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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Angel (1937)

Over the years there have been a number of actors with only one working eye who forged long and memorable film careers -- Jack Elam and Peter Falk immediately spring to mind. But I can only think of one actor who became a leading romantic player despite having only one leg. That would be Herbert Marshall (1890-1966), the dapper and debonair Englishman, who is one of this film's trio of stars. He plays a distinguished British diplomat with a greatly loved, but unfortunately unwittingly neglected wife, played by the luminous Marlene Dietrich. On a trip to Paris she meets Melvyn Douglas at a slightly disreputable club (more like a high-class brothel, had the Censor permitted this description). Their relationship is undoubtedly consummated, although limited to passionate kisses on screen, before she disappears without his even knowing her by any name other than 'Angel'. Of course, as luck would have it, after she returns to her comforable life with Marshall, he and Douglas are introduced by a mutual friend and turn out to have been World War I buddies, when they both pursued the same mademoiselle while on leave in France (where Douglas was unfortunately nicknamed 'Poochie'!) So our three protagonists soon find themselves at a strained luncheon meeting where the truth strives to play itself out.

This storyline could have been a turgid melodrama, were it not for the skill of the three leads, who bring a light and civilized style to what might have been a sordid tale. Credit for this must also go to the film's wonderful director, Ernst Lubitsch, famed throughout his career for his 'Lubitsch Touch' of sophisticated wit and delicacy of treatment. An example from this movie is when Marshall and Dietrich reminisce about an early weekend together in Vienna, when they stayed at a small inn in a suite at the top of four flights; when he mentions that there were two rooms, she smiles knowingly and asks 'were there two?' Lubitsch began his career with the legendary Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt, before directing a string of silent classics in Europe. He moved to the States in the early Twenties and continued to bring his famous 'touch' to a wonderful run of now classic movies which include "One Hour with You" and "Trouble in Paradise (both 1932), "Ninotchka" (1939), and "To be or Not to Be" (1942) amongst many more. He was once quoted as saying, 'I've been to Paris France, but Paris Paramount is better'.

I have seen critics carping that his inimitable style is less evident in "Angel" than in most of his better-known films, but I do disagree. He elevates what might have been a run-of-the-mill domestic drama into the fantastic realms of high-blown romance and sophistication. The well-chosen supporting cast add to the movie's overall charm, including Ernest Cossart as Marshall's butler, who takes his low-born fiancee to the races and points out all of the servants of well-known toffs, and the inimitable Edward Everett Horton as Marshall's valet, who professes his love of opera by oom-pah-pahing a passage from 'The Barber of Seville'. 'Whoever persuaded you to be a valet, must have been a music lover' says Marshall. Charming stuff impeccably played.
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