Thursday, June 16, 2011

Movie Review: Angel

Angel (1937) 
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas

In the salons of the Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews), two people meet by chance. Diplomat Anthony "Tony" Halton (Melvyn Douglas), who's looking for an attractive escort to show him around Paris, and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Marlene Dietrich), who excites his imagination. Because she refuses to tell him her name, he knows her only as "Angel." After a dreamlike interlude in the park, she runs away from him and while he searches for his elusive Angel, a woman known as Maria returns to her husband, the illustrious British diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall). Frederick and Maria are widely acknowledged as the perfect couple. As they like to joke to each other, they can't even find anything to quarrel about. But their marriage faces its test when Tony Halton discovers that his heart's ideal and Sir Frederick's ideal wife are the same woman.

Angel marks an ending point in the careers of both Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch. It was Dietrich's last role before Destry Rides Again permanently changed her onscreen image. 1937 was not a happy year for Dietrich's career; both Angel and the Korda epic Knight Without Armor flopped. In 1937, Ernst Lubitsch was nearing the end of his Paramount years and the unenthusiastic reception of Angel and the following year's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife showed that the master's golden touch was looking a little coppery. He would come back and how with Ninotchka in 1939, but Angel shows both he and Dietrich trying fitfully to adjust to the cinematic standards of Post-Code Hollywood.

At first glance, the plot seems like it's heading in the same fun, frothy direction of Lubitsch's Pre-Code classics, Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. In Trouble in Paradise, the dashing thief Gaston has to choose between his partner in crime and the lovely victim of his con game. He goes for the fellow thief, but the film doesn't make an issue of Gaston's infidelity; he's simply responding to the attractions of both women. Design for Living goes even further by having the love triangle resolve into a happy ménage à trois. Both films suggest that monogamy is pretty much unimportant in the quest for romantic happiness. Angel starts out as yet another variation on the Lubitsch triangle, with Marlene Dietrich navigating what appears to be the beginning of a bedroom farce.

However, Angel has something a little more serious in mind. In other Lubitsch films, infidelity was more of a game. It was also something relegated entirely to bedrooms and parlors and the sophisticated, private worlds of elegant people. Here, there is no question of privacy; Maria Barker's very public role as the perfect wife means that she can't act only to please herself.  Her choice between two lovers is made even more uneasy by the fact that both of them are diplomats and whichever she chooses, she will be subjected to the same scrutiny. This point is hammered home in a scene where her husband's servant natters on about how the Barkers' marriage has been his own romantic ideal. Lubitsch carries the point further in a later moment at a horse race. Just as the servant and his fiance are watching her through binoculars, Maria looks through her own pair and sees the man she met in Paris. There is no possibility of escape for Maria; her public and private worlds are inextricably linked.

Lubitsch does some beautiful visual work in this film. I love the way his camera sweeps leisurely through each room of the Grand Duchess' salons and the way it slides smoothly down the length of a musician's violin to the lovers he is serenading, connecting them both in one serenely romantic moment. The grace of his Paris sequences is sharply contrasted with his introduction to Marshall in one brusque pan across the windows of a moving train, Marshall's back to the camera as a furiously upbeat march pounds away in the background.  Whenever Marshall makes an appearance in the film, the editing turns staccato, highlighting his character's busy, distracted nature. There are also some moments of great visual shorthand; Maria's anxiety is masterfully sketched out in a brief shot of a maid carrying away an overflowing ashtray in the early hours of the morning.

It's hard to admit, with all the intelligence and craft put into this picture that, "Well, it just isn't much fun." For one thing, the pace lags, which is not a typical problem for a Lubitsch film. After two grand introductions to Marlene's character, first as the reluctant lover and then as the gentle wife, we are treated to scene after scene of the Barkers' stifling marriage. These scenes don't build on each other but rather seem to sleepwalk. The couple make polite chitchat, Dietrich looks uncomfortable, Marshall oblivious, and then back to square one. After a while it all becomes a snooze, especially when both actors are obviously not at their best. 

Marlene Dietrich is fine in her early scenes, flirting with Melvyn Douglas, but when she has to start playing the trophy wife, it becomes clear that she has absolutely no clue how to play demure. You can almost gauge her uncertainty by how much she bats her eyelashes per scene. The more stilted her acting, the more she butterflies those lashes. As for Herbert Marshall, it pains me to say this, since I've loved him in other roles, but he is completely colorless here. In order for the story to work, there has to be some sense that Marshall's workaholic diplomat is capable of the same ardent passion as his rival. But there isn't and during Marshall's scenes, my mind wandered to more interesting concerns, like wondering if this film's thesis was that European diplomats in the 1930s were spending way too much time on their work.
Melvyn Douglas (one of my favorites) is polished in an underwritten role. His role here can be considered a dry run for Ninotchka: the suave, callow gentleman that reacts with happy bewilderment to the screen goddess who's wandered into his path. In Angel, however, Douglas doesn't have a crackling Brackett and Wilder script to buoy him up. His tendency to underplay, combined with an uneasy Dietrich and somnolent Marshall, makes the love triangle feel less important than it needs to be. And considering the film's reluctance to implicate Dietrich in any adultery, his character's lovelorn obsession feels pretty one-sided.  That's post-Code romance for you; one kiss on a moonlit park bench is enough to turn a man into a transcontinental stalker.

And that ultimately is Angel's problem: the demands of the Code. The film feels like an uneasy transition from the giddy Paramount comedies of the early 30s into Post-Code morality, where marriage is sacrosanct. Angel is too sober, too cautious, too coy about the realities of sex or marriage and as a result, it doesn't manage to say much about anything. There are touches of wit here and there (for example, Douglas and Marshall bonding over their shared memories of the same French prostitute), but the film is ultimately more interesting as a way station in the careers of Dietrich and Lubitsch than it is as a story. It's most worthwhile for the beauty of its visuals, for the elegance of its camera work. The final shot is a lovely, wordless moment of reconciliation that feels exactly right. Or would, if Angel had earned it. 

Favorite Quote: 

"I don't want to know your name. Whatever it is, it wouldn't suit you."

Favorite Scene:

Maria's recounting of an erotic dream to her bemused husband Sir Frederick. First, she describes her arrival at the League of Nations, dressed to the nines, while her husband drones on and on. The dream-Maria escapes, goes to Egypt, Arabia, circling the globe, only to come back and find her husband still talking. So she drags him away and they return home. "The next thing I remember, we were here at home and you were beating me...I'm afraid to tell you, I liked it. Then you started to kiss me." Frederick responds to this epic confession of Maria's desires with a slight smile and asks, "Did you like that, too?" Maria smiles back. "Better than ever before. And then you carried me upstairs." The dream ends there, but Dietrich's flirtatious delivery of this speech will certainly linger in my memory.

Final Six Words:

Elegant, unhappy story of love lost

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