14 February 2005 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Script and star make a close-to-perfect 'Pimpernel'
To date, I've seen three "Scarlet Pimpernels" from three different eras, but the more I see this one, the more I appreciate it for the economical little masterpiece that it is. Three years ago, when I reviewed Powell & Pressburger's "Elusive Pimpernel", I dismissed its predecessor as a 'dated period piece' remarkable only for Leslie Howard's performance; watching it again now I'd hedge no bets in saying that it excels above its successor in almost every way.
From the very beginning, long before the hero appears, it's evident that we are in for a treat. The reason? Above all, the script.
Necessary establishing information -- the Pimpernel's name and fame, the Revolution, the state of the Blakeneys' marriage -- is conveyed quickly and naturally in a few pertinent phrases here and there, without any need for static exposition. A vein of wry humour runs through almost every scene, from the Prince's opening conviction that all the excesses of the Terror can be explained away by Johnny Foreigner's lack of sporting spirit -- "why, if it weren't for fox-hunting and pheasant-shooting, we might be cruel too!" -- to Sir Percy's sleepy quip when his wife implores him to rise above trivialities for once ("Can't rise above anything longer than three syllables, m'dear -- never could") and the cheerful double meaning of his disguised assurances to a Frenchman reviling 'perfidious Albion': ''It won't take *us* long to cross the Channel, eh boys?'' But wordplay is also used to poignant effect, as when he tells Marguerite, estranged from her husband but bedazzled by the romantic image of the unknown Scarlet Pimpernel, "For all you know, he's a married man deeply in love with his wife..."
If the script is witty, humane and on occasion impassioned, it owes a great deal also to the nuanced delivery of the cast. Nigel Bruce far outshines his bumbling Watson of later years in the pat of the pompous and preening but not entirely stupid Prince-Regent-to-be; Raymond Massey's Chauvelin is intelligent as well as menacing, despite an accent that strays periodically and disconcertingly across the Atlantic from France, plus the necessary abridgement of the plot for cinematic purposes; Merle Oberon, no raving beauty to today's taste, provides all the resourcefulness and heartbreak one could ask for, playing proud, neglected Marguerite -- one can easily credit her as Orczy's 'cleverest woman in Europe'.
But casting Leslie Howard in the dual title role was a simple stroke of genius. His tall figure and bony beak of a face serve perfectly both as the languid Sir Percy, setting off a series of immaculately-fitting 'unmentionables', and as the commanding, quick-thinking Pimpernel; and the scene in which he drops from one persona to the other almost in mid-sentence upon the entry of the irate Colonel Winterbottom is a joy to watch. He is absolutely convincing as the "spineless, brainless and useless" fop, and yet he can shade intelligence and feeling back into his features at the drop of a hat in unconcealed moments that never let the audience forget the man behind the mask. His scenes with Merle Oberon as Marguerite are joint masterpieces of brittle drawing-room comedy with an undertow of unhappiness that convinces us of the former passion between them, alluded to but never shown.
Blakeney, of course, gets all the best lines, and Leslie Howard makes the most of them, mocking with exquisite insolence in his guise as licensed fool. But perhaps the third factor that really makes this film is the richness of those background moments when the starring characters are not there. The secure pomp of England epitomised in the opening shots of the changing of the guard; the revolutionary barber stropping his blade with eagerness at the thought of aristocrats' throats; the 'tricoteuses' beneath the guillotine, counting off heads with busily-clicking needles; and the instants of screen time that establish each of the 'aristos' awaiting execution -- tiny, non-speaking parts -- as individuals in their own right.
The script is intelligent, succinct and sparkling with understatement. The actors' faces speak as eloquently in the pauses as in any silent drama. The black-and-white photography is sumptuous, from the lavish ballroom scenes to the grimy "Lion D'Or" in Boulogne. And Leslie Howard is endlessly watchable in an ever-changing portrayal of leashed strength in masquerade. The only caveats I'd make are concerning the soundtrack quality -- I suspect the prints I've heard have been damaged -- and the final brief epilogue scene, which despite the gentle wordplay falls, to me, a little flat. In all other respects this would be the "Scarlet Pimpernel" I'd recommend: every time.