George Sanders fanatic, and this movie was tailor-made for the suave, urbane and rascally thespian. BEL AMI is nothing less than a gift of love from Lewin, who practically worshiped the actor (Sanders had previously starred in the aforementioned Dorian Gray and the underrated 1942 eyebrow-raiser The Moon and Sixpence), as did virtually every director who had the privilege of employing him (quite a list too, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Ford, etc., etc.).
As one might glean from the title, THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI is the story of self-professed “womanator,” or what we today call womanizer. Yet, Georges Duroy, or, Bel Ami, (roughly translated as “beautiful lover,” so dubbed by the rogue’s favorite paramour) doesn’t merely love ’em and leave ’em. He loves ’em, leaves ’em and has them begging for more.
The narrative, set in 19th-century France, opens with a downtrodden Duroy (sporting a lounge-lizardy, dare-I-say Tom Conway, mustache) sitting at an outdoor cafe as if he owns the world (FYI, he hasn’t the price for a night’s bedding). Soon he captures the eyes of low-bar courtesan Rachel Michot (Marie Wilson) and her trampy pal. In no time at all Wilson is willing to give it up for free (he responds to her request for a drink by pointing toward the direction of the nearest horse trough). But smug Georges has other plans. He notices an old ally, Charles Forestier (John Carradine, fortunately visible as he wasn’t turned sideways). Carradine is a fairly successful journalist, employed by M. Walter, a brutish, Trumpian bore of a businessman (perfectly cast Hugo Haas) with many interests. Walter buys class by the yard, including a well-bred wife (Katherine Emery). His one regret is that their child is a girl, thus squelching his chances of enabling the Walter tradition of cheating unfortunates from entering the new century (Duroy, who sees life as a Punch and Judy parable, informs his close associates that the Punch stick was invented for beating idiots with money).
Carradine has a far more desirable matrimonial situation, being hitched to the hot-damn Ann Dvorak, who takes no prisoners. They say “behind every great man is a woman.” In the Carradine-Dvorak splice, it’s appended to read “a greater woman.” Of course, Sanders must conquer all these ladies, including the gorgeous single mom Clothilde (a ravishing Angela Lansbury, another holdover from Dorian Gray). It is, in fact, Carradine, who opens the Pandora’s Box with the suggestion that his flea-bitten friend use his successful way with women for more than mere pleasure. And it works. In nanoseconds, Duroy is making a name for himself as a newsman, pollinating more fair flowers than Luther Burbank. His attraction to Dvorak is two-fold: first, he adores her ruthlessness, her lust for gold, her…oh, hell, she’s a female version of himself. Secondly, Carradine’s irritating cough in 1800s Paris can only mean one thing: TCD, or Terminal Camille Disease. His expiration date opens the door for Georges, whose brashness amuses Dvorak and results in a superb marriage (it is Dvorak’s influence/support/partnership/sexual prowess that inspires Sanders to come up with the concept of the gossip column, thus elevating the supermarket checkout counter to cultural omnipotence). Sidebar: in pure Pirandello irony, this portion of the scenario plays like precursor to the Sanders-Benita Hume nuptials. Within (seemingly) moments after Ronald Colman’s death (and the checking of the widow’s formidable holdings), middle-aged Sanders appeared at her door with a bouquet of posies and a box of chocolates. Hume was outraged and snarkily chided her suitor to all her friends. Suffice to say, they were wed shortly thereafter, a union that became the happiest of the actor’s many relationships, and one that lasted until Hume’s passing in 1967.
The plot, like the main character, is incredibly shocking and very adult (especially for an American movie made in 1947). Natch, it’s what one would expect from a Guy de Maupassant sourcework (scripted by Lewin). And the rich, quip-laden dialog is a major part of BEL AMI‘s repeat-viewing, staying-power charm. Sanders’ philosophy is mouthed early on when asked by envious males how he can conquer so many fascinating and covetable women (“Women take to men who have the appearance of wickedness”). And truth be told, the savvy ladies, while understanding this, cannot resist, as evidenced by one’s honest assessment, “Your cruelty to me is dearer than love from others.” Of course, the Duroy bon mots are all the more satisfying (even the nastier ones) when purred by the pic’s star in his unique, sardonic delivery. After seducing the mature wife of Haas, Georgie sneers with aplomb, “I have lighted a fire in an old soot-filled chimney.”
But it isn’t just the women who receive the brunt of his vicious tongue. In a brilliant piece of what can only be called Cad Men casting, Sanders is pitted against rival Warren William. The upshot is a verbal/physical bitch-slapping contest, with guess-who winning the honors. Booting a dithering William out of the office in front of snickering coworkers, Sanders gets the last insult in with a superbly-timed “I’m sure you’ll think of a crushing reply in the cab.”
We also can’t deny BEL AMI’s outstanding women their moment in the sun. The queen is, not surprisingly, the amazing Dvorak, who is one of the most modern femmes in classic cinema. Before agreeing to Duroy’s proposal of marriage, Dvorak’s cool demeanor cuts to the chase: “I must be an equal, an ally – not a submissive.” Howz about them apples?
Perhaps the most incredible segment of BEL AMI doesn’t rely upon words at all. At a Haas-thrown dinner, Sanders regales the guests with his natural raconteur abilities. What he says is nebulous, but the effect isn’t. All the women in the room are hanging on every syllable. The piece de resistance comes when Suzanne (Susan Douglas Rubes), the now-adolescent daughter of Haas, quivers at the table, double-takes and joins her sisterhood – her first sexual awakening, rife with uncontrollable panting, and doe-eyed stares at her parents’ favored diner. No question: bad-boy Sanders is a babe magnet.
The supporting cast is just terrific, and, aside from those noted, there are memorable appearances from Frances Dee, Albert Bassermann, Richard Fraser, Lumsden Hare, Leonard Mudie, Judy Cook and Karolyn Grimes (as Lansbury’s daughter). In a deceptive piece of advertising that Bel Ami would be rightly proud of, a 1953 re-release of the picture, under the moniker Women of Paris, co-billed Saners with Marie Wilson, who, due to the trifecta success of her radio/movie/TV series My Friend Irma, was now the most prominent female in the picture.
THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI is an all-out George Sanders festival. Not only do we see him at his best, swindling, seducing and speaking salaciously, but we also get to hear him sing, and, in one jaw-dropping scene, do a 19th-century version of boogie-woogie dancing. It is not to be missed!
The terrific look of BEL AMI is not all that astounding being Lewin’s penchant for the period and set design/art direction in general. The movie was lushly shot in radiant black and white by Sirk’s favorite d.p., Russell Metty. Like the Lewin predecessors Dorian Gray and Sixpence, BEL AMI contains Technicolor art inserts (in this case, Max Ernst’s extraordinary The Temptation of St. Anthony). The interesting music score is by the acclaimed French composer Darius Milhaud.
One of the reasons for BEL AMI‘s obscurity is due to the negligence of the owners of the negative. Indeed, Olive Films has enclosed a disclaimer with each disc noting that it was “sourced from the highest quality picture and audio elements available and represents our best attempt to restore the film to its original glory…” Honestly, it’s really a fine 35mm transfer – way better than I imagined it would be, and far superior to other non-disclaimed titles offered to collectors from various distributors.
THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI remains Golden Age Hollywood’s greatest depiction of a man devoted to pleasure. As such it’s fitting that this celluloid confection offers the same to those fortunate enough screen it.
THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI. Black and white w/Technicolor insert. Full frame: [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF12101. SRP: $29.95.