Sun 30 Jan 2011
THE SCOUNDREL. Paramount Pictures, 1935. Noel Coward, Julie Haydon, Stanley Ridges, Martha Sleeper, Ernest Cossart, Alexander Woollcott, Everley Gregg, Rosita Moreno, Eduardo Ciannelli, Lionel Stander. Written & directed by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.
The gem of movie-watching in last October’s spooky season was an off-beat ghost story with the unlikely title The Scoundrel, written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who appear as derelicts in one scene) and starring Noel Coward in his screen debut.
This is a wonderful thing, witty, moving and quite creepy at times as it tells of Tony Mallare, a powerful publisher, unredeemed cynic and the devil with women (Coward naturally, at the top of his archly-amusing form), surrounded by back-biting sycophants and spurned lovers, who dies in a plane crash and returns to walk the earth for a month to see if he can find someone who will cry for him.
Sounds hokey, I know, but Scoundrel has the wit, talent and imagination to carry it off. The first half of the film is brittle comedy, with everyone speaking in epigrams, topped easily by Coward at every turn, dispensing bons mots like loose change falling from his pockets as he breaks hearts with the lethal grace of a gunfighter in a western.
Surprising, then, to see this drawing room comedy suddenly pirouette into bizarre drama when Mallare returns to seek redemption.
Hecht and McArthur wisely use no special effects, but suggest Mallare’s otherworldliness by careful mise en scene and Coward’s remarkable acting, which somehow detaches him from the players around him.
The contrast between his casual elegance earlier and the agonized isolation as he roams about, tired, wet and despairing, is … well, it’s haunting!
The character of Anthony Mallare, incidentally, is playing a character based on Horace Liveright, the publisher whose name became synonymous with American Literature in the first half of the 20th century, the man who brought Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, to Broadway. But he’s chiefly remembered for his self-indulgence and lavish parties — and because his funeral was attended by only three mourners!
I’ll just add that the supporting cast includes Lionel Stander and Eduardo Ciannelli as poets, some lovely actresses I never heard of, and Alexander Woollcott as a critic, who help make this a film whose like you will not see again.