DirectorJacques Becker, Yves Robert, Édouard Molinaro
Release Date(s)1957/1959/1962 (February 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Gaumont/Films Costellazione/SNEG (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
Along with E.W. Hornung’s A.J. Raffles, Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin was the granddaddy of gentleman thieves, though there were even earlier antecedents. Appearing in both novels and short story form from 1905 to 1939, the character of Arsène Lupin has been as widely adapted in all media, nearly as widely as Sherlock Holmes, if primarily in France and, oddly enough, Japan. There were scads of silent movie adaptations, while in the sound era actors including John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, and Eiji Okada portrayed him. The Japanese manga and anime franchise Lupin III, including myriad animated TV series and theatrical features, revolve around the grandson of Arsène Lupin.
Kino’s release of three early postwar Arsène Lupin features made in France intrigues but also slightly disappoints. The consensus among fans of the novels is that no film adaptation has been able to precisely capture the essence of the novels. Further, all three films here, particularly the third one, deviate sharply from Leblanc’s works in other respects, though they are well-made with high production values. Each is very different from the other two, and this release in the U.S. is nonetheless most welcome.
The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin, 1957) is real anomaly in the career of Jacques Becker, the director of such classics as Casque d’Or (1952) and Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). Filmed in standard 1.37:1 ratio but in color (original prints by Technicolor) by Edmond Séchan, the film is stately, even gorgeous to look at, but the script has poor pacing, even dull at times, and episodic though reasonably enjoyable. Robert Lamoureaux stars as Arsène Lupin, a master of disguise stealing rare works of art and precious jewels right under the noses of Europe’s elite class, circa 1910. The film’s sense of period details is excellent, with especially good costume design and art direction.
There’s not so much a story as a series of Lupin’s daring robberies, from one bold and cleverly conceived act of thievery to the next. As with Sherlock Holmes, much of the appeal of Arsène Lupin is that he’s upper-class but minus the snootiness and prejudices in his treatment of the working class and, significantly, Lupin only steals from those that can afford their losses. Another aspect, lost on non-French speakers, seems to be the use of language, Lupin’s refined cleverness—it’s surprising David Niven never played him—while evading the police and rival, much less classy competitor thieves.
Signed Arsène Lupin (Singé, Arsène Lupin, 1959) is in 1.66:1 widescreen but this time in black-and-white, though the production values are still fairly lavish. It’s less stately than its predecessor, but significantly more entertaining. Directed and co-written by Yves Robert (The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe, Pardon Mon Affaire), it wisely revolves around a single story thread involving the search for a triptych fresco that, when combined, offers clues to an even more valuable treasure. Alida Valli (The Third Man, Suspiria) co-stars as one of Lupin’s rivals, surely one of the actress’s last glamourous, mystery woman roles before expertly turning to eccentric character parts. (One of the first of these, in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, followed in 1960).
Robert Lamoureux again stars, and is somehow much more likable than he was in the first picture. The plot is less dependent on Lupin’s elaborate disguises and he seems a bit more mortal than before.
Changing gears yet again, Arsène Lupin vs. Arsène Lupin (Arsène Lupin contre Arsène Lupin, 1962), likewise in black-and-white but this time in 2.35:1 Dyaliscope, opens with the funeral of André Laroche, the many dignitaries attending initially unaware Laroche was, in fact, Arsène Lupin. In a prerecorded message, Lupin reveals to François de Vierne (Jean-Claude Brialy), wayward son of a magistrate, that Lupin is, in fact, his biological father, bequeathing him all his disguises and secrets. He also tells François that he had a second illegitimate son by a housemaid, hoping the two will find one another and become loving siblings. That second son turns out to be Gérard Dagmar (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a stage magician already using Lupin’s calling card and methods. Oddly, though, the script mostly pits them as rivals, despite their father’s explicit instructions.
This film is moderately entertaining but overpopulated with one too many Lupins and far too many supporting characters after the two quasi-Lupins and their latest quest—rare jewels and incriminating documents. These characters, including society matron Madame de Bellac (Anne Vernon), whose role in the story I never did figure out, add confusion rather than contribute to this featherweight entertainment. (Vernon, at 99, is happily still with us.)
Adding to the film is gorgeous Françoise Dorléac as a vivacious newspaper reporter, and the film is peppered with a kind of all-star cast in French terms; non-French viewers will recognize a lot of faces here, if not the names of many of the players.
Directed by Édouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles), the picture adopts more of a tongue-in-cheek attitude than the other two, with undercranked exteriors, suggesting a silent comedy, and there are silent era-style intertitles as well. Production values are comparable, though period detail goes out the window on this one; it looks much more like a contemporary early-‘60s French film with period cars and costumes, but is handsomely produced for what it is. It’s just too busy and self-conscious for its own good.
THE ADVENTURES OF ARSÈNE LUPIN: B-
SIGNED ARSÈNE LUPIN: B+
ARSÈNE LUPIN VS. ARSÈNE LUPIN: B-
The transfers of all three films look great with the exception of parts of reels near the end of Signed, Arsène Lupin. All three pictures seemed derived from their original 35 mm camera negatives, but in the case of those few reels of the second film, a notably inferior source, perhaps even 16 mm was used. The back-and-forth between stunning clarity and comparative raggedness is a little jarring, but the inferior film elements add up to only about 10-12 minutes of screentime and otherwise all three look great. The optional English subtitles are excellent, as is the DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono, French only) on all three pictures. The films are presented on two discs: the first two movies on Disc 1, and the third on Disc 2, which includes a long (3:31) trailer but no other extras. A fat booklet exploring the literary and film origins of the character, with additional material on each film would seem an obvious way to go on a set like this, and would have made it a much more desirable (and comprehendible) release.
Over the last few years Kino has been unearthing scads of great French genre films unavailable for decades in the U.S. Although the Arsène Lupin films in this collection are a little disappointing, I’m grateful for the opportunity to see them. Overall, recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV