While Paris Sleeps (1932)

12 08 2013

Allan Dwan’s reputation as filmmaker, like many of the American genre titans of his time, is linked to economy. A word that can be used to describe a lot of things, but in this particular circumstance, it means an economy of storytelling. It’s a term that’s perhaps overused when describing action directors of the classic era, but here’s an instance of Dwan working outside of the genres he’d become known for said economy. At only 61 minutes, there isn’t really enough there for this film to feel like a master work, but there’s still something there. The classic cycle for both westerns and noirs were years away, but one can find artifacts of both in this early effort.


Jacques Costard, a veteran of the First World War, escapes from prison in an effort to reunite with his family. He escapes but finds out his wife has recently passed on. In a letter, she explains to him that their daughter, Manon, doesn’t remember him and believes he died in combat. Manon’s situation is similarly grim: unable to pay rent she unknowingly gets involved with a pimp. Jacques has to save her, but has to keep his identity from his daughter a secret.


While the film does have its own unique charm (it infamously contains a sequence in which a police spy in thrown into an incinerator!) it kind of feels a little too tired from a thematic standpoint. There are interesting things about McLaglen’s Jacques, who seems to be a warmup for the Gypo Nolan character in John Ford’s The Informer. The most interesting of which is his inability to tell Manon that he’s her father. There seems to be a theme throughout the film of men hiding and disguising their motivations, as well as their feelings. It might seem ponderous when Jacques sheds a tear, but it at least suggests that all the men here are putting on something of a performance.


The dire tone of the film actually works against its “uplifting” ending. Jacques saves his daughter and she gets to start a new life with her musician boyfriend, Paul. In reality, Paul is something of a creep. The three main men in the film vary in likability, but they’re all ultimately trying to control Manon. Julot, the pimp, is ultimately trying to control her for his own profit and despite some superficial charm, he is obviously coded as a “bad guy.” Paul is a bit more dynamic, but perhaps unintentionally so. He presents himself as the gentlemen antithesis to Julot, a nice boy who truly cares about Manon and loves her. Maybe he does, but he exhibits behavior of a pretty miserable spouse. The couple’s big quarrel scene paints him as both manipulative and pathetic.


Paul’s negative qualities might be the byproduct of Basil Woon’s script, which tries to play to the pathos of hard city life. It isn’t entirely successful, and one could argue that Dwan is to blame here. The visuals are nice and functional, but the poetic touches don’t bother with the typical Paris iconography. This might speak to Dwan’s sensibilities, though, as reoccurring shots of the city’s famous landmarks would be a cheap trick, one that lesser filmmakers have resorted to using.





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