Within the last month, streaming website FilmStruck dropped a little mystery called The Man on the Eiffel Tower into their library of content. The film is a work of detective fiction based on the Inspector Maigret series. An interesting combination of visual aesthetic, shooting style and acting performances combine in this feature to create a lurid, dime-store novel of a movie. The work is a complicated one, and while the film does have a number of issues, it’s well worth a viewing.
The Man on the Eiffel Tower follows Inspector Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton) as he investigates the brutal murder of an elderly woman and her live-in maid. The evidence initially ties to a mousey knife grinder, Joseph Huertin (Burgess Meredith), as well as a former medical student, Johann Radek (Franchot Tone). A cat and mouse game follows as the men chase each other across the Parisian landscape. The film is directed by Burgess Meredith from a script by Harry Brown.
This film has a fairly loaded history, and as a result is a fairly deep cut in the FilmStruck archive. Until recently, the little mystery has been difficult to find. Watching this movie, it feels a bit like a relic of its era. The Man on the Eiffel Tower utilizes a color process called Anesco, which gives the film a distinctive color palate. Think vintage travelogues. Combine this with the Paris location, The Man on the Eiffel Tower feels lurid and pulpy. This is like the dime store novel of feature films.
That being said, the movie has some definite awkward moments especially as it relates to the direction (by actor Burgess Meredith). The pacing is slow and feels even more dragged out thanks to some lengthy sequences. Perhaps the team was in awe at their Parisian locations… perhaps they were filling time, but when Huertin finally escapes from prison, we see every moment of his journey. There’s a great many shots of Burgess Meredith simply running. The feature is the first directing credit for the actor, and he really only came back to direct one other film. Naturally, there are some questionable choices from the novice director, and they can (and do) effect the film’s pacing.
Probably most impressive in this film are the performances. The top-of-the-line acting cast includes Meredith, the always amazing Charles Laughton as well as Franchot Tone. Each of these actors are been better known for other roles, but prove to be an interesting combination on screen together. Adding to this impressive starring cast is an interesting troop of supporting characters: Robert Hutton, Jean Wallace and Patricia Roc. While each spent most of their careers in B-pictures, they are fascinating additions to this storyline. The dysfunctional (but most assuredly colorful and layered) characters leap off the screen, contributing heavily to the unique feel of this movie.
Actor Franchot Tone is particularly interesting as Johann Radek, a disgraced medical student. Tone’s first roles date back to 1932. He rode a string of success for much of the decade, but the following years saw his career go through peaks and valleys as parts dried up, forcing Tone to evolve with the passage of time.
This stretch saw Tone seemingly unafraid to play against type. The actor looks to be having a blast playing the unhinged Radek. Casting Tone is actually quite a savvy move on the part of the filmmakers. He brings more than a hint of his former star persona left-over from early in his career. Tone came from a “blue-blooded” society background, having started his career as a member of “The Group Theater” in New York City. This translates itself to Tone playing a number of rich boys in his early years. While so many of the heroes of the 1930s were somewhat world weary (Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and William Powell to name a few), Tone has a wide-eyed look to him. There’s something incredibly earnest about the actor when he’s at his best. Interestingly, this lends itself incredibly well to a particular sense of unhinged menacing, which serves Tone very well throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s when film noir saw Hollywood unafraid to get dark… real dark.
Perhaps it is in this earnest and intelligent soft-spoken demeanor or perhaps a sense of what may be hiding behind it, but this aspect of Franchot Tone’s star persona which turns him into a stunningly unhinged villain. In the narrative, Radek is a former medical student with a promising background. However, his career is tainted by manic-depressive episodes leading to his… dark proclivities. While the role isn’t as interestingly layered as some of Tone’s other parts, as the action plays out he manages to hone in on this character. He may be the villain, but he also allows us to see the man underneath.
Check out the film’s final sequence which makes fascinating use of not only the movie’s Parisian setting, but the Eiffel Tower. The chase sequence is tightly edited and tense. Few films have duplicated a scene like this before or since. If you check out The Man on the Eiffel Tower for no other reason, stick it out to the ending.
The Man on the Eiffel Tower is tremendously deep cut in detective fiction. While the film struggles with some awkward direction, the movie is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Between the narrative, the action and the visual look of this movie, it’s a difficult one to describe. Fans of detective fiction in the vain of Agatha Christie as well as fans of Laughton and Tone should definitely add this one to their lists.
The Man on the Eiffel Tower is currently streaming on FilmStruck.