VCI Home Video // 1943 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // October 21st, 2005
"Women are strange little beasts."
This humorless movie is a strange little beast. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which was based loosely on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence is stripped of all Maugham's wit and wisdom, leaving melodrama and the intricate psychology of characters I don't care about.
Charles Strickland (George Sanders, All About Eve) abruptly leaves his wife and children. Not, as initially thought, to run away with another woman, but -- even worse -- to become a painter in Paris. Strickland's stricken wife calls on a family friend, writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall, The Letter), to track him down and persuade him to return home. Instead, Strickland throws himself into the life of the poverty stricken artist, begins an affair with the wife of a friend who nursed him back to health, and finally runs off to Tahiti to marry a local woman and find his artistic vision.
The Moon and Sixpence is the portrait of an artist obsessed enough to abandon every aspect of his previous life, from social niceties to family and friends.
"What makes you think you've got any talent?" asks Wolfe, who also narrates the movie.
"I've got to paint," explains Strickland, apparently passionately, but oddly devoid of any outward appearance of passion. "When a man falls into the water, it doesn't matter how he swims, well or badly, he's got to get out, or else he'll drown."
It's an intriguing premise, to explore the drive behind artistic expression, but its execution left me cold. The movie doesn't disguise its roots, and plays like a book being read to the audience. We are told much, and shown little. Though the device to have the writer, a passive observer, narrate the story works well in print, it fails in the movie. Wolfe is barely a presence, and offers no interesting lens through which we can view Strickland as anything other than the "unmitigated cad" he's called.
Sanders plays Strickland as hard and uncharismatic, and his actions are heartless, but the character's unlikeability is less a problem than his unbelievability. There's nothing interesting about his caddishness, because it's all we ever see of him. It's hard to believe this man was a happily married stockbroker before his obsession took hold of him, because we never see him with his wife, never see a glimpse of the man he was before, never see a hint of emotion, never have a reason to care about him or his fate. As he states, his talent is not the point; we are supposed to be intrigued by the grip his desire has on him. But I found it impossible to sustain interest in that passionless desire.
The film suffers from its age and from stripping the context from some of the situations and dialogue of the novel. Most disturbing was Strickland's misogyny, which could fit with his general misanthropy, but is amply supported by a movie whose portrayals of women are dismissive and insulting. "Women are very unintelligent" he says at one point, and I wouldn't argue with that sentiment if my only sample were the women in this film, who are personalityless but eager to be mistreated.
"I shall beat you," he warns his Tahitian bride-to-be.
"How else will I know you love me?" she replies.
"Women are strange little beasts," is the tagline printed on the DVD cover, which is as cartoonish as the mannered acting, stilted dialogue, and overblown music -- which was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar in 1944, but often obscures the already tinny dialogue of the Dolby Digital mono audio of this release.
The DVD shows some fairly significant damage to the source print, with several awkward transitions between and within scenes, probably caused by missing frames. The poorly contrasted picture flickers and shakes, and contains an abundance of grain.
The scene selection menus are more difficult to navigate than they should be, and the only extra are cast biographies, which are difficult to read with their small, white font on a sunset-colored background.
The writer/director and cast have done fine work in other films, and other Maugham adaptations have been far more successful, but this is an abysmal movie, with a technical presentation to match.
Guilty. I want my sixpence back.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated