A TALE OF TWO CITIES (Jack Conway, Robert Z. Leonard, Clarence Brown et al., 1935)

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films. Darkly atmospheric, sparked by Ronald Colman’s wry, charming, poignant performance—his most brilliant and affecting one—as Sydney Carton, an alcoholic barrister whose disillusionment is compounded by the aching pain of unrequited love, and admitting at least two passages that deeply move: Jack Conway and Robert Z. Leonard’s A Tale of Two Cities, from Charles Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution (serially, 1857; book, 1859), is a tremendous Hollywood thing. (Jacques Tourneur’s second-unit work rivets.) The first great passage, while the Revolution foments, finds the speeding Marquis St. Evremonde hitting and killing a child who is trying his best to clear the coach’s path, with the Marquis pausing long enough to lambast the poor for not taking better care of their offspring and to express worry over his horses. The second great passage: the finale, with Carton’s mounting the scaffold to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, having secretly taken the place of the husband of the woman he secretly loves, and the camera rising upwards into a cloudy sky of lamentation. Carton’s voiceover—perhaps the most famous finish to any novel in the English language: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
     Would you not leave alone such a powerful conclusion? Producer David O. Selznick, bereft of taste or talent, adds a screen of reassuring biblical script!
     Apart from Carton, the characters are signposted, shallow; the romance, tepid; the political point of view, obscure.
     The “two cities,” London and Paris, also fail to come into convincing view.

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