MOLLENARD (Robert Siodmak, 1937)

So long as the action unfolds in Shanghai, where it is set for roughly two-thirds of its length, Mollenard—a.k.a. Capitaine Corsaire—is one of Robert Siodmak’s most gripping, beautiful and atmospheric films. I am less convinced, though, by the domestic melodrama in Dunkirk, where Justin Mollenard, skipper of the Minotaur, stays home as little as possible in an attempt to avoid Mathilde’s marital inhospitality and bourgeoisism. However, the bombing and burning of his cargo ship, which he uses for gun-running on the side, now forces Mollenard’s return—improbably, amidst fanfare, as a town’s hero. It was just yesterday that the company that employs him had suspended him for six months, with permanent dismissal looming on the horizon.
     Paralysis is a motif connecting the film’s two parts. In Shanghai, Happy Jones, who is perpetually unhappy, is strongarmed by Mollenard, pursuing a weapons deal, into a kind of moral paralysis that is resolved by his inescapable murder—although the haunting death of You, a Chinese associate of Mollenard’s, is the apotheosis of the motif. In Dunkirk, Mathilde’s tutelage has imposed on the Mollenard children, a teenaged son and daughter, the paralysis of fear vis-à-vis their father, and Mollenard himself suffers paralysis from a heart attack, which cuts him off from the sea and puts him under his wife’s thumb. Fear would have been a more apt U.S. title for this film than Hatred.
     Besides Siodmak, the visual force behind this film, which is from France, is its black-and-white cinematographer, Eugen Schüfftan, who would continue its deep night, fog, mist and shadows in Marcel Carné’s Quai des brûmes (Port of Shadows, 1938). One of their most brilliant images—objective reality doubling as expressionistic nightmare—finds the gigantic shadows of crew members attending frantically to the burning Minotaur. These shadows resemble quavering black flames.
     I am sorry to report that the great Harry Baur is not felicitously cast as Mollenard; indeed, no one here gives a particularly good performance, including Marcel Dalio, who plays Happy Jones, with the all-too-brief exception of Tran-Van as You.
     The mordantly ironical “Shanghai, the Magic City,” sung in English in a nightclub by a glamorous blonde, brandishes the influence of the glorious cinema of Josef von Sternberg.
     The somewhat tiresome script is by Oscar Paul Gilbert, from a 1936 novel of his, and Charles Spaak.

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