On paper, a middle-aged, faintly portly George Sanders doesn’t seem to befit the image of Georges Duroy, aka. Bel Ami, the caddish protagonist of Maupassant’sbelle époquenovel, and on the screen, he looks no better (meticulously arranged mustaches included), uppity, yes, but not dapper enough to cut the mustard as a congenital heartbreaker to his female admirers galore.
However, this Hollywood adaptation, directed by a workmanlike Albert Lewin, resolves to downplay the sordidness in Bel Ami’s social-climbing wiles and his misogynist contempt towards the weaker sex, his maneuver is self-seeking, for sure, but not without a proper gentility that is very characteristic of Parisian’s silk-stocking upper crust, as if he intimates that it is those women’s own fault of being uniformly bewitched by his natural appeal, as if he were merely a grudging condoner, and it always takes two to tango, whether it is Clotilde de Marelle (a 22-year-young Lansbury, already playing a widow with a tot under her belt), who pledges her subservient love to him at the expense of her own pride; or Claire Madeleine Forestier (Dvorak), the business-savvy wife of Georges’ comrade-in-arms-turned-munificent-benefactor Charles Forestier (Carradine), voluntarily ties the knot with Bel Ami when she sees fit, business-wise; or Madame Walter (Emery), a modest-looking minted housewife, who foolishly takes their affair a bit too seriously, and her nubile daughter Suzanne (Douglas Rubes), gravitated to him like a witless moth to the unaccountable fire.
Therefore, it is not strange that George's belated redemption is vamped up by a pall of Hollywood romantic soft touch (Darius Milhaud’s majestic score is also here to help), and then almost immediately dissipated by the cockamamie dueling face-off, that excruciatingly camp struggle of his rival is a whopping embarrassment even by Hollywood’s dated standard at that time, which, in hindsight, could be second-guessed as a deliberate move to diffuse the fatalistic heaviness in favor of a sanitized feeling of facile poetic justice.
Yet, for all its foibles, Gordon Wiles’ sumptuous production is a florid delight to sore eyes, and against the disadvantageous character arc, many of the distaff players manage to hold out their own stance, a slightly slouching Lansbury is excellently expressive apropos of her dramatic chops; Ann Dvorak takes pleasure and pride in rendering a beguiling ambiguity that manifest that she is not a victim but his equal in the aftermath, and Frances Dee, as Marie de Varenne, the sole rejector of Bel Ami’s advances, makes her virtuous retort a welcome tonic to the picture’s often disinterested pace and Sander’s phlegmatic central performance.
Another boost is Max Ernst's painting "Temptation of St. Antony”, materializes itself for several seconds in its chromatic flair, the sole exception in this magnificently restored black-and-white eye-catcher, which, after all, belies its sensational tagline on its original title “the history of a scoundrel!”, more a Punch-obsessed schemer who is ironically blind-sided by and eventually dies from the aristo-recognition he is spoiling for.
companion piece: Lewin’s PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951, 4.7/10)