Optimistic salvation to the withering breakdown of Summer Storm, his previous George Sanders collaboration, Douglas Sirk's suave period satire is another canny studio reconstruction of Continental locales and attitudes, and as rich a displaced European's evocation as Renoir's or Ophüls' around the same time. Shifting from Chekhov's Russia to Napoleon's France, the first-person diary narrative follows debonair con man-cum-detective (and future Balzac pal) François Eugène Vidocq, perfect fit for Sanders' sardonic silkiness, literally born behind bars from "a poor but honest family, a little poorer than honest." The old file-in-cake gag springs him, toady pickpocket companion in tow (Akim Tamiroff), and he's off on his seducing-corrupting path; after donning blonde pageboy wig to play St. George for a church mural, he ends up at cheery marquise Alma Kruger's Paris estate, at first to make off with her sparklers but soon enough to win the love of devout granddaughter Signe Hasso. Tamiroff, later to live up to his dragon alter-ego, wonders about his partner's sudden romanticism, though for Sanders it's "not a question of morals, but of manners" -- the Lubitschian epigram points to Sirk's similarly braided view of society and the underworld as equally institutionalized halves. Smitten Hasso is willing to switch sides, yet it is Sanders, for all his soigné caddishness, who is to honor the woman's faith, and slay the dragon of his own immorality. Anticipating the dual-couple structure of Written on the Wind, Sirk contrasts the Sanders-Hasso growth with the disintegration of fallen detective Gene Lockhart, a cuckold in both love and work, and his ample wife Carole Landis; with fake beard and canary cages strapped to his back, Lockhart's degradation shoots from comic to tragic, ridiculous to sublime. The scoundrel-redemption arc is no less personal than the ironic-entrapment denouements of Sirk's later Americana views, for he is not so much against happy endings as uncomplicated ones. (Hasso's scene-pocketing little sister, Jo Ann Marlowe, has the subversively simple last word: "No man is a saint.") With Alan Napier, Vladimir Sokoloff, and Pedro de Corboba. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce