Synopsis: The great gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, engages in a series of daring schemes to deprive his wealthy countrymen of rare jewels and priceless paintings. His activities arouse the interest of Kaiser William II of Germany who arranges for Lupin to be kidnapped and brought to his castle. The Kaiser offers Lupin a challenge: to steal a jewel of great value from a secret hiding place. Should Lupin accept the wager?
eyelights: Lupin’s tongue in cheek gentlemanly style.
eyesores: its simplistic heists. Lupin’s convenient naiveté in key moments.
Arsène Lupin. Along with Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot and Fantômas, he’s one of the early part of the 20th century’s most popular literary figures. Created by Maurice Leblanc, the gentleman thief’s adventures were published to wide acclaim from 1905 to 1939.
I know very little about the original, truth be told. When I was a kid, our school library had the books, but I never read them. I was too busy reading more visual works like Tintin and Astérix (and later The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and even James Bond) to tackle Lupin.
But since lately I had been watching movies based on iconic literary figures, and had been picking up some Arsène Lupin movies and shows from my local library, I felt that it might be time to explore his world a little bit. And so I chose the first of two films from the ’50s.
Released in 1957, ‘Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin’ recounts three capers that the film’s namesake is involved in:
- Stealing some valuable paintings from the walls of a large mansion during a grand ball – which he does right under everyone’s noses.
- Fleecing some jewelers in the guise of a father buying a wedding gift for his daughter – with the help of an unsuspecting maid.
- Locating a secret safe at the request of its owner, to test its security – and using this as a diversion to steal cash elsewhere in the mansion.
Interestingly, none of these mini adventures are based on Leblanc’s oeuvre – the whole picture is inspired by it, no more. On can hardly tell: the stories are woven together in such a way that one gets the impression that they always belonged as a unit, perhaps in novel form.
It does feel episodic, however; one could easily watch the film in three parts without missing a beat. And it’s easy to see how Arsène Lupin might translate to the small screen (as he did during a very successful run of 26 one-hour episodes in the early 1970s).
Robert Lamoureux incarnates Arsène Lupin with confidence and glee. His Lupin unabashedly woos the hostess of the grand ball and makes the most of any situation, only taking advantage of the wealthy – he actually helps out the maid who gets fired because of his actions.
As André Laroche, he himself an aristocrat, he is a different beast: more brooding, less charming, especially demanding of his staff. He seems to express himself better in his multiple disguises – costumes that barely conceal Lamoureux’s distinctive sunken cheeks and cheekbones.
It’s a wonder no one recognizes him. (Let’s chalk it off to movie magic, shall we?)
Interestingly, the picture was shot in a 1.37:1 ratio, nearly that of old television shows. Although it’s in colour, it feels like a television production due to its low budget quality; everything looks like a set. Another unusual quality is that the dialogues are a mix of French, German and English.
With no subtitles.
Now, online references say that this is a French production, but usually this sort of thing only happens with co-productions – and then he dialogues are dubbed in the language of the country it’s played in. Why it’s trilingual with no subtitles is completely beyond me.
In any event, being bilingual, this was not a significant issue for me. In fact, I appreciated this multicultural approach.
So, for the most part, I enjoyed watching ‘Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin’. I found Arsène Lupin a rather pleasant, nearly congenial character; he made for a fine protagonist. And I was amused by watching the quaint ways in which he outsmarted his wealthy, clueless opponents.
But this is cinema from a different era: it’s low on action, features few gimmicks and is short on contrivances (let’s just say that it’s the antithesis of Guy Ritchie’s so-called “Sherlock Holmes” movies). Still, it’s fun to go back to a time when villains had ethics – more so than today’s heroes.
It makes it easier to savour their misdeeds without shame, guilt or moral reproach.
Date of viewing: March 11, 2016