27 September 2010 | robert-temple-1
The big innocent eyes of Michele Morgan
The only way I was able to obtain a DVD of this film directed by Robert Stevenson, a particular favourite of mine, was to order it from French Amazon. Because the subject is Paris under the Nazis, it appeals to our Gallic friends, and they are the only ones who sell it (Editions Montparnasse, as part of their RKO classics series). Stevenson directed this the year before JANE EYRE (1943). It is not one of his most inspired films, but it is robust and impressive, and good viewing. The film works because of the sheer professionalism of Paul Henreid as the lead and the amazing screen presence of the 22 year-old French actress, Michele Morgan. They click as a couple. As the film was made in wartime, Paris obviously could not be used as a location, so a great deal of trouble was taken to try to show Paris without showing Paris. A huge effort by the plasterers went into producing a replica of the west door of Notre Dame Cathedral, even though we glimpse it only for a few seconds as Paul Henreid flits by it, glancing nervously about him to see if he is being followed, since Gestapo agents are everywhere, and they are after him, as he is a Free French flyer who has been shot down on a flight from London. He encounters Michele Morgan by accident, and she falls for him. She is a simple shop girl who has never had a relationship before. Rarely was there a young actress who could look up lovingly into the eyes of a male lead in a film with as wide-eyed and innocent a look at Michele Morgan. From being a sweet and gentle little thing who couldn't harm a fly, she ends up a heroine who joins the Resistance, hence she is called 'Jeanne de Paris', giving the film its title. It was a good wartime yarn to boost morale and remind people outside France that not everyone in Paris was a collaborator, though God knows there were enough of those. Laird Cregar (who died tragically two years later, aged only 31) does a sinister job of playing 'Herr Funck', the head of the Paris Gestapo, a chess player and oily schemer. He locates Henreid but decides to let him continue his contacts before 'wheeling him in on his string when the time is right'. This tactic may sound far-fetched but it was precisely the tactic used in the 1930s by Heydrich and Himmler when they were running the Special Security Department of the Reichs Fuehrer SS (Himmler) but were unsatisfied with that and wished to seize control of the Gestapo, which had been founded by their rival Goering. They identified and located two communist agents who were well advanced in a serious plot to assassinate Goering. Instead of informing Goering or his Gestapo, they risked Goering's life (which frankly did not bother them) to score the coup of becoming the ones to save his life under the uninformed nose of his own deputy, Diels. They just pulled this off, which humiliated and disgraced Diels, so that he lost his job, and they ended up taking over the Gestapo because they had proved their superior brilliance and competence. This story was already well known by 'those in the know' amongst the Allies by the time the script for this film was written, and that plot element was probably inspired by the earlier real event in Germany. The scenes set in the Paris sewers were done in the studio with great care, and I was amazed that a great pool of swirling sewage was lovingly created so that we could glimpse it in the background. Perhaps it was meant as a portrait of the mentality of the Nazi occupiers. Or would that be flattering them? Ultimately, this film derives its charm from Henreid and Morgan, and that is the reason for searching it out and seeing it.