Posted by David Kalat on February 4, 2012
Last week we visisted with Fantomas, the Lord of Terror. This week it’s his opposite number’s turn in the spotlight—the Gentleman Thief, Arsene Lupin.
The story surrounding Lupin in all his media manifestations is at least as complicated and far-reaching as that of Dr. Mabuse, and I managed to fill a whole book about Mabuse and still leave stuff out, so I’m not even going to try to explore all things Lupin. I’m not even going to try to cover all things film Lupin, because that’s a losing proposition too—one of the very best Lupin movies of all is the Japanese import Castle of Cagliostro, and to deal with that (absolutely superb) film opens up the almost infinite dimensions of Japanese versions of Lupin—you could get lost down there and never come back.
Instead, I’m going to focus on my personal favorite of the Lupin movies—Jack Conway’s Pre-Code gem from 1932. I cannot for the life of me fathom why this hasn’t been out on DVD long ago, why it hasn’t been given a Criterion Blu-Ray treatment—hell, why Warner Archive hasn’t just slugged it out to DVD-on-demand. Put simply, this may be the best movie not currently on home video, bar none.
Strong words, but I’ll stand behind them. Conway’s Arsene Lupin is a) sexy; b) funny; c) beautifully made; d) a direct forerunner to the sexy caper thrillers of the 1960s; e) a direct forerunner to roughly half the films made by Steven Soderburgh; f) compulsively watchable. All at once.
(The clip below is kind of long. It’s worth it)
What it isn’t, mind you, is a horror movie. Not that it was ever supposed to be, but I’m just saying that if it had included some lame horror cliché after-thought, then it would have been celebrated and preserved and remembered by the same crowd that has inexplicably kept alive Revolt of the Zombies or The Return of Dr. X. If Arsene Lupin had included a cameo by Boris Karloff, or a scene with a guy in an ape suit, it would have been a lesser film but it would at least be remembered. But, it has no overt genre component—just acres and acres of crazy sexy cool—and has therefore been left to languish. (Kudos to TCM for showing it every once in a while—I was lucky to catch a theatrical screening in DC about ten years ago that remains one of my favorite movie-going experiences).
There are a couple of notable historical points of interest in this production—not least of which is the pairing of the Brothers Barrymore. John Barrymore is top-billed as the “Duke of Chamerace,” and I’m going to spoil part of the plot for you by explaining that, yes, he is Arsene Lupin, the legendary super-thief. I doubt anybody went to the theater thinking otherwise, but the film does take its sweet time confirming this seemingly obvious fact, and allows at least the whisper of a possibility that Lupin is an off-screen character while the Duke is unfairly accused.
Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore plays Detective Guerchard, the cop anxious to trap and catch Lupin. He too appears at times to be Lupin, but the film is more careful to explain that he has been framed, by Lupin, as a way of undermining his investigation. Guerchard appears a bumbling fool, a la Clouseau (and the Pink Panther movies owe a great deal to this film), but that’s a front—he is a quick-witted and devious opponent, a worthy adversary to Lupin, who uses his Columbo-like façade of foolishness to conceal his machinations.
There’s no denying both Barrymores chew the scenery—if you cast William Shatner and Tom Baker in the same film you’d have more restrained performances that Lionel and John deliver—but that’s absolutely part of the fun.
The other aspect of the film I’d like to draw out, though, is the way it approaches the source material. I said I wasn’t going to get into the larger world of Lupinalia, but to an extent I have to: the first Arsene Lupin story appeared in 1905, written by Maurice Leblanc, who kept writing for 25 books worth, before other authors took over (including the Boileau-Narcejac team, of Vertigo and Diabolique fame). In these stories, Lupin was ever and always the hero. He was a lawbreaker, but a noble one—refined, thoughtful, chivalrous, and motivated by a weird combination of personal greed and grand morals. He stole to make the world a better place, basically.
The conservative instincts of moviemakers have tended to bristle at that aspect, and as much as they were drawn to making Arsene Lupin movies, they had cold feet when it came to celebrating thievery. The way Conway’s film addresses that issue is interesting to me, in a professional capacity.
When I say “professional capacity,” I’m referring to my new profession. Last year I effected a career change and moved away from film history and film restoration to take a job with a data analysis firm where I work with an elite team of fraud investigators. I assist these professional fraud investigators in a variety of ways, including working with the computer forensics unit, and I am studying for my own Certified Fraud Examiner certification. The first thing they teach you when you start working in fraud analysis is something called the Fraud Triangle.
The Fraud Triangle represents the three key situational components that lead to fraud—and effective anti-fraud internal controls at any institution should seek to eliminate or minimize at least one of these axes so as to prevent or discourage malfeasance. And the funny thing is, whether they meant to or not, the folks who made Arsene Lupin did a bang-up job translating the Fraud Triangle into a movie!
So, let me use Arsene Lupin as a key, by which to explain to you what the Fraud Triangle is and how it works.
The first axis of our triangle is “Pressure.” Different textbooks use different terminology, and my personal favorite is “the unsharable problem.” This is the pressure on a person or persons that they feel for whatever reason has to be kept secret—because it is humiliating, for example. In Arsene Lupin, we are shown that the Duke has financial difficulties—
He leads an outsized and opulent life of indulgence, and to keep on par with his social set he has to maintain that high cost of living. He could declare bankruptcy, scale back his expenses, get a job—these would be solutions to his problem, but they would be humiliating to him. They would in essence share his problem—and so he keeps his secret, the bills pile up, and the man needs cash.
Which leads us to axis number two: “Opportunity.” You can’t very well commit fraud if you don’t have an opportunity to do so.
And in Chamerace’s case, he has a clean line on where this fellow keeps his fabulous wealth:
And having been invited, he also knows how to get around the security measures:
But it’s the last axis that is the most interesting—both in terms of real-world investigations and in this film. It’s “Rationalization.” In other words, fraudsters almost never think of themselves as criminals—and indeed, background investigations into whether people have criminal records is not a useful tool for catching would-be fraudsters for that very reason. Once you’re caught and convicted, it’s hard to continue to pretend you’re the guy in the white hat—but that’s how fraudsters think of themselves.
For example, imagine an employee who feels he has been passed over for a promotion he deserved, and feels grossly underpaid. He sees his boss living the high life. (Rationalization) Meanwhile, his bills pile up and he can’t make ends meet. (Pressure) The company has a lax policy on expense reimbursements and little oversight. (Opportunity) Guess who starts submitting fake expense reports? (Fraud!)
Let’s take this into the world of the movie—and here we see Leblanc’s vision of the noble thief in full flower:
Chamerace can’t pay his bills, he’s got easy access to a hidden treasure, and the owner of that treasure is a corrupt villain.
The movie doesn’t just draw the triangle once—it embeds plots within plots, and as the face-off between Chamerace and Guerchard unfolds, a second fraud triangle emerges. Guerchard thought he’d foreclosed Chamerace’s opportunity to steal from Guerney Martin, by packing the house with police officers. Which would have been a good idea, if they’d been real police officers, instead of Arsene Lupin’s gang in disguise.
Having replaced the genuine officers with his acolytes, Arsene Lupin/Chamerace restored his opportunity. But in the bargain, his crew are arrested:
Which provides him with an entirely new Rationalization. Now it isn’t about defrauding a corrupt villain, it’s about getting his men out of jail—which he intends to do by (wait for it) ransoming off the Mona Lisa.
Yup, he plans to steal the Mona Lisa and trade it for his men. And, since he’s Arsene Lupin, he figures the best way to go about doing this is tell the cops ahead of time what he intends to do, just so’s he can completely embarrass them when he pulls off the heist of the century despite their best precautions.
Except, well, actually his master plan for stealing the Mona Lisa depends on the police’s best precautions—he uses their very security procedures to accomplish what he couldn’t do otherwise.
And if that premise sounds a bit like Die Hard or Ocean’s 11, I did try to say this movie was ahead of its time.
Can someone please explain to me why a movie that rocks this hard is still so obscure?
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