Thursday, January 1, 2015

Gentleman Thief

Read/Watch 'em In Order #50

Arsene Lupin was created by French author Maurice LeBlanc in 1905 and, along with E.W. Hornung's English crook A.J. Raffles, is the godfather to all the gentleman thief characters who came afterwards. Without Lupin and Raffles, we very well might not have the Saint or the Lone Wolf. And that would be sad.

But even without considering Lupin's descendants, he is by himself a pretty awesome character. He's as much a con man as a thief--a master of disguise who runs elaborate scams to fool the police when stealing stuff, often announcing his intention to steal something in advance then pulling off the job anyways despite and army of cops being present. Heck, LeBlanc even had him getting the best of Sherlock Holmes (though complaints from Conan Doyle soon had Lupin matching wits with a guy named Herlock Sholmes instead).

What made Lupin the "hero" of his stories is the fact that he steals from villains who are infinitely worse than he is, taking away their ill-gotten gains and therefore satisfying a degree of justice. Also, the plots of the story are downright clever.

Lupin was very popular--mostly in France, but with his fame spilling over considerably into other countries. So it's no surprise that he popped up as the protagonist in a number of silent films. His first appearance in a sound film is the 1932 MGM movie simply titled Arsene Lupin. Based on a 1909 play written by LeBlanc, it stars John Barrymore as the Duke of Charmarace (who is suspected of being Lupin) and John's brother Lionel as Detective Guerchard, Lupin's arch-nemesis.

It's a really fun movie, seeding a little bit of doubt early on regarding Lupin's identity (though it's no spoiler to tell you he is indeed the Duke) and giving us several clever acts of thievery along the way.

For most of the film, Lupin's intended target is Gaston Gourney-Martin, who made his fortune as via war-profiteering and is thus a "just" target. Gourney-Martin isn't that worried, though. His safe is rigged with an electric trap and Guerchard and a half-dozen policemen are on guard. Also, he's invited his good friend the Duke of Charmarace along as well to help guard his valuables. What could possibly go wrong?

The movie succeeds because Lupin's schemes to steal heavily guarded stuff really are clever and you really find yourself believing they could work. Heck, if Lupin had been around in the 1960s, he would have been recruited to be on the Impossible Mission Force in a heartbeat.

The interplay between Charmarace and Guerchard is also fun. I especially like the way the movie establishes Guerchard's character, making us think at first that he's a bumbling Inspector Lestrade-type, but then suddenly twisting this around and letting us know that he's pretty gosh-darn smart himself and a worthy opponent for the thief.  Lupin often thinks he's two steps ahead of Guerchard. Sometimes he is, but sometimes the detective is matching him step-for-step and occasionally pulls a little bit ahead. The Barrymores really were great actors and you get the feeling that the two brothers had a great time playing off one another.

The movie ends with Lupin officially considered dead. In 1938's Arsene Lupin Returns, we'll discover that he was determined to go straight and live a quiet and honest life under another identity. But guys like Arsene Lupin hardly ever get to live quiet lives.

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