Appellate Judge James A. Stewart will never eat a mushroom again.
"This disarming, multitalented artist served up some of 1930s French cinema's tastiest dishes."
The Story of a Cheat (Le Roman D'un Tricheur) wasn't French filmmaker Sacha Guitry's first film, but it's the one that got him attention. Guitry was a playwright who became a movie auteur, serving as writer, director, and star of his movies. He passed on in 1957, but a look at IMDb shows that performances of his writing never stopped in French movies and TV; the most recent cinematic adaptation was 2001's A Crime in Paradise.
Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry includes four films by Guitry: The Story of a Cheat, The Pearls of a Crown (Les Perles de la Couronne), Désiré, and Quadrille. In each, he's paired on-screen with beautiful leading lady Jacqueline Delubac, his off-screen wife at that time.
Facts of the Case
Each movie is featured on its own disc, with a chunk of his bio appearing on each DVD's case:
The Story of a Cheat (Le Roman D'un Tricheur)
The Pearls of a Crown (Les Perles de la Couronne)
The set text tells us that The Story of a Cheat, "would have put him in the history books" even if he'd done nothing else, influencing Orson Welles and Francois Truffaut, among others. I can see why. Full of ironic humor and cynicism about the dishonesty Guitry's Cheat sees around him, it should have you at least smiling throughout. It's almost all done in Guitry's voiceover as the story he's recalling plays out in pantomime, with visual touches adding to the humor: a clip of a line of soldiers goes forward and back to show how they marched, a Monaco baby plays with a croupier's rake to show how the principality revolves around gambling, and a young Cheat goes up and down stairs to illustrate a line in the narration. It's crammed with both slapstick and dry wit, and you'll probably be drawn in by his take on life. If you like French film, especially comedy, this one you've got to see.
As for the others, I liked The Pearls of the Crown and Désiré, although I can't call them must-sees, and disliked Quadrille. None of them reaches the mark set by Cheat, but each has its moments. Although it's billed for its historical parody, The Pearls of the Crown picks up in the second half as the journalist and his wife join the jewel search. Jacqueline Delubac's reluctant flirtations with a pearl's owner as she follows him are the highlight of the movie. Désiré does a lot with the comedy of awkwardness as Désiré and Odette hide their attraction to each other. That's backed up with small touches, such as the way Désiré reconstructs an evening from the spills or lack thereof. Quadrille has some witty dialogue ("You're such a Parisian that you could pass for a foreigner.").
What brings Désiré and Quadrille down is pacing. In these films, Guitry has lengthy monologues that lose their comic value as they wear on and grind the movies to a halt. The worst is his reaction to his screen mistress' adultery in Quadrille. I realize that movies moved at a different pace in the 1930s, and that even classics could have slow moments, but this one is just plodding. That's sad because Guitry does get in a few good lines, and making it tighter could have made for a much better picture. I'd be curious to see the remake I saw listed on IMDb.
In the opening moments of Cheat, Guitry takes the time to introduce audiences to not just the cast, but the production crew as well, in a tour of the studio. The writer/director/star seems to rely on a regular repertory company on both sides of the screen.
The picture quality is reasonably good for the vintage black-and-white films, although Quadrille and Desire have significant markings and scratches on the prints. The sound quality was also good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers should be aware that there was no Hays Code in France. While these movies are tame by modern standards, Désiré and Quadrille undoubtedly were wild stuff in the late 1930s. Even today, they're not for the little ones.
Aside from the bio that spans four DVD cases, this set is lacking in extras.
The Story of a Cheat makes the set worth a rental, at least, for film buffs. The other films aren't as good, but have historic value for students of French film. It's also a nice glimpse into how things were done outside the American studio system in the 1930s. While I appreciate the four-film release, since it gives viewers a snapshot of Sacha Guitry's career, it would be nice if Criterion also brought out The Story of a Cheat separately to encourage less intense film buffs to get to know Guitry. The set's probably best for those who've come across Guitry before and have a specific interest in his work, even though it could do more with special features.
Not guilty, although Cheat earns most of the acquittal.
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