Albert Lewin was both praised and derided as a 'cultured' writer-director in the forties and early fifties. He brought to the screen a short string of highly regarded films, the most popular of which was The Picture of Dorian Gray for MGM. Although fans of amour fou have a liking for his Ava Gardner/James Mason fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, perhaps the best of Lewin's literary adaptations is this picture, his first directing effort.
For quality, VCI's DVD of this public domain (?) orphan leaves a lot to be desired. The movie is so seldom shown, however, that this may be the best opportunity for Lewin fans to catch up with it.
Writing movies about artistic geniuses is a known filmic trap. How many pictures have tried to pass off unimpressive paintings or forgettable composed music as the work of a genius? Albert Lewin's sensitive adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1919 book tells the story of a difficult artist who bears only a superficial resemblance to the life of Paul Gauguin, the famous painter who journeyed to the South Seas.
Lewin's unlikable main character is presented through second-hand testimony and Citizen Kane- like expository flashbacks. Herbert Marshall literally played Somerset Maugham in 1947's The Razor's Edge and here serves the exact same function as an equally thoughtful writer-narrator. Geoffrey Wolfe seeks out the elusive Charles Strickland first as a favor to a friend and visits him again out of curiosity. By the time he tracks Strickland to a tiny island, we have to figure that the artist has become a major theme for him.
The theme Lewin handles best is the relationship of Artist to Society. Unlike Ayn Rand's Howard Roarke in The Fountainhead, Strickland wants to prove nothing to anyone but himself and paints as an inward quest for the truth. He shuns society but doesn't see himself as superior. Thinking this attitude a disguise for an exaggerated ego, Wolfe chides Strickland by suggesting that he wants to shut himself off in a room and never show his paintings to anyone. That literally becomes the truth. Geoffrey sees no connection between the innocuous stockbroker he first meets and the antisocial artist he eventually becomes, but they are indeed the same - each seeks isolation to pursue a private obsession.
Lewin does many things exactly right: we never see Strickland's paintings until the end of the film and have only the reactions of others to judge them by. The use of the book's narration and second-hand witnesses plays well enough, and George Sanders is excellent as the Strickland we see and hear. Sanders was quick to specialize in aloof and frequently villainous characters, haughty sophisticates quick to chill a room with a sneer or an insult. Lewin uses Sanders' cool disdain to keep him emotionally distant. We spend most of the movie disapproving of everything Strickland does, and waiting for him to get his comeuppance.
When Charles Strickland pays for his sins, it's a little harsh. Maugham and Lewin reinforce an anachronistic (even for 1919) vision of leprosy as a death sentence. When The Moon and Sixpence was released in 1943, I wonder how many wives and girlfriends thought their soldiers in the Pacific theater were going to be turned into unsightly monsters - Lewin uses noted acromegalic actor Rondo Hatton as a pitiful 'unclean' beggar. The implication is that leprosy (aka Hansen's Disease) is a punishment for Strickland's abhorrent personal philosophy.
The Moon and Sixpence begins and ends with moralizing text scrolls, perhaps indicating that the Breen censorship office was alerted to the film's inconclusive attitude. The text provides a condemnation for Strickland that the film itself doesn't offer.
London, Paris and Papeete are all stage constructions augmented with a few stock shots. Lewin and cameraman John Seitz create interesting but closed little worlds where we never quite believe that anything is happening off screen. The added claustrophobia helps us enter into the film's character exploration aided by an excellent supporting cast. Familiar actor Stephen Geray (Frenchy in Howard Hawks' The Big Sky) is the main standout as Strickland's constitutional opposite, a soft-hearted fellow destined to be hurt by relationships.
Albert Basserman (Foreign Correspondent) has an unusually proactive role as a doctor of the islands and Elena Verdugo (House of Frankenstein) switches from her usual sultry Gypsy roles to play a dusky tropical naïf: devoted, unspoiled and fully made up by Max Factor. Doris Dudley is low-key as Dirk Stroeve's weak-willed spouse. The always-good Florence Bates (the obnoxious radio lady in A Letter to Three Wives) anchors the Tahitian sequence with her role as a lusty matchmaker. Familiar butlers Robert Grieg and Eric Blore are in to lighten the mood.
As for George Sanders, Lewin would give him perfect roles in his two next movies as a cad and a sinister manipulator. The only film in which Sanders was better cast was Joseph Mankiewicz's classic All About Eve.
Albert Lewin was known for his sometimes-symbolic imagery and flamboyant design ideas. Jack Cardiff's delirious color photography is the best thing in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman but Lewin used Technicolor inserts in all of his previous B&W features for shock value and sheer novelty. The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami is as seldom shown as The Moon and Sixpence, but the conclusion of Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray is well-remembered for its terrifying color close-up of the gore-ridden haunted painting. In Sixpence the screen cuts to Technicolor for a few seconds as Charles Strickland's final masterpiece goes up in flames. It's the only time we get a clear look at his work.
VCI's DVD of The Moon and Sixpence cheats us out of that spectacle, for even though the box text lists the film as "B&W/Color" the print offered stays in B&W. This show is yet another United Artists release for which good elements have disappeared forever, and VCI's battered but intact source may be as good as can be found. Early scenes before transfer settings level out have grossly bad contrast. Faces are devoid of detail and in one shot a newspaper 'disappears' into a white wall behind it. The transfer element may be several dupe generations away from a release print kept from circulation because of printing flaws. It's easy to tell when the Technicolor scene comes on -- the contrast jumps about 200%.
On the positive side, the audio track is unusually clear for a film resurrected from a surviving print. The dialogue is easy to understand and Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar-nominated score is a reasonably good listen.
VCI's extras are text bios on Lewin, Sanders and Marshall. The packaging apparently uses United Artists' original poster art, which couldn't have been chosen to attract a class audience -- the tagline is "Women are Strange Little Beasts!"
A gallery of coming attractions for other VCI product presents a perfect trailer for Edgar G. Ulmer's Hannibal, an epic in Widescreen and color that still looks as if it were shot on a shoestring.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Moon and Sixpence rates: