Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Overlooked Movies -- The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

You might have seen articles about how 1939 was a magical year for movies, but I don't think any of those articles mention The Man in the Iron Mask.  Don't ask me why.  I think it deserves a place in the pantheon, or if it doesn't, it's only just outside it.  It was directed by James Whale, and it's a lavish B&W production.  It would have been great in color, but the B&W photography is wonderful in its own way.  Whale even gets into a creepy horror mode in the dungeon scenes with the iron mask in place, much more effective in B&W than they would've been in color.

You know the story, I'm sure, and the movie follows the plot of The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, which is just one part of a much, much longer novel.  It's sometimes published separately as The Man in the Iron Mask, and it features D'artagnan and the Three Musketeers in their final adventure.  When twin sons are born to the King of France,  Louis XIII (Albert Dekker), one of them is sent away at birth to live in Gascony with D'artagnan (Warren William) and the Musketeers.  This son is Philippe (Louis Hayward), and he's a fine fellow.  His twin is Louis XIV (Louis Hayward), and he's a cruel, self-centered twit.  He's also about to be married to the lovely Maria Theresa (Joan Bennett) of Spain to achieve an alliance between France and Spain.  One of Louis' advisers (and his controller) is Fouquet (Joseph Schildkraut), who's achieved the position because he knows about Philippe.  He hasn't told anyone, especially not Louis.  Another adviser, though not nearly as close as Fouquet to the king, is Colbert (Walter Kingsford), who also knows the secret and was the most trusted of Louis XIII's advisers.  

Complications ensue, and the brothers are eventually brought together.  [HUGE SPOILERS] After Philippe becomes too much of a danger, Louis has him imprisoned in the iron mask.  He's rescued by the Musketeers and D'artagnan, and a switch is made.  But Fouquet sets Louis free, and there's a big final battle in which {REALLY HUGE SPOILER, DON'T READ THIS} Athos, Aramis, and Porthos are killed.  D'Artagnan is mortally wounded and dies at the wedding of Philippe and Maria Theresa.  Louis goes back into the Bastille, and the final scene shows the Musketeers and D'artagnan riding their white horses in the clouds.  [END OF HUGE SPOILERS]

The acting is great in this one.  Fouquet is truly slimy, Warren William is a fine older D'artagnan, and Joan Bennett is lovely.  The real revelation to me was Louis Hayward, who manages to make the brothers truly distinct.  It's not just the simple stuff, either, but extends to the tone of voice and the way of moving.  The guy was a fine actor, but he never hit the big time.  He kept on working, though, so that was good.

This movie's probably not for everybody, but I had a great time watching it.   There's no trailer, but the first sword-fighting scene is embedded below.

10 comments:

Dan said...

I found the book difficult to get through, but the film is vastly enjoyable. James Curtis' biography of James Whale says Whale as fired by producer Edward small and much of the film was re-shot, but there are moments that seem pure James Whale.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

That's funny, because John Oliver was making fun of the Leo DiCaprio version on his show this week. I liked this one.

Max Allan Collins said...

Love this movie. As a kid, I was into the swashbuckling pics bigtime -- Tyrone Power as Zorro, any 3 Musketeers flick, any Flynn sword-fight fare. But my favorite of the actors was Louis Hayward, and this was my favorite of the movies. I still love it.

Hayward, incidentally, was the best screen Saint in THE SAINT IN NEW YORK...what a tough, fun movie.

Bill Crider said...

I saw Hayward in several swashbucklers when I was a kid, but I remembered him best as The Saint. Now I want to see some of those other movies again.

pattinase (abbott) said...

One of the gaping holes in my movie knowledge was this sort of film. I skipped all the costume dramas and adventure movies in favor of domestic dramas. So too with novels. I think it restricted my imaginative abilities.

Mimi Wolske said...

Loved this movie. I think B&W is romantic and I even prefer B&W photographs. B&W lent a subtlety that probably was felt in the color version (which I did not see).
I read Dumas's book only about 7 years ago, however.
Thanks for posting your review.

Mike Stamm said...

When I came to the University of Oregon as a junior in 1974, I was delighted to discover that the library had scores of volumes of Haggard, Dumas, and others, and I read a large percentage of them. I don't know if anyone could ever untangle the publication history of Dumas in this country, what with volumes being subdivided, re-named, and so on; I read most if not all of the saga of the Three Musketeers, including The Three Musketeers, Ten Years After, Twenty Years After, Louise de la Valliere, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, The Man in the Iron Mask, and god only knows what else. "Turgid" is probably too kind a word to describe some of the later volumes, but several of the earlier ones--and the last one--were good stuff indeed. Now I have to find this movie.

Rick said...

It's available at Amazon Prime. A dozen or so left at $14.99. That reflects the one I ordered just now.
(Rick Libott)

Bud said...

Ditto your take on the '39 version. I also enjoyed the '77 version where Richard Chamberlain did a good take on Philippe/Louis. All the actors gave creditable performances, but, particularly, what a hoot to see Chamberlain, Patrick McGoohan (Fouguet) and Ralph Richardson (Colbert) together!

Thomas Miller said...

I'm laughing at the idea of a spoiler for a 78-year-old movie (or a 170-year-old book)!

"Dang! I was just going to read that, and now it's spoiled!"