Sun 31 Jul 2011
VICTORY. Paramount, 1940. Fredric March, Betty Field, Cedric Hardwicke, Jerome Cowan, Sig Ruman, Margaret Wycherly, Fritz Feld. Screenplay: John L. Balderston , based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. Director: John Cromwell.
I’ve been trying to see Victory since I read about it in 1968. For some reason, however, Paramount retired the film and in the intervening umpty-ump years I’ve never once seen it listed on television or in a movie catalogue. All things come, however, to he who has Internet, and last month I finally found a copy—a bit soft, and bleached out in a couple spots, but watchable.
Victory is probably Conrad’s most-filmed novel, starting with a silent in 1919, (lushly directed by Maurice Tourneur, but somewhat over-balanced by Lon Chaney Sr as knife-wielding Ricardo) and ending, for now, with a 1995 film starring Willem Dafoe, featuring Rufus Sewell as Ricardo and Sam Neill as plain Mr. Jones — as nasty a pair of heavies as you could want — plus Irene Jacob as a poignant heroine.
The 1940 film was adapted by John L. Balderston, whose credits range from Bride of Frankenstein to Prisoner of Zenda, who brought to the project sense enough to leave Conrad’s novel mostly intact. Direction came from John Cromwell, never a cinematic pioneer, but always able to do a thing up nicely — check out movies like Algiers, Dead Reckoning and The Enchanted Cottage to see what I mean.
Cromwell fills Victory with steamy jungles, sweltering hotels and blistering thunderstorms, but his main focus is on the actors, with Fredric March his usual fine self, and Betty Field a remarkably lovely heroine.
Field never achieved stardom, but she had major roles in important-looking pictures like Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby and King’s Row, and did very well by them—pperhaps she was too good an actress to be a star, but she trouped on to the end, finally trading insults with Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff. (1968.)
The acting triumph in Victory, though, goes to Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Jerome Cowan as plain Mr. Jones and Martin Ricardo; I honestly never knew these two could act like this. Hardwicke, usually the stuffy patriarch, plays Jones like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Lee Van Cleef, his every gesture languid and deadly, casually referring to past murder and dismissing it with a bored, “Ah well, it’s a long story. Another time perhaps.”
Even more surprising is Jerome Cowan, normally a rather uninspiring player, who comes on unshaven and cat-like, sporting a fine cockney accent and darting about the scenery as he pursues Betty Field with stylish lust. Given a chance to stretch a bit, Cowan and Hardwicke indulge themselves wonderfully, and together they make this a film to treasure and watch again.