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Paris Underground

Paris Underground
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 97 min. / Madame Pimpernel / Street Date April 26, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Constance Bennett, Gracie Fields, Georges Rigaud, Kurt Kreuger, Leslie Vincent, Charles Andre, Vladimir Sokoloff
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Production Designer Nicolai Remisoff
Film Editor James Newcom
Original Music Alexander Tansman
Written by Boris Ingster, Gertrude Purcell from a novel by Etta Shiber
Produced by Constance Bennett, Harry A. Gourfair
Directed by Gregory Ratoff

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Popular actress Constance Bennett was best known for her parts in two Topper films. Although the IMDB mentions this movie as her only producing credit, she also bankrolled a couple of films by one of her husbands, Henri de la Falaise, a French charmer and adventurer who won the Croix de Guerre in both world wars and found time to woo Gloria Swanson and Bennett in between. Savant has reviewed his tropical idyll film Legong: Dance of the Virgins, one of the last 2-strip Technicolor features.

Bennett was reportedly married to Gilbert Roland when she produced this rather undistinguished spy thriller. It has reasonable production values but lacks a strong script and is shaky in the credibility department. Made as Paris Underground and distributed to instant obscurity by United Artists, it is apparently a rare item; the print on view here is an English copy entitled Madame Pimpernel.


American Kitty de Mornay (Constance Bennett) leaves her French husband Andre (Georges Rigaud). When the Germans march into Paris, she dithers instead of racing South to the Free Zone, and is turned back to the city along with her best friend, Englishwoman Emmeline Quayle (Gracie Fields). But they pick up a stranded English flyer (Leslie Vincent) along the way and go to great lengths to smuggle him to safety. Instead of escaping themselves, Kitty and Emmeline elect to stay in Paris, reopen Emmeline's antique store and continue to smuggle British soldiers, right under the nose of Captain Kurt von Weber (Kurt Krueger), a Nazi who has taken an interest in Kitty. Andre has become a DeGaulle aide and comes back to Paris, just as the Gestapo crackdown finds a way to corner the two lady spies.

The title Paris Underground suggests a realistic spy thriller, and Madame Pimpernel an escapist adventure. The film we get falls in between. It's not clever or witty enough to make Bennett's Kitty de Mornay character into a dashing secret agent, foiling the Nazis with a smile and a raised eyebrow. As for realism, there's almost none. Both of our leading ladies are non-combatant enemy aliens in a town being squeezed by the Nazis, yet operate for years without suspicion. It's difficult to believe that they'd be allowed to roam free under the stiff occupation conditions.

As the film was released in 1945 it's entirely probable that the production had insufficient information about occupation details. Kitty and Emmeline are able to keep driving their giant convertible car, when private autos were verboten. There's a mention of Kitty squirrelling gas rations out of the foolishly gullible German officer, as if there were such a thing as gas to be rationed. We also see a Parisian restauranteur serving a Bosch horsemeat and saving a choice sirloin cut for our heroes, when the first thing the Germans did was corral all such luxuries for themselves. Any restaurant serving a decent meal would doubtlessly be heavily patronized by the occupiers, with plenty of local women willing to trade favors just to get near a square meal. The average Parisian lost 25 pounds in the occupation years.

Kitty's espionage is strictly on the amateur level. She snookers the Germans by concealing allied fliers in the trunk of her enormous car, and we see a French priest hiding scores of British soldiers (including future director Andrew V. McLaglen) in his basement. How he's feeding them is anybody's guess. Kitty finds a French baker who has bribed a German (I don't think so) to ferret refugees to the free zone. The big scam to spirit the basement boys to freedom is as simple as making them pose as mourners at a funeral. The Germans allows twenty strange men in a small town to cross the border, without even doing an ID check, just because the graveyard is just over the line in the Free Zone. A whole bunch of them don't come back, yet nobody is suspicious. And we're told that Kitty and Emmeline smuggle 260 stranded troops with this method.

Now, for all I know that's exactly what happened but it doesn't seem very likely given the relative lack of credibility of the rest of the show. The historical truth was extremely harsh. Real spies like Violette Szabo (commemorated in the patriotic film Carve Her Name with Pride) found that operating undetected for even a few hours was practically impossible in German-held territory. Informers were everywhere. The few agents who escaped did so by wild good luck and ruthless action.

But far away in Hollywood, Bennett the producer can be forgiven for wanting to make a patriotic movie in an information vacuum. Her studio recreations of France are mostly adequate but the best set, an entire street of a provincial town for the funeral scene, is poorly used. There is some good action around a French-style elevator and some good lighting from ace cameraman Lee Garmes, but most of the visuals are indifferent. The casting is to type and there are few story surprises; Constance Bennett and Gracie Fields play well but the script doesn't give them anything really memorable to perform. The supporting characters fare better. Argentinian Pierre Rigaud is convincing as Kitty's hunted husband (he later made scores of Euro westerns and giallos), and Vladimir Sokoloff gives the latter section of the story a solid boost.


The script wisely shows the two female spies being captured, but naively has them held for a 'spy exchange' and therefore surviving until the Allies take Paris. Spy exchange? I don't think so. Captured allied agents were tortured for whatever information they might have, and then summarily shot.

Image's DVD of Paris Underground is an okay transfer of what looks to be a surviving English copy of the film. Disc producer Wade Williams says that it was recently restored by the BFI from the only known existing 35mm negative, but the transfer doesn't look that good. The package graphics are low grade, and Williams' liner notes carry a passage identical to an IMBD entry written by one Arne Andersen:

"Tautly and dramatically directed by Gregory Ratoff, this is a marvelous drama, impeccably acted by all concerned (Bennett also produced the film) and with an involving, constantly interesting storyline..."

Aren't IMDB entries copyrighted? There's one possible explanation that might exonerate Mr. Williams: Perhaps the IMDB poster lifted his remarks from the back of an old Wade Williams VHS box?

Williams' disc liner notes continue to emphasize that the storyline was based on "true facts," and as we all know, true facts are the truest facts of all.

There are no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Paris Underground rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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