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Fans of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987), not surprisingly, tend to be defensive when discussing their still neglected hero. Championed by European critics and their American auteurist allies starting in the late 1960s, Sirk nonetheless has never achieved household-word status, even among many self-proclaimed cinephiles, despite his talents. Introducing him to potential converts through a film such as Magnificent Obsession was a common but frequently fatal strategy in those early days; even viewers dazzled by the eye-popping Technicolor often dismissed the film as a typical overcooked women’s picture capsized by the conventionality of its elements: a major Hollywood studio (Universal), insufferable source material (Lloyd C. Douglas’s potboiler novel), a kitschy producer (Ross Hunter), mainstream stars such as Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and of course the perennially unfashionable genre of the women’s picture/melodrama. Protests that Sirk was really undermining the material, presenting a critique of middlebrow American culture through that mysterious process known as "distanciation," were usually met with glassy-eyed stares and a slight smirk. Even more accessible, highly nuanced works such as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life were written off in some quarters as glossy, superficial, and cliched.

Nonetheless, defenders used these films as the basis for establishing what reputation Sirk enjoys. On the other hand, Sirk’s career actually stretches much further back, to Germany as a director of theater in the 1920s and film starting in the 1930s. He was renowned in Europe long before he fled the Nazis in 1937 for France, and two years later came to America to launch a new career.

Much of his pre-1950 work, both the German material of the 1930s and the American low-budget work he did for Columbia, United Artists, and other companies in the decade following, has been either lost or available only in poor-quality dupes circulating in the auteurist underground. Some critics familiar with them rank his major 1940s films — Summer Storm(1944) and A Scandal in Paris (1946) — with his best. Jean-Loup Bourget called A Scandal in Paris "a masterpiece of ironical cinema," and fellow émigré auteur Edgar G. Ulmer went so far as to dismiss Sirk’s entire ‘50s career as much inferior to his earlier work.

Without at all wishing to denigrate Sirk’s endlessly rich ‘50s films, the recent release of A Scandal in Paris in a fine video transfer makes it both a pleasure and a necessity to pay attention to this earlier work. Scandal shows what Sirk was capable of in a different mode than his fans are accustomed to, using a classical narrative and superb collaborators, with no need to undermine or mock material he felt was unworthy of his talents.

The film has an unusually fine pedigree. Producer Arnold Pressburger was also responsible for Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture. Cinematography was handled by one of Europe’s finest, the exiled Eugene Shuftan, and scored by Hanns Eisler, whose credits include several Fritz Lang films. A brilliantly epigrammatic script is credited to Ellis St. Joseph (with uncredited help from Sirk). The cast is a veritable who’s who of treasured 1940s Hollywood character players: Sirk favorite George Sanders, Akim Tamiroff, Carole Landis, Vladimir Sokoloff, Alma Kruger, Gene Lockhart, Alan Napier.

A Scandal in Paris opens in 1775 in a prison, a suitable launching point for the biography of Eugene Francois Vidocq (Sanders), a thief who eventually reformed to become the city’s chief of police. Vidocq’s inspiration is Casanova, and with his dwarfish cohort Emile (Tamiroff), he steals his female victims’ money, garters, and hearts. With the help of a file hidden in a birthday cake, the two of them escape their latest sojourn in jail to pose for a painter recreating the images of St. George and the Dragon for a church mural, and they then return to their life of crime.

This takes them into new spheres of interest: first a nightclub where Loretta (Landis) is performing "Flame Song" (a satire of Dietrich), then the realms of the rich where he passes himself off as royalty and plots further mischief. Sirk’s staging of the film’s one musical number is startling in its expressionism: Landis is seen in silhouette behind a large round screen, which she sets on fire. Stepping through the flames, she teases and tempts the men in the club, but manages to snag Vidocq, at least briefly. His stealing of her alleged ruby garter is irresistible, but it also becomes his downfall when she reappears to exact her revenge.

Before this can happen, Vidocq and Emile encounter the Marquise (Alma Kruger), a dotty but sarcastic dowager into whose wealthy family the two insinuate themselves. Vidocq’s brief impersonation of St. George (complete with ridiculous blonde wig) showed his better possibilities, a motif that continues in his encounter with the Marquise’s granddaughter Therese (Hasso), who’s immune to Vidocq’s immorality but not his charms. His cleverness in crime is on full display in these scenes, as he ingeniously arranges to steal the Marquise’s jewels and then "recover" them, resulting in his assumption of the job of chief of police. In the process he ousts the present chief, Richet (Lockhart), who, in the film’s Lubitschian romantic-circle schema, happens to be Loretta’s husband.

Vidocq is one of Sirk’s most complex characters, driven to crime almost as a birthright but at the same time a cynical romantic. If St. George, Therese, and eventually the cuckolded Richet remind him of what he can be, Emile is the worst part of Vidocq’s personality, always there to encourage his immorality. (The film lets Sanders explicitly state this toward the end.)

The plot of Scandal, indeed the tone as well, also recalls Lubitsch in its thrilling tableaux of a dazzling world of high intrigue among intelligent and sophisticated people of wavering morals. The witty script is filled with poetic speeches and world-weary aphorisms. Witness Vidocq’s description of his partner’s personality: "Emile was that grimmest of characters, the early-morning optimist. All through the rainy night he had added to my misery with his unfailing cheerfulness and family stories while we were soaked to the skins we were trying to save." The film views marriage as folly, as Vidocq says: "Sometimes the chains of matrimony are so heavy they have to be carried by three." Even Therese’s little sister Mimi (Jo-Ann Marlowe) is masterfully mordant, summing up the entire film in the last scene with a knowing grin: "No man is a saint."

The comedy of the film ranges from the high- to the lowbrow, from Vidocq’s unerring wit and the constant betrayals and forgiveness, to the antics of "Satan the Monkey" and the Old World low jinks of Emile’s family of comic cutthroats and thieves. Still, there’s also a seriousness to Scandal that gives it an unexpected gravitas. Gene Lockhart’s Richet, for example, is initially ridiculed as a buffoon, but he takes on a tragic pathos when he puts on one of his innumerable disguises – this time a cheap beard and a huge, rickety set of bird cages strapped to his back — in a desperate ploy to catch Loretta with Vidocq. His apotheosis is also Vidocq’s when he begs the latter to find the man who ruined him. Vidocq tells the truth when he says he’s already dispatched him, but Richet doesn’t know Vidocq is describing himself.

One of the film’s most enchanting spaces is a small woodland playground complete with merry-go-round. In this masterful studio confection, Therese reveals that she knows everything about Vidocq, and forgives him. But typical of the film, it’s also the scene of Vidocq’s murderous final encounter with Emile. In both instances, composer Hanns Eisler’s darkly romantic theme sanctifies the space as mysterious, ethereal, and potentially life-changing.

With its Continental collaborators behind and before the camera, a sophisticated "adult" script, and its air of romance with tragic underpinnings, the film joins a small, select group of such works from that time, including Albert Lewin’s Private Affairs of Bel Ami and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, that benefit from classical narratives – dark fairy tales, really -- helmed by expatriate European directors. What distinguishes A Scandal in Paris is its additional air of evanescence, as if the Old Europe of charming woodland merry-go-rounds and dowagers in castles and romantic criminals was now a fleeting space, evaporating in the face of a spreading American culture. While Sirk made several more independent or low-budget films before moving into the big brassy melodramas for which he’s most famous, this was in a real sense his European swan song, the last time he would interpret his own past in a film.

A Scandal in Paris is now available on VHS from Kino On Video. Suggested list price: $24.95 each. For more information, check out the Kino Web site.